There has been a reinforcement of doubt about what climate scientists are saying. At the end of the session he thanked Lawler and Nicholson “because I learned something.”


An audience member said that a common reaction to a catastrophe is to send money not to change habits. Lawler said that the resilience of society is a theme of studies of collapsing societies—there are very few such collapses, instead the society changes. Despite the Black Death in Europe, when one in four people died, society continued, he said.

The influence of those with vested interests in current forms of energy was raised by another audience member. Coal-fired power plants are the cheapest form of energy, and people are accustomed to today’s energy costs and “want the dream to keep going on,” he said. Thus, they are open to messages from those with vested interests who may not directly dispute climate change science, but raise doubt about it. How do you put a dollar cost on not doing anything in order to “scare people,” to make them understand that the quality of their lifestyles will go down if nothing is done, he asked. Moore and Macauley agreed that it is difficult to calculate, much less communicate, the economic costs of inaction, even though, as Moore said, “The cost of doing nothing costs something.”

Kennel said that his institute (the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego) has concluded that climate scientists need to “enrich the narrative” by talking about adaptation, as Nicholson suggested. That would change the principal tool—the IPCC—that has been used to date to attribute the cause of climate change and that it is human induced. The IPCC speaks to 15,000 to 20,000 decision-makers in government and industry, but ordinary people need to understand it on a local level. The “cost of inaction” can be understood better on that level, but it means that building trust must be done differently. “I don’t think we know how to do that,” he said, and it will require a deep alliance between scientists and communicators.

Lawler insisted that the science community has to make a decision on what it will do. Climate change “is a fascinating … story of how a group of people who see the train wreck that’s happening is going to respond” to the “huge political struggle, huge economic forces aligned with keeping inertia [and] preventing change.” Will scientists quietly work to amass more data or “go to the barricades” and find a wealthy backer to set up a website and “tweet” to get the message out? He advised scientists to think carefully about how they want to convey this topic to journalists.

Nicholson offered that it is important to decide how to frame the issue and gave examples from health communications, where different messages can be framed as a gain or a loss. The message is communicated quite differently if the goal is to get people to use sunscreen versus getting a mammogram. Wearing sunscreen is a preventive measure that is low risk—it protects a person from the Sun, she explained. In that case, the message is that it is a benefit, a gain. But a mammogram is high risk psychologically because it might reveal a tumor, so the message must be framed as a serious loss—that if one does not have a mammogram it could be fatal.

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