Cooler Heads: What changes our minds about climate?

July 30, 2019
Hertz Staff
Livermore, Calif

Thanks to rapidly rising CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere, the Earth has warmed approximately 2 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels — a trend that scientists predict will have profound effects on the planet – from spreading disease to reshaping the coastlines of continents. In short, perhaps no issue is more important to the world’s well-being than climate change, nor more sorely tested the ability of scientists to effectively communicate to the public.

As it explores the theme “Engaging the World,” the 2019 Hertz Foundation Summer Workshop will welcome two guest speakers with long experience in this arena.

Ann Reid, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, leads the organization’s efforts to help educators teach climate change and evolution through direct training, community partnerships, and by monitoring legislative threats to science education.

Dr. Benjamin D. Santer, an Atmospheric Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has been studying the human contribution to climate change for more than 30 years. In 1995, he was critical to establishing the discernible human influence on global climate, and this year led another study that determined this influence had reached the “gold standard” level for statistical proof.

Before the workshop, Reid and Santer sat down with the Hertz Foundation for a conversation on why public opinion on climate change has lagged behind the scientific consensus, how that’s changing as the Earth warms, and what scientists can do to ensure the public understands their work.

Hertz Foundation: Climate scientists are, of course, extremely confident in their conclusion that human activity—largely CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels—is the driving factor in climate change. While Americans are hardly in unanimous approval on this question, between 2013 and 2018, the number of Americans who believe humans are causing climate change rose from 47 percent to 62 percent. What do you think drove that change?

Benjamin Santer: The media is bringing climate information to the public far more thoroughly than it was doing three years ago. Almost every day there’s a steady drumbeat of important stories on every aspect of climate change that you can think of: snow, sea ice, ocean acidification, hurricane intensity, and the waviness of the jet stream.

The media have also done an impressive job of reporting on some important assessments that the scientific community recently released. The Fourth National Climate Report underscores both how confident climate scientists are that humans are warming the Earth and the threat that warming poses to Americans.

And last year, the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] released a special report, the so-called 1.5˚C report, which showed that the consequences of climate change would be far less catastrophic if global warming was limited to 1.5˚C than if it were allowed to reach 2˚C. The media attention paid to both of these reports has helped to increase public awareness of the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change.

Hertz: The Eastern US suffered from a severe heat wave this month, stretching from Texas to Maine, and followed on the heels of the hottest June on record. Do extreme weather events like this do anything to change Americans’ views on climate change?

Ann Reid: It’s important to remember that Americans aren’t divided cleanly into people who completely reject the consensus and people who completely accept it. I find the rubric that Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication uses helpful. They point to “Six Americas,” classified by their different views on climate change. They can be ‘dismissive,’ ‘doubtful,’ or ‘disengaged,’ or, on the other hand, ‘cautious,’ ‘concerned,’ or ‘alarmed.’ I think this idea of a spectrum of acceptance is helpful, because people who change their views might shift from “disengaged” to “concerned,” or “cautious” to “alarmed.” It’s not binary.

I don’t know if there is research that establishes precisely why people are changing their minds, but I think you can say that the extreme events have shifted people along this spectrum of acceptance, perhaps from “doubtful” to “concerned,” or from “cautious” to “alarmed.” I think it’s an example of how people’s beliefs about this have a lot more to do with who they are and what they’re listening to than really digging into the science.

“People’s beliefs about this have a lot more to do with who they are and what they’re listening to than really digging into the science.” –Ann Reid

Santer: Yes, I think extreme events have helped to shape views. There is a large body of scientific research that has looked at changes in the intensity, frequency, and duration of extreme events. Climate scientists routinely estimate what’s called the “fractional attributable risk,” which is a measure of how human-caused warming has changed the likelihood of an extreme event, such as a heat wave of a certain intensity. We can do this not only for heat waves but also for droughts, flooding, and other classes of extreme events. Such “event attribution” studies leave no doubt that by warming and moistening the atmosphere, we are changing the intensity of droughts, flooding, and hurricanes, and those changing risks are already affecting millions of Americans.

I think the cumulative effect of hurricanes like Sandy, Harvey, Maria, Michael, and Florence have not gone unnoticed. Some of the impacts have been felt in parts of America where people are quite conservative in their views about the reality and seriousness of climate change. If you have to deal with these existential threats to your home and livelihood, then perhaps you devote a little more time to thinking about how the world is changing around you.

“I think the cumulative effect of hurricanes like Sandy, Harvey, Maria, Michael, and Florence have not gone unnoticed.” –Ben Santer

HF: Ben Santer, you recently published that the evidence supporting the human impact on climate change had reached a “gold standard” statistical certainty. This points to the inherent nature of science: that it is built on uncertainty. How do you communicate the nature of uncertainty in the climate debate?

Santer: Uncertainty is an integral part of science — there will always be some irreducible uncertainties in our ability to quantify and separate natural and human effects on climate. But it’s important to point out that these uncertainties are not ignored or swept under the carpet – they are the focus of much of our attention. We look at uncertainties in computer models of the climate system and in climate observations. We routinely kick the tires, and routinely ask whether findings of a “discernible human influence” on global climate are sensitive to the models, data sets, and statistical methods we apply. The bottom line from hundreds of rigorous scientific studies is that natural causes simply can’t explain the changes we’ve observed in the temperature of Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and oceans, in moisture, sea level, snow, and sea ice, and in the dozens of other variables that we monitor. These changes can only be explained by a large human influence.

