The Intersection

Imagine you’re a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill..

Short on time would be an understatement.

In comes Joe scientist carrying charts and referencing stats and p-values. ‘Let’s talk Global Warming!‘ Again?! He’s the fourth PhD this afternoon. Kind of seems like old news. Today’s topic is how Iran ignored the U.N. Security Council and your boss needs to make a statement on CNN’s The Situation Room in 2 hours. Thanks for the information Joe, glad you stopped in.

Wait.. WHAT?!

i-d4f4042d96a562b8247598f423d5d7d1-The_Lorax.jpgAllow me to take this opportunity to discuss linguistics. First and foremost, a change in terminology is in order. ‘Global Warming’ has no urgency. It’s simply too friendly. The phrase almost seems.. comforting. ‘Sea Level Rise’ is no good either since theoretically, more ocean ought to be a positive. As scientists, we go to Washington DC and often suffer from what I call The Lorax Phenomenon. We’re trained to ‘speak science’ and get lost in a world of complex figures and soft spoken symposia. Our message is undermined because we understate its significance. Policymakers are bombarded with all sorts of buzz words that don’t convey the gravity of the situation. This isn’t merely about CO2 emissions, we’re experiencing a language crisis.

If there’s one thing that works in American media, it’s scare tactics. Avian Flu. Anthrax. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Bonus points for an easy to remember acronym! In the Climate Change equation, the necessary shift in approach must be preceded by altering perception of the problem. Could this be incited by scare tactic terminology? Perhaps. Thus, I give you: Epic Global Meltdown

Alarmist? Clearly. Honest? Well, okay, it’s a stretch, and I’m not at all serious with this suggestion. My point is this: We need to repackage our delivery to the people who have greatest influence in policy.

Scientists must work with folks in the marketing and business sectors to collaboratively understand the best means to convey our messages. This is not only possible, it’s long been employed on campaigns fighting heart disease, the tobacco industry, and on and on. By crossing into the social sciences and involving expert economists and anthropologists, we’ll be better equipped to incorporate an interdisciplinary understanding of why people make decisions (from game theory to Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons) into our traditional approach toward informing sound legislation.

Climate change and ocean acidification are not just a threat to international security, our resources, and biodiversity, but rather a real life battle for the the future of humanity where the good guys can persevere! (Tolkien and Homer fans rejoice!) Environmental challenges are impacting the planet on an entirely different scale than SARS in Asia or a war fought overseas. It’s not news in our community, but unless more like us care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

With that, I will step away from the laptop for today.

posted by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum


  1. #1 Kassandra Cerveny
    May 23, 2007

    I can imagine that staffer quite well today, Sheril! I agree on the media involvement – nobody cares about toxin loading through the earth until Love Canal hit the media. It is time to sell the environment like Nikes. More Americans know about PS2s and super special $300 jeans and the latest inhalation of Lindsey Lohan/Paris Hilton/Brangelina than global climate change or the implication thereof.

    How do we make this palatable to Joe Lunchbucket?

  2. #2 SMC
    May 23, 2007

    Justin Jackson, co-host of the twice-weekly “This Week in Science[1]” broadcast, has an idea that I like.

    He suggests that we should describe the problem as such: we’ve given the Earth a case of “Climydia”.

    (“We don’t have to tell the OTHER planets that we’ve got it, but we do need to do something about it…”)

    [1] –

  3. #3 Linda
    May 23, 2007

    Right on Sheril! COMMUNICATION, with meanigful words that everyone can understand and absorb. The urgency and complexity of most global problems, including and especially global climate change, must be addressed clearly so that the regular Joe or JoAnne feels that this is something that touches them, their lives and their future.

  4. #4 Simon Donner
    May 23, 2007

    One of my issues with your argument, and the entire framing argument, is that most of the (climate, that’s my expertise) scientists that regularly communicate with the press and with policymakers already do what you’re saying. I suspect that many scientists may be reacting strongly to the talk of ‘framing’ not because they disagree, but because the general point is fairly obvious, and already part of standard practice. Take one of your examples: ocean acidification. Few chemical oceanographers would choose to label the very slight decrease in ocean pH cause by rising CO2 “acidificiation”, a major exaggeration, if the audience was only his or her peers in the field. The fact that the problem has already been openly branded “ocean acidification” is a big compromise by the scientific community (and there are many that don’t like it!).

    This is not a yes or no question, whether to frame or not to frame, but how to what degree. The danger: if scientists over-market or over-brand their work, the work itself can get devalued, it can seem no different than non-peer-reviewed research conducted by, say, a partisan think tank. Frame, sure. But within limits.

