When speaking to the public, I still deliver bad news in the measured manner of a scientist, but I always, always follow with the good news: the future is not here yet, we can change it, and here’s how.
This week the U.N. released a new report on the likely catastrophic costs of our climate inaction — news that comes hot on the heels of a second consecutive Northwest summer marred by smoke and ash and as yet another large hurricane devastates the Southeast. It’s the kind of week when those of us who study climate change get a lot of questions — people want to know: Just how bad are things going to get?
As a scientist who’s spent the past decade helping natural-resource managers in federal, state and tribal governments prepare for climate change, I’ve become used to giving terrible news: By the end of the century, if we do nothing, the salmon your tribe has depended on for millennia are unlikely to survive the high stream temperatures in your ancestral lands; much of the late-spring snow pack that sustains your national park’s iconic wolverine is likely to disappear; the forests your state depends on to fund new schools will almost certainly be decimated by larger and more frequent wildfires.
I thus often find myself feeling like an oncologist delivering a stream of devastating prognoses. Also like an oncologist, I find myself and others scrutinizing my bedside manner: am I being too cold, clinical and detached as I describe an apocalyptic future? Should I rend my hair and weep, to better communicate the severity of the impacts and the importance of taking action?
As scientists, we are trained to present information clearly and dispassionately to avoid the appearance of bias. Unfortunately, this communication style falls desperately flat when speaking to the public, making it sound as if we are neither alarmed by what we know about climate change nor invested in taking action.
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I couldn’t be more alarmed by what’s coming or more invested in finding a solution. When I first realized, with absolute clarity, how bad things will be if we do nothing, I grieved for a year. I lost hope. I was impossible to be around. Eventually, I found new meaning — and hope — in working to avoid that bleak future at all costs.
So why don’t I jump up and down and scream when I share bad news about climate change? One reason is because maintaining credibility is indeed more important than ever while climate science is under attack from the highest levels of government. But there’s another, more compelling reason: It doesn’t work.
Research has shown that taking a doom-and-gloom approach to communicating climate impacts does not motivate people to action. In fact, it has the opposite effect: People feel scared, overwhelmed and powerless when faced with such a large and terrifying problem.
What does motivate people is knowing what they can do to help, and that their actions will make a difference. For natural-resource managers, this can mean taking concrete steps to make landscapes more resilient to the higher future risks of wildfires or floods. For the public, this can mean making lifestyle choices to reduce their carbon footprint or — even more importantly — demanding climate action in the voting booth and marketplace.
Knowing this, I’ve embraced a hybrid approach. When speaking to the public, I still deliver bad news in the measured manner of a scientist, but I always, always follow with the good news: The future is not here yet, we can change it, and here’s how.
To scientists who are negotiating how they answer questions from a worried public, I suggest this: Give it to them honestly and clearly — just as we’ve been trained — but also provide a menu of potential actions and a healthy dollop of hope. This approach makes our barrage of bad news a whole lot easier to swallow, while leading people away from despair and toward action — which, of course, is the only thing that can prevent that future we most fear.
Yes, the prognosis is dire, but treatment is available. There’s still time. We can beat this together.