Who to Talk to and How to Talk to Them

by Raini Helmstadter

Climate change presents an existential threat to the human species, and probably the vast majority of all species. The threat has been at least loosely understood since the late 1950s and has only grown more definite as the field of climate science has grown. Similarly, efforts to combat climate change first emerged in the 1970s, and have only grown stronger in following decades. However, neither of these trends have successfully ameliorated the threat of climate change. As public understanding and concern has grown, so has a disturbing, powerful, and organized effort to reject climate science and climate activists. Rooted in the efforts of oil companies to preserve their industry and enormous profits, climate denialism has taken hold in myriad pockets of American society. Climate denialism is the standard policy for one of the two political parties in the US, the oil industry has only increased their frenzied production, and many Americans believe there is no scientific consensus on the threat of climate change; and even more do not consider climate change a leading issue, or something that requires massive societal change. 

At this moment in the fight against climate change and climate denial, we must ask what actions or strategies can be employed to create meaningful change. Many people have many different answers to my question; exploration of the characteristics of effective action will allow people to focus or redirect their actions. To answer my main question, four sub-questions are important to consider. (1) What are the fields of climate science doing to address climate change and climate denial? Climate science has grown considerably since climate change was discovered, and the governing bodies of the field interact with the highest offices of government. The methods that the climate science community uses directly influences public belief in climate change, and thus what political action is taken. (2) What new or different communication tactics are necessary to improve public belief in climate change? There are important considerations for climate scientists or activists to consider when crafting their message. (3) What is the power structure of the climate debate in the United States, and who can be targeted to join the fight against climate change? It is clear that power dynamics play a part in the climate debate, and different groups play important roles. If the climate debate is to change, however, finding the groups that can be convinced to aid in the fight is critical. (4) Given the answers to the past three questions, what must be done to shift the fight against climate change? 

This work represents a blend of multiple disciplines. Some might push against this approach, arguing that science cannot be steered politically. Two points defend my activist approach. First, climate science is distinct from other types of science, because it is loaded with a moral imperative. If scientists know what devastation is likely to happen, they are given a duty to try to stop that devastation. As we have all learned recently, desperate, world-threatening times demand different paradigms than we use in times of relative stability. Second, following the work of Wilfrid Sellars, this work represents a reunification of science and philosophy. Sellars points out an ‘atomization’ of science and philosophy, and argues that the ‘temptation to leave it up to the specialists’ and view philosophy as separate from science is a “snare and a delusion.” Science is not so removed or special as we think, Sellars claims; it is a continuation of one type of discourse we have engaged in for our whole history, and to view science as removed misses its presence in ordinary life. To view climate science as separate from our political lives is to miss a critical piece of the work. Solving this issue is the work of philosophy and the approach I advocate for in this work. 

The Current Status of Climate Science 

At the current moment, there is a large and rapidly-growing body of climate research that is ever-more detailed in how exceptionally dangerous climate change is. Similarly, climate activism is on the rise across the world, with Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion gaining international recognition. However, are the efforts of climate scientists and activists actually changing public interest in acting on climate change? Or, should they (particularly scientists) even be involved in such a process? To answer these questions, I would argue that, first, the efforts of climate scientists and activists are currently not meaningfully changing public opinion on climate action, and, second, that scientists must shed their allegedly apolitical role and engage in the production and public dissemination of research that actually moves the needle on public opinion. To begin, I will explain what climate scientists and activists are currently doing. 

Schematic understanding of climate struggle

The field of climate science is internationally coordinated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has certainly been instrumental in growing the body of climate research tremendously. Coordinating researchers and computational resources around the world, all while fighting off campaigns of doubt is no small task, and much credit is due to the IPCC. However, the IPCC has little contact with the outside world – anyone besides climate researchers and journalists who report on their meetings – and publishes their findings in long, complex reports that are not easy to understand. Because of this, information from the IPCC only reaches the public after being filtered by journalists; and if someone tends to read news from a source that does not find climate change important, information from the IPCC may not reach them at all. In the United States, climate information dissemination may be slightly improved from the IPCC. Spread across the United States are Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASCs), which produce various types of climate research and do work with at least some shareholders. This is certainly an improvement from the IPCC, at least from an information dissemination perspective, as the IPCC works only with very high level stakeholders. However, it is not clear that the CASCs truly reach all important stakeholders; while they do share information with city planners and stakeholders at that level, information from CASCs don’t always reach what may be the most important group of stakeholders – regular citizens. 

The use of the deficit model of behavior change is another issue for the climate science community. In essence, the deficit model assumes that people make certain decisions based on the facts they have at the time. In order to change behavior, then, the deficit model suggests that people just need to have better facts available. However, this model is not accurate. As people receive information, they modulate their processing through their unique life experiences and perceptions so that the information matches their predispositions. This effect is known as motivated reasoning. If people who are predisposed to disbelieve climate science are exposed to a random message about climate change, they will subsequently actually reduce their belief and/or concern about climate change. Various factors can either reinforce or minimize the strength of any given message: partisanship or degree of identification with the message are two important modulators. Unfortunately, not much climate messaging has taken these realities into account, which hampers the efficacy of efforts to increase belief in climate change. 

climate science is distinct from other types of science,

because it is loaded with a moral imperative

It is clear that opinions on climate change in the general population are changing. However, research from the IPCC on the global effects of climate change is not really what is changing people’s opinions. The IPCC has been producing that sort of research, which has been at least somewhat disseminated through major news organizations, for at least 20 years. Public opinion on climate action hasn’t meaningfully changed during that period. In the past few years, there have been marked shifts in public opinion, which have generally followed major, catastrophic weather events – for example, Hurricane Harvey and the group of several major hurricanes that have slammed the East Coast, or devastating wildfires in California. The science of climate attribution has helped these shifts, as climate researchers can illuminate the magnifying power of climate change in these events. Thus, it is not the wealth of global climate modeling that have meaningfully changed public opinion on climate action, but instead climate impacts that have been locally contextualized to people. 

