The Intersection

originally published May 23, 2007 by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

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.