Popularizing Climate Change and the Challenge of Multiple Narratives

By Roberta Biasillo

This blog piece is inspired by Harald Lesch’s talk “Science, Society, Signs” at the RCC Lunchtime Colloquium. It focuses on the potential and limits of graphic representations of climate change-related phenomena, interpretations, and understandings.

(*Featured image: Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A. (University of Melbourne). Enhanced, modified, and vectorized by Ali Zifan. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Scientists are obsessed, among other things, with facts, data, experiments, models, predictions, and scenarios. Over the last two decades, this passion has generated general agreement on the issue of climate change.

A substantial body of literature supports the scientific consensus that global warming is a fact. Moreover, an analysis of peer-reviewed literature—“the absolute standard for a researcher”—reveals that scientists overwhelmingly accept that global warming is a phenomenon caused by humans. Specifically, out of 13,950 climate articles published between 1991 and 2012, only 24 papers contradict this opinion, including the extent to which humans are responsible for climate change, and its impacts on the natural and human realms.

In 2016 a research group at Michigan Technological University confirmed that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans.

Despite such a high degree of certainty, the world cannot be observed only through the lens of quantitative data. Controversial and fringe statements in the scientific realm can be differently but equally powerful in everyday discourses and seem to leave plenty of room for different arguments. How the general public perceives experts’ consensus on human-caused global warming poses a few questions and challenges.

While 97% of climate scientists agree on global warming, the public believes this percentage to be only 55%. Source: The Consensus Project.

The first regards what has been called the “consensus gap.” Public surveys have found that people are not fully aware that there is firm scientific agreement (97%) on the cause of global warming; on average, the public thinks there is a 50:50 debate. The vast difference between these two views has been associated with the spread of misleading information, maybe due to the tendency to give equal voice to contrarian opinions in mainstream media.

Besides this gap, which John Cook and Peter Jacobs have analyzed, there is a second gap between pessimistic and alarmist forecasts on the one hand, and laypeople’s priorities on the other, which has not been explored in much detail.

According to a 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there is no doubt that the future of the planet is under threat if we do not slow down the rate at which we release heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere. In the highest emissions scenario, the carbon budget—the amount of carbon dioxide emissions we can emit while still having a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—will be exhausted in 2045. Global temperatures will have increased a whopping 4.8 degrees by the end of this century; many living species will have become extinct; and farming in some places will have become impossible.

This slide, based on IPCC data, depicts the consequences of a fossil-fuel-intensive carbon future. Source: World Resources Institute.

In May 2018, scientists warned that the worst-case scenario could be more extreme than previously thought. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that the impact of climate change is already “widespread and consequential,” a United Nations poll revealed that climate change is right at the bottom of the global population’s list of priorities. Compared to those who want “action taken on climate change,” more than three times as many people care more about education, and well over twice as many want better healthcare, better job opportunities, and an honest government.

UN Poll Depicting the global population’s list of priorities. Source: My Analytics.

These research outcomes appear very similar to surveys conducted on a national scale. A 2015 Ipsos poll provided exclusively to Global News indicated that the majority of Canadians are definitively more concerned about health care, unemployment and jobs, taxes, poverty and social inequality, corruption, immigration control, education, and crime and violence than they are about climate change.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Gallup poll demonstrated that climate change is near the bottom of things people find worth worrying about. European countries unfortunately share this trend.

These two gaps can be explained by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of communicating environmental geoscience effectively via the mass media. In recent decades, studies have consistently found that the public garners much of its knowledge about science from the mass media, and in case of climate change, “media representations are an important factor in public understanding and engagement with climate science.” The key issue therefore becomes how we disseminate and communicate scientific information to the broader public. To tackle the disconnect between how scientists communicate their findings and how audiences engage with scientific information, some universities—such as Yale University and George Mason University—have started specific programs to develop and apply social-science insights. Their aim is to help society make informed decisions that will stabilize the earth’s life-sustaining climate, and prevent further harm from climate change.

Notwithstanding these efforts and numerous publications tackling climate issues, we are not taking this problem seriously enough: government policies don’t adequately address climate issues, and we have generally not changed our patterns of behavior. And this is not simply because we have self-destructive tendencies, or because of path dependency.

