Communicating climate change: Focus on solutions

MIT discussion highlights causes for optimism and the importance of emphasizing positive steps.

The discussion, part of the MIT Conversation on Climate Change, was moderated by John Durant, director of the MIT Museum, and introduced by Nate Nickerson, MIT’s vice president for communications. The event — titled “Getting Through on Global Warming: How to Rewire Climate Change Communication” — featured journalists, scientists, and policy experts who deal with the issue of climate change. Durant opened the session by asking, given the often-polarizing nature of the subject, “how the MIT community … can do a better job of contributing to the discussion.”

Chris Mooney, an environmental reporter at the Washington Post, pointed out that rhetoric can quickly give way to action when people are confronted by serious impacts in their own backyards. For example, in Florida, four southern counties most affected by rising sea levels and storm surges are proceeding with serious countermeasures.

In that part of Florida, Mooney said, “the climate debate is not particularly partisan”:  People see the need for action to protect vulnerable coastal lands, and have focused on specific solutions — such as installing one-way valves in storm drains to prevent storm surges from backing up into homes.

Such contrasts between rhetoric and action provide a ray of hope, panelists said. Drezen Prelec, the Digital Equipment Corp. Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said that sudden and unexpected shifts in public opinion — on issues such as smoking and gay marriage — show that rapid changes are possible, even in the face of strong resistance from political leaders.

Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, said that politicians will begin to take action on issues such as limiting greenhouse-gas emissions when it becomes clear that their constituents take the issue seriously enough to vote accordingly. “We only will make progress if we let them know we will vote them out of office,” she said.

Tom Levenson, a professor of science writing and head of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, said that a key to getting people to internalize the importance of climate change is through memorable storytelling. “If you wish to communicate with human beings in ways that they will remember, you need a story,” he said.

Susan Hassol, director of the nonprofit group Climate Communication, said that research has shown that when Republicans who had resisted climate change are presented with potential solutions based on free-market mechanisms, they are three times more likely to accept those rather than solutions based on government regulations or taxes.

“We all want clean air and water and a better world for our kids,” she added — so it’s important to stress “how climate change is affecting these things.”

Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT, whose research has shown the potential for stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change, said that he has made a particular effort “not to preach to the converted, but to go to the heart of skepticism.”

Emanuel said he has spoken to numerous groups known for their opposition to measures to curb greenhouse gases, and for skepticism about the human influence on climate — including conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. He believes that such groups’ resistance has to do with their sense of possible solutions involving government actions.

“They have a very narrow perception of what the range of possible solutions is,” Emanuel said. “Once they understand there are solutions out there that they can embrace, then suddenly they start to accept the science.”

These audiences are much more receptive when presented with a panoply of possible actions, Emanuel added, including ones based on market forces, entrepreneurship, and national competitiveness. “There are a lot of things we ought to be embracing that are worth doing anyway,” he said, such as developing low-carbon energy technology that the U.S. might “sell to other countries, instead of buying it from them.”

Such technologies, Emanuel said, could include next-generation nuclear reactors and carbon-capture systems that could allow fossil-fuel power plants to operate with drastically reduced emissions.  

Hassol summed up lessons she has learned from her attempts to communicate about climate change: “We need to stop trying to give science lessons, and talk about the solutions. The sweet spot is on the solution side.”

When it comes to solutions, panelists said, MIT is especially well positioned to take a leadership role. Among many proposals that have been made through MIT’s “Idea Bank” on climate change, the panel discussed the possibility of opening an MIT facility in Washington to educate political leaders and their staffs on climate and energy topics. Another suggestion was the creation of a rapid-response team of impartial experts who could quickly respond to media reports that contain misleading or incorrect information.