Key messages on climate change

This morning I read a rather – as the English would say – bolshie piece from Sharon Begley, Newsweek‘s Science Editor, headlined ‘Their Own Worst Enemies: Why scientists are losing the PR wars.’

Bora Zivkovic, Online Community Manager at Public Library of Science, didn’t think much of the piece (at least that was my conclusion from his preface to tweeting it, which was ‘Hrmph…what do you think?’)

Here’s what I think: Begley generalizes and dances around the real issue. She lets a certain amount of frustration with some of the scientists she’s encountered seep into her piece. She makes some very good points regarding successful communication (that which is both clear and persuasive) when she talks about cultural differences between the US and the UK (although I don’t think she nails them precisely – that thing that happened in 1776 really was both the War of Independence and the American Revolution).

She gets closest to making the point implicit in her article explicit when she says, ‘Like evolutionary biologists before them, climate scientists also have failed to master “truthiness” … which their opponents – climate deniers and creationists – wield like a shiv.’

Having just finished Ian McEwan’s Solar, which I’ll be reviewing on my personal blog, I think the issue is both more complex and yet more clearly understandable.

‘Climate deniers’ in and of itself is an odd phrase, because no one denies climate exists. ‘Climate change deniers’ makes only slightly more sense – the more appropriate phrase should be ‘global warming deniers.’ And here we’re beginning to get to the crux of the matter.

Environmentalists sounding the alarm bells regarding what we’ve done to our world by allowing ourselves to become dependent on fossil fuels never sat down and thought about what their key messages were before they started engaging the public. Or if they did, they didn’t think them through sufficiently and consult widely enough amongst themselves before going public. ‘Global warming’ was a specious, no-win phrase from the get-go, frankly, since the explanations required to communicate what it actually is are daunting.

You can’t trot out a phrase you want to see in headlines and then backpedal furiously while you try to explain that global warming manifests itself not only in warmer, drier summers, but also in wetter, colder winters. Let’s be frank – we’re not all climatologists, nor do the vast majority of us aspire to be. By asking me to accept at face value something that’s highly counter-intuitive at the outset, without clearly explaining how to reconcile the two opposing facts, you’ve lost me.

What the ‘climate change deniers’ and ‘global warming deniers’ did right at the very outset was to dig into their deep pockets (because the oil and gas companies of the world are part of a now-entrenched financial hierarchy) and invest in communications advice to nail down their key messages. They went even further as the pro-environmental tide rose: they modified their messaging, their behaviour, and thus their perception among stakeholders.

The investment in a single wind farm by an oil and gas developer is as disproportionately positively perceived as the percentage of birch trees in a mixed deciduous/coniferous forest is overestimated if you don’t do an actual count of even a small area. Did you do that kind of study in your public school nature field trips? Try it sometime; you’ll be astonished.

The key messages of the oil and gas industry have been very clear:

  • ‘Our form of energy creates and enables wealth and growth.’
  • ‘The alternatives to fossil fuels will be both difficult to engineer and expensive to create.’
  • ‘We live in an oil and gas-dependent world and we will continue to seek out new sources of fossil fuels until we’ve exhausted them so you can continue to live the lifestyle to which you think you’re entitled.’ (Zoom, zoom.)

In contrast, I’d be hard pressed, without doing a fair bit of research, to come up with three overarching key messages regarding climate change. Those three key messages would be only the beginning of the process, however, because one immediately needs to distinguish between natural cycles of climate change (those it would be very difficult for us to control) and those we’ve caused (and can therefore, theoretically at least, control by a change in our behaviours). Take a look at this paragraph from Wikipedia (and before you sneer, remember that this is what you’re going to get when you enter ‘climate change’ into a search engine – in other words, this is what most people looking for information are going to find first):

‘In recent usage, especially in the context of environmental policy, climate change usually refers to changes in modern climate. It may be qualified as anthropogenic climate change, more generally known as “global warming” or “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW).’

