Climate communication has moved us from denial to deliberation — now we must act
Now that the Supreme Court has kneecapped the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate power plant emissions, we must rethink how we confront climate change. This is our generation’s man-on-the-moon moment. Except this time, it’s our own planet that’s at stake.
We must change who is talking about climate, what they are saying and to whom.
For practitioners like me, the climate conversation isn’t about shifts in global atmospheric patterns. It is about how many days this summer people will make the choice between groceries or medicine and running their air conditioner. A cooling center in a rural community doesn’t help much if the closest one is 30 miles away. Those people need fans, information on how to lower their body temperature and to understand how to identify and lower their exposure and risk.
For the last decade of my career, I’ve watched America move through the initial phases of disaster: denial, deliberation of solutions, then decision to act. Climate communication has effectively moved us from denial to deliberation. We know it is happening, and we know the solutions. And this is where we are currently stuck. We need to move through deliberation to decision and to action.
First, this means changing the message. What we stand to lose is much less powerful a message than focusing on what we will gain. Risk is difficult for most people to process, as it is fraught with uncertainties. Depending upon people to decide the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action is ineffective, particularly in an environment with so many competing narratives flooding social media.
We should no longer be talking about whether or not climate change is real. Instead, we should be exciting imaginations with detailed, specific plans showing how we can change the world. The impact will be comparable to the advances of indoor plumbing, antibiotics and the automobile.
Second, the conduit of delivery for climate information needs to shift. We needed scientists to get us from denial to deliberation. Now we need to hear from the people who can lead us from deliberation to decision: the practitioners who are doing the hard work of merging science with action. Every day, we are identifying who is at risk and how, pinpointing the limits of proposed solutions and helping communities build resilience and adapt.
This is not to downplay the role of science or scientists. Both are crucial. The birth of a generation of science and climate communications experts means we are now able to act.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that a political solution may not get us to our desired end point. Our current political environment is not conducive to action on climate, even with broad public support. As with gun safety regulations, the process has been hijacked by gerrymandering and the influx of private dollars into the political process. The space race generation believed the government could be a leader in a technological revolution. This system no longer exists. The ground has shifted. Lobbying politicians to act is not a winning strategy.
This doesn’t mean we abandon hope of policy solutions. It means we also engage with private industry to bring about policy change. It means we empower town and county leaders to create cultures of preparedness and 30-year recovery programs, because they are the front line against the worst impacts that are happening right now.
It can be surprising to learn that in most disaster situations, crowds remain calm. Some survivor accounts from 9/11 describe people descending the staircases with little panic. Unlike 9/11, climate change isn’t a sudden event, but I think we are seeing a similar human phenomenon at work.
We’ve accepted it is real. The disaster is happening. We’ve deliberated on the actions that we need to take. We have the solutions. But our period of decision, of action, seems to be slow-moving, taking much more time than experts believe we have to act.
The window is closing. We still have time, but we cannot generate the needed urgency by continuing to describe the disaster. Research shows the most common reaction to disaster is not panic but doing nothing at all. That won’t help. Instead, we must chart a new path, with new methods, within the system we have, not the one we desire. The only question left is whether we will be leaders in this modern-day space race, or merely observers.
Ashley Ward is a senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.