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On the Art of Climate Change Communication

Can people who care about the planetu2019s changing climate find ways to talk about the crisis that get beyond numbers and politics?

Can people who care about the planet’s changing climate find ways to talk about the crisis that get beyond numbers and politics? Such was the topic of Orion’s recent live web event, “The Crisis of Climate Change Reporting,” which included guest panelists Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones magazine, Orion columnist Bill McKibben, and’s Wen Stephenson. M. Sanjayan, a Nature Conservancy lead scientist and CBS News contributor, also joined us—he sent these thoughts on how to tell better climate stories all the way from Santiago, Chile.

I’m writing this from Santiago, Chile—a vibrant, modern city of about six million people nestled into a verdant valley in the Southern Andes. I’m here to film part of an upcoming Showtime series on climate change called Years of Living Dangerously, and I just came back from an expedition to the receding Tupungatio glacier—the source for the main river that feeds and waters Santiago—accompanying Dr. Paul Mayewski of the University of Maine, one of the foremost experts on glacial ice cores and abrupt climate change.

In a perverse way, my timing couldn’t be better, because just a couple of weeks ago something drastic happened in Santiago: The city lost its water supply for two days. Several million people woke up, turned on their taps, and watched incredulously as they dribbled dry. And climate change was almost certainly a factor.

Unlike other countries in the region, Chile is well known for its superb and plentiful water. The sudden crisis elevated water—and public panic—to the front pages of the newspapers. A powerful, high-elevation rainstorm had triggered mudslides that fouled up the country’s rivers so badly that Chile’s private utility company was forced to shut its intake pumps. It is also probable that a glacial dam had ruptured, sending more debris downstream. Such events are more likely in the rapidly warming Southern Andean environment.

My presence in Santiago has drawn attention from the local media—and what everyone wants to know about is water. Did I see anything on the way to Tupungatito that might indicate future trouble with water supplies for the city—and if so, what can be done?

What has surprised me, though, is that no one here has asked me specifically about climate change—about parts-per-billion, about carbon markets, about a carbon tax, about pipelines, or Kyoto, Copenhagen, or Doha—all the ways U.S. environmentalists and journalists often talk about it.

The experience has crystallized some key ideas for me in terms of how we can tell better stories about climate change:

1. Tell more unique, local stories. The people of Santiago are anxious about the security of their water, and so that’s what reporters here want to discuss— not the efficacy of a carbon tax (though the issues are, of course, related). People act on what is going on locally far more effectively than they do on what is happening globally, even if the global event has a bigger long-term impact. So let’s talk more about the local issues people face and care about.

2. Focus on audience, not argument. If a scientific finding “makes sense” but cuts against what your friends and neighbors think, you’ll be far less receptive to it. That’s why, as a recent blog post by my colleague Bob Lalasz points out, more effective science communication starts with understanding the cultural norms of your audience—not with making the science better or clearer or even “educating” the public. In Santiago, the shared water crisis enabled people to “believe” in the science explaining it, with society providing reinforcement. It became popular to agree on what was causing the problem.

3. Use emotion and narrative. While Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth laid out the facts about climate change in simple and cogent terms, it was basically a well-made movie about a power-point presentation—lots of scientific rigor, but not a lot of emotion. The Showtime project I am working on aims directly at emotional content, the prime motivator for action. The series will focus on characters and stories (a mission that is greatly aided by the two veteran 60 Minutes producers heading up the project). Even when covering science (my job on the show), we enter the topic via the personalities of the individual scientists doing the work. In the end, narrative is king.

4. Be sensitive to North-South disparities. When I was asked in Santiago what could be done to alleviate future water woes, I did not immediately suggest Chileans drive less, or switch to alternate green fuels, or press harder for global treaties on emissions—even though all of those would help their situation in the long run, and I wouldn’t have hesitated to talk about those things to U.S. audiences. Instead, I talked about how conservation and restoration of the lands around the watershed could help. The burden of global emissions reductions (either by new technologies or conservation) is squarely on the shoulders of first the United States, the European Union, and perhaps China. Yes, the other 190+ countries around the world can and should play their part—but saying so publicly turns off these audiences, given the vast disparities in economies and incomes between North and South.

Science communication has been here before. In Candice Millard’s fantastic book, Destiny of the Republic, she writes of the deep resistance in the United States to accepting the work of Baron Lister and employing antiseptic practices (widely available in Europe at that time) to save the life of President Garfield when he was shot just 200 days into his presidency. It was not that the science wasn’t known. But the leap to integrate knowledge into practice for something that no one could see (microbes) and that might kill you (future) was too big to uniformly apply. It took many years for the evidence to prevail.

Motivating action on climate change, like any great challenge that demands a paradigm shift in the way we live, is bound to be difficult. Thanks to efforts like Al Gore’s, hardly anyone in the world today can claim not to have heard about the issue. But environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action, and we need new communication approaches. By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.

This post is a followup to Orion magazine’s recent event, “The Crisis in Climate Change Reporting,” for which M. Sanjayan was a panelist. Listen to the audio recording here.