  5. #5 Steve Bloom
    May 24, 2007

    Sheril, a couple of year ago there was a pretty good post on this issue over at RealClimate guest-authored by geoscientist Michael Tobis (excellent new blog here). The discussion seemed to settle on “human-caused climate disruption” (optionally shortened to just plain “climate disruption”) and “climate crisis” as considerable improvements over both “global warming” and “climate change” (both of which were characterized as neutral-to-positive terms). I haven’t seen or heard of any improvement on these in the subsequent two years.

    I think it might be possible to make such a rhetorical shift happen (in the U.S., via the NAS, AGU, and AAAS, the major environmental groups and their publications, the major science publications, the Society of Environmental Journalists, etc.), but it would take several people deciding to make it a priority for a few years.

    On a very closely related subject, have you seen John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney’s work (here and here) on public understanding of climate disruption (there, I’ve started)?

  6. #6 kate
    May 24, 2007

    I think Simon is exactly right. If scientists are looked up to for their credibility, even-handedness, and objectivity, they walk a thin line between framing that galvanizes people into action and framing that ends up on the fringes of alarmism. Not only is the latter much easier to discount in an increasingly terrified world, it’s also easily refutable by the Other Side, primarily because they themselves are so reliant upon it and thus know exactly how to discount it coming from their opponents.

    Bad ‘science’ is already used to lend credibility to some pretty outrageous alarmist platforms, e.g abstinence-only sex ed or your 13yo daughter starts turning tricks and collecting STDs. If we start playing the game of alarmism, I do think that via association, we risk discrediting the science behind the issue at hand. And, worse, discrediting the scientists themselves. The integrity of science and scientists remains the most powerful card that proponents of good science have in their hand.

    We can talk about science in incredibly salient, engaging, and relevant ways. And we can probably do it a lot better than we currently are. But as Simon points out, the DEGREE of framing will be the key to retaining the heart of science while winning over the minds of others.

  7. #7 Ben
    May 24, 2007

    I want to disagree.

    I think people pretty much know exactly what global warming is, since the media covers it, like every day. Everyone saw the poster for “The Day After Tomorrow” and everyone knows someone who saw “The Al Gore Movie.” So it’s not like people are going around saying “Global warming? Never heard of it, but it sounds cozy.”

    Politicians aren’t doing enough about global warming, I agree with you there. But coming up with a scarier name won’t change that. Politicians may be dumb, but they aren’t that dumb.

  8. #8 Steve Bloom
    May 24, 2007

    Ben, the Sterman and Sweeney material I linked above demonstrates very precisely that even educated people tend to not understand climate disruption very well (other than on the purely facile level of “global warming = warmer globe”). I think this is reflected in poll results from the last couple of years (sorry, no link) that have tested for depth of commitment on the issue. These results show that while an increasing majority of the U.S. population is concerned about climate disruption (well, actually, “global warming”), only something like 20% (IIRC) is committed on the issue (committed meaning something like favoring strong, immediate action). While using terminology consistent with the scale of the threat is not a solution in and of itself, it could help.

  9. #9 Lance
    May 25, 2007


    I agree with you that when scientists use alarmist and exagerated language, such as “acidification” of the oceans or climate “disruption”, they pass from dispassionate observer to strident advocate.

    Of course many AGW alarmists think that scientists should be in the fore of political advocacy.

    Here is what Mike Hulme Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, and Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said in a November 2006 interview with the BBC.

    “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric.

    It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) sceptics. How the wheel turns.”

    Now I find the press releases from Professor Humes Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to be alarmist so when he is crying fowl you know things are getting out of control.

  10. #10 kate
    May 25, 2007

    as polls show that 63% of people find climate change more of a threat than terrorism, people have been decently alarmed about the potential implications.

    but i agree w/ steven that i’m not sure that people know “exactly” what climate change is, even if they feel confident that they could explain climate change to someone. sterman & sweeney’s work suggests that most lack the ability to explain the fundamental phenomenon.

    in lieu of the reintroduction of framing, it’s interesting to note that these people seem confident enough to effectively frame an argument for climate change, but don’t have the rudimentary understanding to back it up. luckily, scientists presumably do.

  11. #11 Fred Bortz
    May 25, 2007

    Like Lance, I found Hulme’s statements worth chewing over.

