Talking About Climate Change
Dos, Don'ts, and Tackling Myths
What is climate change? Our planet is warming, up 1.5ºF so far since the mid-late 19th century, and it’s on track to get worse. Human activities such as energy generation and transportation (think smokestacks and tailpipes) emit CO2 and other greenhouse gas pollution that is slowly heating the planet.
How do we know it’s happening? Scientists know it’s warming from data found in temperature and atmospheric records, ice core records, and much more. Multiple lines of evidence show that CO2 levels (the highest in millions of years) are driving global warming.
What impacts are we seeing? We are seeing higher air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, changing seasons and an increase in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events like heat waves and heavy rainstorms.
Can we stop it? How? Yes we can – we know how, and we have the technology. We need to make the switch from fossil fuels to clean energy like wind and solar. And we need our leaders to commit to action to reduce global emissions.
Dos and Don'ts
Do talk about climate change’s impacts in the here and now - higher air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, changing seasons and an increase in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events like heat waves.
Don’t focus solely on projected impacts for the future, as this can undermine urgency. Climate change is a present threat.
Do remind people that 97% of climate scientists and every major scientific organization in the world agree that global warming is a “settled fact,” and that it is “extremely likely” that humans are causing it. Science doesn’t get much stronger than that.
Don’t debate the consensus. You place your trust in experts like scientists, the military and the insurance industry - all confronting climate change right here, right now. Who still denies the consensus on smoking and cancer?
Do connect the dots. All weather events are now affected by climate change. Focus on their increased frequency and severity.
Don’t get into climate science specifics on individual weather events. Emphasize the overall trend and severity in extreme weather events and the damage they cause – from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to increased severity of western wildfires to Typhoon Haiyan of 2013. This is what climate change looks like, and if we don’t act, the science says we will see more them.
Top Skeptical Positions & How to Respond
It’s best NOT to respond to or debate with skeptics at all. You can’t win an argument with someone who is not open to facts. Instead, simply point to trusted authorities who have validated the science of climate change. But if someone is open-minded, here are ways to respond.
Myths + Tough Questions
MYTH: “Climate change is beyond solving.” It’s not. It’s already happening and we will see even more, but we do have the ability to curtail the worst impacts and slow down the rate of change. It’s like getting into a car crash – do you want to get into a crash at 75 mph or at 10 mph?
MYTH: “The climate is always changing – it’s natural!” It’s true, the climate has changed before, but what is different now is the scale, speed and cause. We are seeing a rate of change in a century that previously took thousands of years.
MYTH: “Weather vs. climate (“But its snowing right now?!”) Weather and climate are different - climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms. A change in climate will change weather patterns overall, but will not necessarily lead to the end of specific weather events – like snow, or cold snaps, or winter storms.
MYTH: “Climate change is a jobs killer.” Actually, it’s a jobs creator, particularly in the growing renewable energy industry. Not fighting climate change will, in the short run, endanger jobs in sectors such as tourism and agriculture and ultimately threaten our entire economy.
MYTH: “Fighting climate change is too expensive.” Quite the opposite, the cost of inaction is too great. Extreme weather caused more than $100 billion worth of damage in the U.S in 2012. Economists have estimated that if present trends continue, the total cost of climate change will be as high as 3.6% of U.S. GDP by 2100.
Useful Responses to Skeptical Questions
We all value responsibility, whether that means making sound fiscal decisions or protecting natural heritage of our nation. Part of that responsibility is being good stewards – we have a moral responsibility to leave to our grandchildren the same clean, life-giving world our grandparents gave to us.
A century of bipartisan leadership has cleaned up our air, our rivers and our countryside. The Clean Air Act, action on acid rain, and the creation of the National Parks Service were all signed into law by Republican presidents, with Democratic support.
Climate change poses an immediate threat to our economic and national security, as well as the physical health of our communities and citizens. We've tackled threats like this before — acid rain, for example — and have preserved the viability of our economies while encouraging wellbeing from individual up to the nation. It's not beyond our reach to do the same with climate change.
We can see the climate changing around us. We’ve had record-breaking heat, droughts and wildfires. NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society have all confirmed the climate is changing.
Let’s set American innovation and ingenuity loose on the climate change problem. That same can-do strength has built this country, won wars and created the world’s strongest economy. That hasn’t changed.
In doing so, we can put American companies back to work producing clean energy and more efficient cars, putting our factories back in business. We’ll also stop shipping billions of dollars each year overseas for our dependence on foreign oil.
Communicating Complexity: How to Clearly Make Intricate Points
It is difficult to express complex concepts in a way that people understand. While jargon is helpful for talking to your peers, it is confusing and off-putting to a more general audience. When talking to the public, try using these tips in order to prevent misunderstanding.
Be direct, and be certain. While you need to always acknowledge uncertainty in science, when talking to the public you must focus on what’s important – what does the study/report/data show? Avoid qualifiers and state the main point.
Common ground. Try and find something you and your audience share, like where you live, your religious persuasion, or life experiences. People listen to those they consider to be similar to them, so do what you can to connect on a personal level with your audience.
Be engaging and emotionally resonant. Don’t shy away from how things make you feel. Express your fear that people won’t come together. Express your hope that since the solutions exist, we’ll come together and implement them.
Tell stories. People remember stories more than science; so make use of character, conflict and closure. As the speaker, you’re probably the character. What conflicts did you have to overcome to reach your conclusion?
Use analogies, metaphors and figures of speech. The more simply a concept is explained the more widely it will be understood, and the use of familiar metaphors will help ensure it is remembered. Saying that CO2 warms the atmosphere by radiating outwardly-escaping heat back downwards is confusing, but saying that CO2 acts like a blanket, holding heat in the atmosphere is easy to understand and the mental image makes it easier to remember.
Use The Rule of Three. A list of three is a natural device, and in fact research shows that we trust facts when presented in a list of three. Including more than three things in a list triggers skepticism. The rule of three is universal, and is a standard for mass communications, negotiations, and even humor.
Use simple language. When people hear words they don’t know, they stop listening. This means that jargon, acronyms, and other words specific to your work are not going to be useful when talking to the public.
Close strong. The last thing you say is what will be most easily remembered. So be mindful of time constraints or word limits, and be sure your closing argument repeats your strongest points.