Five Practical Tips Making Climate Change Risk Communication More Effective

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Rui Zhao, C+S ’16

The Paris climate talks shined a bright spotlight on the impacts of climate change and adaptation measures we’ll need to cope. Despite a rising concern about future climate change, the public and some industries do not yet perceive it as a near-term priority. That makes how to communicate effectively about the more immediate risks of climate change a core issue.

This summer, I interned with City Atlas at the Institute for Sustainable Cities. This organization aims to solve and communicate about how to overcome environmental challenges and help New Yorkers engage with building a better future for their city.

To raise the awareness of sustainable development, we hosted a public walk and talk about future sea level in lower Manhattan. Furthermore, we came up with a sea level rise mock classroom plan to promote climate change education. And on a daily basis, we wrote about climate risks in the city and upcoming events, showing the good work people have done to move New York toward a more sustainable future.

Sea Level Walk. Source: Newsletters from the City Atlas

Sea Level Walk. Source: Newsletters from the City Atlas

Moreover, I participated in an energy project aiming to achieve a zero carbon energy supply by 2030. To be more specific, I did several studies including conducting quantitative analysis of the large scale solar energy potential and calculating the required solar panel surface area to power New York City. I also focused on wind power and researched a cost-benefit analysis on offshore wind power, using geographic information system to create maps illustrating the potential locations of wind turbines throughout New York state.

Those calculations and numbers are interesting and meaningful. And it is obvious that the public and other stakeholders need to be engaged if we’re going to transition to a new, carbon neutral energy system. That raises the questions about how to convey these messages and information to the public and understanding what they would be interested in.

Based on what I have learned from these activities and projects, I’d like to share five tips on climate change risk communication.

First of all, audiences are more interested in how we can deal with climate change rather than the scientific root causes. They prefer to learn something more related to their personal life. For instance, they want to learn about annual electricity bill savings if they install the rooftop solar panels. This information could provide near term incentives to take action.

Secondly, people are more willing to attend outdoor activities rather than meetings in a conference room. For instance, they are more likely to attend a walk where they could learn more details about sea level rise, discuss with others and have fun. It is also provides a clear feeling of what sea level rise will actually mean for places people care about.

Thirdly, people might be more knowledgeable than you might expect. Of course, if they’re choosing to go on a walk about sea level rise, they may already have a higher level of understanding. Yet if you know that, then there isn’t necessarily a need to provide an introduction on the impacts of sea level rise.

Furthermore, sometimes we would share dramatic information to get people to how serious climate change is. For instance, in our newsletter we wrote like “if you purchased a ticket to San Francisco on an airline that told you there’s a 90 percent chance you’ll land safely, but a 10 percent chance you won’t, what would you say?” And we also wrote that “many low-lying neighborhoods of New York confront those same odds over the next century as projections of sea level rise come into greater detail.” It would be better than simply talking about why we should focus on climate change and what the impacts of climate change.

At last, people are not very sensitive to some absolute numbers. Instead, relative numbers are easier to understand. For example, if we intend to make fuel via sunlight, how much area would be required to provide the fuel for JFK airport? We calculated that the required area of solar panel is roughly 63 million square meters, but that number itself is meaningless to the vast majority of people. However, framing it as an area roughly seven times larger than JFK airport itself makes it much clearer. This statement illustrates the relative size and makes more sense.

Offshore Wind Turbine. Source: WVTF Public Radio

Offshore Wind Turbine. Source: WVTF Public Radio

Or in terms of offshore wind power, we estimated that 4,000 turbines are needed to meet New York’s average annual electric consumption. So what does it mean? It is tough to imagine 4,000 turbines. But if we could re-write the sentence as “We need a land area which is roughly equivalent to half of Yellowstone National Park,” then it’s much easier to grasp.

Generally, in order for climate science information to be fully absorbed by audiences, scientific information has to be delivered with appropriate language and analogies, combining with experiential scenarios and vivid stories. These tips and principles could make climate change presentations more effective.

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