    The question comes down to the difference between simply stating scientific findings, issuing a strident but necessary warning, and being “alarmist,” which I take as overreacting to the point of creating a greater hazard than the event being warned about.

    A scientist acting in the scientific realm simply publishes the findings and allows the scientific process to respond. But if that scientist concludes that the findings suggest a danger, then it is time to leave the scientific realm and inform the broader public.

    At that point, the scientist is acting politically, and the rules of the game are different. When I blog or contribute to a blog, that is a political action. I choose my words and tone carefully, but when I think that a warning has to be sounded, I speak up. And if I think people are missing the danger, I speak up in ways calculated to get more attention. I also support those political figures, like Al Gore, who are in a position to get the warning out.

    Some people call Gore an alarmist, and, frankly, I hope they turn out to be right because that will mean that the future will be less challenging than most climatologists envision.

    If people respond to the warnings of Gore and others (soon to include Newt Gingrich (see ), then we may avoid the worst consequences of our present actions.

    If our response avoids the worst-case scenarios, then future generations will argue about whether the warnings were justified or not. If people don’t respond, the argument is likely to be whether the people sounding the warnings were strident enough.

    In other words, one person’s alarmism is another’s necessary warning. And only time will tell who is right.

  12. #12 Gabe S
    May 25, 2007

    Working with social scientists who study risk communication would certainly be helpful here. For example, attempts to scare people into action have been studied quite extensively, much of the research dating back to the 1960s and 70s. Some general findings from that work (in the context of smoking cessation) are below, excerpted from pp. 376-377 of: Leventhal H, Cleary PD. The smoking problem: A review of the research and theory in behavioral risk modification. Psychological Bulletin. 1980;88:370-405.

    . . . vivid threat messages, compared with milder messages, generate stronger attitudes and intentions favorable to stopping smoking. But although these attitudes and behavioral intentions may be strong immediately after the message, they are not persistent; the attitudes and related intentions dissipate as the emotion associated with the message weakens.

    It was also found that strong fear messages might stimulate undesirable reactions such as avoidance of threatening situations; for example, not taking [cancer screening tests] . . . and not exposing oneself to health information.

    Messages conveying information on personal vulnerability to damage, . . . appear to be successful in stimulating feelings of personal vulnerability, thus strengthening antismoking attitudes and reducing smoking. . . . But these messages can have unexpected effects when combined with information on threat; whereas the independent effects of each factor are often favorable, their joint effects may be less than that of either alone. . . . Combining these factors seems to stimulate the belief that protective action is impossible . . . by undercutting feelings of competence.

    . . . although vivid threat messages aroused more fear and stronger intentions to stop smoking, these changes did not lead to behavior change in the absence of specific action plans. Action plans specified the details of the recommended response; for example, when, where, and how to get a chest X ray or tetanus shot, including exact streets, turns, and landmarks, how to control the urge and how to regulate external inducements to smoke. Subjects who received specific instructions on how to control the smoking habit along with a high- or a low-fear message showed significantly reduced smoking at a 3-month follow-up; the uninstructed groups had reverted to baseline levels. When presented without a fear message, the specific action plans had no effects on attitudes or behavior. Both motivation and action plans are necessary for action. The specific action plans apparently serve to insure the carry-over of attitudes to action, developing feelings of competence.

    . . . the impact of persuasive health messages differs with the population studied. For example, educational level alters response to threat messages: Students in college-directed programs do not become more persuaded of the need to take protective action as messages become more fear provoking; students in noncollege programs do. . . . Response to increasingly threatening communications is also moderated by self-esteem: Subjects low in esteem may fail to act when made overly fearful . . . though efforts to enhance the individual’s sense of competence before exposing him or her to threat can overcome this barrier. . . . The esteem factor may also be related to the helplessness phenomenon discussed earlier.

  13. #13 Sheril Kirshenbaum
    May 25, 2007

    Interesting you bring up Nike. I’ve been in several meetings lately where this exact analogy came up – how do we ‘brand’ ocean conservation like Nike. I’m not sure that’s the right question, but I’m encouraged that more and more people are recognizing that marketing is a big component of the equation.

    Your contribution is interesting on how we perceive messages and what motivates attitudes short vs long term.

    Thanks for so many interesting links in these comments. They’ve provided a lot to reflect upon as I attempt to reconcile disparaging ideas on this topic.

  14. #14 Steve Bloom
    May 26, 2007

    Er, mostly just “disparate,” I hope. :)

  15. #15 Sheril Kirshenbaum
    May 27, 2007

    That too! 😉 Thanks Steve!

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