My head is already aching. I know that anthropogenic means ‘person-made’ (manmade if you want to be a stickler for Greek word origin). I’ve now got three terms that all mean the same thing (supposedly). And an acronym that certainly hasn’t caught on – AGW? Haven’t seen that in any of the thousands of mainstream media articles I’ve read on global/climate/warming/change in the last three decades. Except that they don’t mean the same thing, really. Or do they? When invasive plant forms suck up disproportionate amounts of water from the water table, drought can occur. And invasive plants can spread from any form of ‘disturbance’ – including floods and fire, not all of which are person-caused. Which then leads to a cycle of hauling food you can no longer grow yourself longer distances using finite and ozone-depleting resources and releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus creating more global/climate/warming/change….

There’s really no point in looking at manmade client change outside the context of non-anthropogenic climate change (and what is the scientific term for that? Again, more research on my part required.).

At this point I have to return to what I know something about, which is how to communicate. Key messages are the magic potion, and three key messages are the magic number, because that’s about all we can remember. It was Socrates, that Greek, who first articulated this, apparently.

  • Key messages have to be jargon-free. (That means we’re going to use ‘manmade’ rather than anthropogenic, and if, when we’re working on these key messages, you continue to say anthropogenic, you will be slapped figuratively, if not literally.)
  • Key messages have to answer the first question first. Before you can talk about the specific human behaviour that has you as a scientist up in arms (and your concerns will be different if you’re a marine biologist than they will be if you’re an astronomer), you have to take a huge step back and create overarching key messages. So the first question – regardless of whether you’re an astronomer or an oceanographer – is, ‘what is climate change?’
  • Key messages have to be short. Why? Because short is memorable; long is not. I’m willing to bet that may be the one phrase – short is memorable, long is not – from this post that you’ll remember two days after reading it.

I’m going to break the rule of threes here to add one more point:

  • Key messages have to be written, rewritten, massaged, edited, and perfected before they’re memorized. And then they have to be delivered in exactly the same way innumerable times. That’s why they have to be good to begin with. This is not about controlling your spokesperson or your message. It’s about crafting your message so it will actually get through. Why are you more likely to remember that it has to be short to be memorable? Because I’ve now repeated it three times in this blog post. I don’t expect you to have studied rhetoric – I haven’t. But trust me, if you had, you would have learned the importance of repetition in successful communication.

Here are two excellent articles on crafting key messages. The first is Dr. Judith M. Newman’s, in which she defines and gives a few examples of key messages. Perhaps the most important point she makes is when she says key messages ‘open the door to direct communication…because they bridge [the gap] between what your audience already knows and where you are trying to take them.’ (emphasis added)

The second is from the Communications Overtones blog, in which Kami Watson Huyse outlines a nice little three-part formula for developing key messages: claim, fact, example.

So here’s my challenge (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) to all the scientists and environmentalists I know. In the comments section, let’s see if we can, together, craft three overarching key messages on climate change – both manmade and non-manmade. And then let’s take a stab at creating the next set of key messages that relate solely to manmade climate change.


About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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2 Responses to Key messages on climate change

  1. Fran Manns says:

    Climategate was forecast…

    “What is the current scientific consensus on the conclusions reached by Drs. Mann, Bradley and Hughes? [Referring to the hockey stick propagated in UN IPCC 2001 by Michael Mann and debunked by McIntyre and McKitrick in 2003.]

    Ans: Based on the literature we have reviewed, there is no overarching consensus on MBH98/99. As analyzed in our social network, there is a tightly knit group of individuals who passionately believe in their thesis. However, our perception is that this group has a self-reinforcing feedback mechanism and, moreover, the work has been sufficiently politicized that they can hardly reassess their public positions without losing credibility.”

    AD HOC COMMITTEE REPORT ON THE ‘HOCKEY STICK’ GLOBAL CLIMATE RECONSTRUCTION, also known as The Wegman report was authored by Edward J. Wegman, George Mason University, David W. Scott, Rice University, and Yasmin H. Said, The Johns Hopkins University with the contributions of John T. Rigsby, III, Naval Surface Warfare Center, and Denise M. Reeves, MITRE Corporation.

  2. ruthseeley says:

    I’ve approved this comment, Fran Manns, only to illustrate precisely what is neither a key message nor an attempt to arrive at one. In key messages one does not debate data. Key messages are also not three paragraphs long. And they’re written in complete sentences. So – as they say on Twitter – #fail. Although I know you weren’t actually trying.

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