By: Shahad Salman
The sky is falling, the sun is collapsing, and scientists predict the world will end within no time. The public’s unwavering apathy towards climate change has led to this inevitable apocalypse, and now all anyone can do is hug their loved one’s goodbye and wait for this impending (and quickly approaching!) doom.
Okay, not really. The catastrophe outlined above might be a slight bit of an exaggeration. However, envision the public’s reaction if major media outlets decided to print this byline as an effort to persuade people to act against climate change. While attention grabbing, and potentially a reality for the Earth if climate change goes unchecked, these fear-mongering initiatives accomplish little in mobilizing the population to address this global crisis. The complexity of climate change poses many challenges, one of those being the proper method to effectively communicate the implications of the issue to a public audience. With many fields of study having some sort of vested interest in climate change, there are many attempts to connect with the public and articulate one message or another. Scientists supply the mechanisms and technical data behind the issue, journalists and writers provide the medium to discuss this data, and politicians and activists address the consequences of this data through movements and laws. In many instances, these different experts work independently of each other and only come into contact when they want to cite each other’s research and publications.
Climate change, however, cannot recognize these boundaries or the differences between academic disciplines. In order to effectively communicate climate change to a public audience, scientists, journalists and policy makers must work together in order and truly persuade people to collectively mobilize and prevent the progression of this problem. This issue is inherently intersectional. Climate change affects our Cornell Botanical Gardens as much as it affects the Amazonian jungle, and it demands that collaboration occur to effectively address all of its different facets.
Journalist David Wallace-Wells, who published “The Uninhabitable Earth,” faced harsh criticism from readers who questioned his authority in making seemingly lofty, scientific claims. Many individuals reacted to his dystopian article in the same taken-aback-way that people may have responded to the title of this article. Though Wallace-Wells utilized an abundant number of scientific reports and data, both climate change researchers and the public audience believed he inaccurately interpreted data in way that over-exaggerated facts. Had Wallace-Wells included scientists in the development of his story arc, they could have aided him in properly using and understanding figures so that he correctly portrayed the already drama of climate change without resorting to implausible plotlines. Even better, had Wallace-Wells positioned scientists as the illustrators of his article’s apocalyptic scenes, public audiences might have been less inclined to question the article’s content. Researchers have proven that people trust scientists more as climate change messengers, and the harsh consequences of losing their credibility and authority in communication clearly showcased itself with “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
Author Naomi Klein, politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), and artist Molly Crabapple produced a viral film project that demonstrated the power of professional collaboration. Many individuals praised the artistry of Crabapple, others commended AOC’s leadership, and the inspiring theme of the story clearly touched the greater audience. AOC, Klein and Crabapple understood that in the context of climate change policy, audiences responded the best to well-known political figures and thus poised AOC as the messenger of this tale. Researchers found that individuals respond better to stories that extend beyond the one dimensionality that a scientific article or op-ed may present, and this video exemplifies exactly that.
However, this video demonstrates only a beginning example the potential of collaboration. If scientists, politicians, and journalists aim to always present a united front, public audience climate change projects will become synonymous with
Collaboration simply captivates people. Even a walk through a garden proves how much more symbiotic relationships stand out. One notices how looming trees shade and protect ground plants, how flowers provide homes for different critters, and how the natural space thrives on the interconnectedness of all its elements. A garden cannot exist without these partnerships; it is an intricate environment. Conversely, an issue as complicated as climate change endangers all life, and no one field or expert can validly claim to know exactly how to resolve it, or, more importantly, how to inspire collective action to resolve it. People easily dismiss the thousand, disconnected and isolated calls from experts shouting for change. But if those voices connected to emit one loud roar, people would have no choice but to notice. If professionals want the public audience to band together to combat climate change, they themselves must take the first steps in modelling this worldwide alliance.
- Jones, Michael D. “Communicating climate change: Are stories better than “just the facts”?.” Policy Studies Journal 42.4 (2014): 644-673.
- Klein, Naomi. On fire: the (burning) case for a green new deal. Simon & Schuster, 2020.
- Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward W. Maibach, and Connie Roser-Renouf. “Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ climate change beliefs, attitudes, policy preferences, and actions.” Attitudes, Policy Preferences, and Actions (2009).
- Moser, Susanne C. “Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1.1 (2010): 31-53.
- Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future. Penguin UK, 2019.