Graph showing the list of national problems that Americans (in %) worry about most, ranked. Based on data gathered in a 2014 Gallup poll.

So far, the climate-change debate has generally remained confined to scientific discourses—or to the domain of pseudoscience—and academic tools have been considered the only possible way to understand, describe, and communicate this complex context. However, scientific narratives and communication strategies do not cover the whole picture. In fact, relying on academic tools to convey scientific ideas implies two assumptions. The first is that climate change can only be conceived of as a complex scientific issue; the second is that nonscientists can only consume big science or garner scientific knowledge from sources that are perceived to be experts, such as scientists or the mass media. If we hope to bring climate change to the top of humankind’s list of priorities, we will need to be able to translate scientific concepts into common language in a more systematic way. And this is exactly the challenge for environmental humanities scholars.

Following up on research carried out by Aysha Fleming, Frank Vanclay, Claire Hiller, and Stephen Wilson, I argue that an awareness of the multiple possible climate discourses can begin the process of creating new discourses and can even call into question poll structures, which are assumed to be objective. Rather than trying to align academic understandings with public understandings, we should look to climate change as a way to provide room for cooperation, collaborative actions, and coproduction of knowledge. Rather than simply attempting to make science more accessible, we should be looking at the issue of climate change through the lens of the everyday, rather than that of a NASA telescope. This would help us to merge different narratives, stories of displacement, of changes in agricultural practices, and of hope and severe distress after disasters; but also different holiday and food habits, the perceived transformation of familiar environments. All those are ways to portray, experience, and define climate change. And everyone has their own story.

If changes at the individual, community, and governmental levels are essential to limit the negative effects of climate change and to enable more sustainable futures, we—as scholars—ought to reconsider how we define and categorize the population’s priorities. Is it really true that people are not seriously worried about climate change? To answer this question we have to address two issues.

How Climate Change Will Affect Your Health. Infografic compiled by Health Science Degrees.

First, what is climate change? Or better, what does climate change entail? As Timothy Morton has illustrated, global warming is the most dramatic example of what he calls “hyperobjects,” which include a vast array of dimensions and produce multiple perceptions and experiences. More empirically, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything demonstrates how “one way or another, everything changes” and only “a comprehensive vision” for the future and present actions are going to prevent catastrophic warming and protect us from inevitable disasters. Climate change, in fact, does not only affect polar bears, but all of us. Based on those arguments, we can interpret surveys differently. There is a long list of things that will suffer because of extreme climate change: it will threaten our health (see the infographic above), our food supply, our livelihoods, and the air we breathe—all things that “poll” higher than concerns for climate change.

A growing body of literature has contributed to understanding and defining the climate change-migration-conflict nexus. More recently, it has presented a range of insights on how climate-change policies and other environmental policies interact with the fiscal system. Furthermore, “science” connects climate change with multiple other global concerns. Thus, if climate change cannot be separated from the economy, health care, immigration, and so on, then we do in fact care about climate change.

Secondly, we need to understand that climate change doesn’t appear to be a high priority because, despite being real and important, people tend to think of it as distant. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Map 2.0, a majority of Americans feels global warming is an issue that will mainly affect others.

Estimated % of adults who think global warming is happening, 2016. Risk Perceptions. Source: Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2018 [CC BY 2.0]
Social psychologist Sander van der Linden of Princeton University explained this by blaming the very nature of climate change. Because we perceive climate change as “a statistical phenomenon,” our brain does not respond emotionally and activate an affective warning system.

We are definitively not going to secure a better life for, and on, the planet if scientists restrict themselves to an obsession with facts, and scholars across the humanities limit themselves to an obsession with stories. Personal stories about how the climate over the years has transformed our own experiences are the missing link—and climate change is a wake-up call for humanity and the humanities to enrich academic and nonacademic debate and to foster new ways of producing knowledge.

So, returning to the question, “Are people worried about the risk posed by climate change?” we have to acknowledge that there is not yet a definitive answer. Indeed, it will depend on how we frame and narrate such a multifaceted phenomenon. We would do well to keep in mind that the upcoming, overarching transformation offers all of us the power to be personal and political at the same time.

*This piece benefited from the insightful comments of Jennifer Lee Johnson and Serenella Iovino and is funded by FORMAS (Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development) under the National Research Programme on Climate (Contract: 2017-01962_3).

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