The other thing I try to communicate about uncertainty is that it’s not a reason for inaction. We face serious risks from climate change. These risks will become larger in the coming decades. If we wait for complete certainty before addressing climate change risks, our kids and grandkids will be dealing with very serious climate consequences. It would be an epic failure to leave them to clean up the mess we’ve made.

HF: Ann Reid, a lot of your work is with teachers to help them educate students about climate science. What’s that experience been like?

Reid: I think the pathway to reaching consensus is a little counterintuitive for scientists, who might think that simply telling students the facts is sufficient–after all, they are used to having learned a lot of science in a lecture format. What seems to work better, though, is a teaching approach that is truer to the actual process of science.

First, all these lines of evidence that we have been talking about are incredibly powerful in the classroom. The teacher can give the students different sets of data to explore and develop the kind of testable questions that are the backbone of science. Then they can look at the data about sea ice, or seasonal temperatures, and see whether the data answers their questions or not. So they get hands-on experience with using different lines of evidence to come to a conclusion.

“The pathway to reaching consensus is a little counterintuitive for scientists, who might think that simply telling students the facts is sufficient.” –Ann Reid

HF: What lessons do you draw from this work that might apply outside the classroom, as scientists seek to engage a public perhaps more skeptical of the consensus?

Reid: I think the same is true outside the classroom when it comes to changing minds about climate change. But the other thing you have to remember is that the people who are reading news stories today often have already accepted the climate consensus. They may become more concerned or alarmed, they may be more likely to take action, but you’re not changing their minds directly.

The minds you’re changing are people at the other end of the spectrum, who are often really skeptical of environmentalism in general. Often that skepticism goes back decades, for reasons unrelated to climate change — farmers or ranchers who think environmentalists are out to destroy their lifestyle by regulating fertilizer or cattle ranges. It’s important to remember that people are not stupid or ignorant — they genuinely distrust these kinds of environmental arguments that have led to regulations and changes in their way of life.

To change their minds, first you have to get to a place of trust with them, where they’re willing to look at the evidence and they’re willing to start asking some questions. Say: if the climate were changing, what kinds of things would you expect to see in Colorado? Are we seeing those changes? Once people are thinking in terms of asking testable questions, you’re on a much better path towards them changing their mind about the overall picture.

Santer: I think it’s critically important to keep talking about scientific evidence. I try to do this in every public presentation. Whether the audience is junior high school students, college students, or the general public, they ask similar questions: What is the evidence that humans are affecting the climate? How do scientists measure and monitor changes on a global scale? There’s an appetite for understanding how and why our climate system is changing, and what the climate of the 21st century is likely to look like. In these challenging times, we have to keep talking about science and evidence.

HF: When the USSR launched Sputnik — the same year John D. Hertz founded the Hertz Foundation — it created a real sense in the American public that we need people entering STEM fields to compete with the USSR, to solve big technical problems. Six decades later, do you see climate change as a similar motivator for students to go into science?

Reid: One big misconception that a lot of young people have about climate change is that there’s nothing we can do about it. That it’s too big of a problem to fix. So I don’t know that we’re having a Sputnik moment yet.

This means we want to give students an opportunity to engage with all the different approaches that could be taken to address climate change, that together could add up to significant changes. Those can be customized to where the student happens to live. In some places, wind power may be really important to the local economy. But the wind only blows part of the day. High school students can get really engaged in the complex thinking that’s required to find solutions for how to store that energy, and how to distribute it. In other places they may be thinking about the challenges around hydro energy, or solar.

And not everybody needs to become a research engineer. If someone sees a place for themselves in the green economy, they might decide to get an associate degree to help build up their local wind industry. That’s a good outcome too.

HF: What’s the most important thing for Hertz Fellows and other scientists to remember about communicating science?

Santer: It’s critically important to use your voice if you have technical expertise that’s relevant to the science of climate change. Use it or lose it. The public urgently needs sound scientific information on the causes and impacts of climate change, on energy solutions, and on the many things we can do to reduce climate risks. Without this information, it will be much more difficult to make informed choices on how to respond to climate change.

“It’s critically important to use your voice if you have technical expertise that’s relevant to the science of climate change. Use it or lose it.” –Ben Santer

Reid: As scientists, we’re convinced by evidence: we try to learn all the relevant evidence and then make up our minds. But I think when we’re talking with people who aren’t scientists, we forget that important step. To communicate effectively you need to earn people’s trust, not simply harangue them or suggest that they’re not smart enough to understand it on their own.

Instead of thinking “well, I’m a scientist, I should get out there and explain the science to people,” it’s much more powerful to say “I think it’s really important to make our decisions based on evidence,” and then ask questions about the evidence, such as: “What do you think about the evidence?” “What kind of evidence would you find convincing?” “What questions do you have about the evidence?”

More important than having all the answers is saying “I can help you find the answers. I’m familiar with how scientists approach problems and I’m happy to walk alongside you.”