Though citizens are not typically involved in the production of climate research, they are the most important audience to reach. Sharing technical knowledge and understanding of climate models is certainly critical to the climate science community, and without this knowledge production, no one would have any idea what climate change will do. Similarly, sharing knowledge of impacts with stakeholders in various levels of government is critical, because these individuals have the power to enact changes in infrastructure or other systems to better respond to climate change. However, the public is the most important group to communicate to; while scientists know what will happen, and government officials can respond to scientists’ knowledge, only the public can force action to actually happen. Only through political will can measures be actualized, and only the public holds political will. For meaningful action to happen on climate change, the public will have to push for it and ask for politicians to enact the change the public is willing to make; the public will have to be the driver of political action. 

Getting the public to take the reins, however, is not an easy task. While everyone should be concerned about climate change, at the moment not everyone actually is. This is where climate science and activism have a crucial role to play. I have shown that scientists producing research with a large-scale focus for themselves and government officials have not made a meaningful difference in public concern about climate change. However, this does not mean that scientists do not have a role to play in growing public concern. Instead, climate science must now expand its research focus to generating targeted research that will be more relevant and better engage the public. Research of this type must be guided in scope by careful consideration of how people will understand the threat of climate change and what specific markers of climate change will meaningfully engage people with concrete research. Instead of just focusing on global-scale impacts, climate science should dive deep down to scales that are truly meaningful and relatable to the general public. 

The research I am advocating for represents a significant shift in habit for climate science in two main ways. First, this type of research significantly increases the work involved in scoping and designing a research project. Instead of just selecting a large aspect of the climate system to research, a climate scientist who is interested in this type of targeted research must take into consideration multiple threads that are essentially outside of their realm of thinking. For example, this scientist must consider who they’re trying to reach with their research, how those people can actually be reached, what features of the climate system might be important to those people, and how to present the research in a manageable method. These requirements span a number of fields – political science, social science, social change theory, and science communication, to name a few. 

Second, targeting research with the hope of some outcome is an inherently political project in the context of climate science. This is a sticky issue for my argument, as science is ‘supposed’ to be apolitical, and solely fact-based. The apoliticization of science is, in theory, a good thing and is the way science should be performed; without this ideal, it would be far too easy for scientific work to be thoroughly corrupted by biases, whether intentional or not. In most cases, scientists should stick to the apolitical ideal. In the case of climate research, however, I argue that scientists should move to a higher calling and undertake research with specific, targeted aims for the impact of the research. 

There are two main reasons I advocate for this approach: ethical responsibility and combatting bad faith actors. Climate change is an existential threat to the human race (and the rest of the species on Earth); humans have faced a threat of such magnitude only a handful of times before, and these types of threats require us to transcend our normal bounds. Climate scientists, in particular, can understand the global threat of climate change better than most, and they have the tools to characterize and share the knowledge of the climate threat to any given region. As such, I would argue that climate scientists have an ethical responsibility to do their part in alerting the public to the imminent threat in whatever way will reach people the most effectively. In short, climate scientists are standing watch, and they must alert their comrades. 

In addition, the successful dissemination of climate change projections has been stymied by a collection of bad faith actors who have engaged in a campaign of deception to further their own interests. These bad faith actors – oil companies, investment banks, government officials paid off by industry are just a few examples – have used a variety of tactics to question climate science and deceive the public about the gravity of climate change, or its very existence. For example, oil companies hid their understanding of climate change in the 1960s, funded scientific foundations and researchers to produce opposition research to climate science, and have managed to recruit an entire political party in the United States to ignore science and continually discredit and disparage any sort of information or plea about climate change; bad faith actors have even stooped so far as to attack the character of a 16-year old girl standing up to them. All of these tactics have worked quite well; bad faith actors have slowed the uptake of climate understanding in the general public, and have won many people to their side, growing the ranks of the campaign against climate action. All of this has been done despite the well-founded, well- understood research on climate change; bad faith actors have been successful because they have used every tactic they could, and climate science has stood by, clinging to their supposed apolitical bent and large-scale, poorly disseminated research. 

In reality, climate science is political; it has been made so by bad faith actors hoping to discredit it. As such, climate scientists should lean into their image and take up research that may be inherently political, but is desperately important to undertake. The public must understand how they will be affected by climate change; this is the first step to them taking their reins of political will. Of course, climate scientists will be attacked as being biased and politically motivated; these attacks can be debunked, however, if scientists show that they speak truth. While the type of research I advocate is certainly political – that should not be hidden – it need not plagued by bias. This will weigh heavy on climate scientists, as it is critical that they defend their research from their own bias, whether it comes from their hopes for the impact of the research or the narrative they see in their data. However, if climate scientists can show that they have done their due diligence and taken pains to prevent biased results, they will stand on firm ground when sharing their findings. 

This article is an excerpt from Modeling Home: Investigating Relevant Climate Projections for New Mexico by Raini Helmstadter

Raini Helmstadter is based in Montana.