As a student still pursuing my undergraduate degree, much of the climate-related discourse that I am exposed to involves climate scientists talking to non-scientists about the validity of their discipline and the scientific basis for how we know climate change is happening. Because of my own interest in the subject, I have attended many lectures related to climate science, as well as a few lectures about how to teach and communicate it, but Mike Wallace’s lecture at the UW given on May 4, 2010 as part of CIG’s seminar series, titled “Reframing the Discussion of Global Warming and Climate Impacts” was the first time I heard attended a debate over whether climate change should be the main environmental issue presented to the public.
From what I gleaned from the lecture, this was Wallace’s main point: that the abstract entity that is ‘climate change’ has become more talked about than its impacts, in that the media and to some extent scientists and activists have a tendency to first present the audience with climate change, and then assign various impacts/environmental problems, rather than to present first an environmental problem and then identify climate change as its cause. And because climate change is the new “hot” issue, other more immediate potential environmental disasters are being ignored. Because the public has a largely polarized view of climate change/global warming informed by political ideologies (and views that are disturbingly impervious to proven science), making climate change the preeminent problem has lessened the public’s willingness to respond to and deal with environmental problems, as many people hear the word “climate change” and immediately shut off all willingness to listen to what might come after.
I was one of three undergraduates I noticed in the audience, but the only one of those three to come from a scientific background (the other two were from the department of communications, with an interest in environmental activism). Judging by how many familiar faces I saw, the rest of the audience heralded from the UW climate community. Though the audience was to some degree all involved in the same field by no means meant that they were of one opinion. I was surprised at how vehemently some disagreed with Wallace’s argument, while some of their colleagues and peers were fervently for it. Given my status as a wide-eyed undergraduate, watching this debate unfold was novel - the comments I'm used to at the end of a lecture are often scientific quibbles or clarifications (methods, uncertainties, etc), but not often a debate among scientists founded mainly upon opinion and personal experience.
I got the sense from a few audience members that they thought Wallace’s train of thought was a step backwards in climate communication, but I didn’t walk away with the sense that he thought we should stop talking about climate change outright. Rather, I thought he was suggesting that we use close-at-hand and tangible environmental issues to first engage the audience, and to then sneak climate change and its impacts in at the end, much like I used to bury heartworm pills in peanut butter to get my dog to swallow them. In my personal experience, it is true that the public generally doesn’t want to be confronted with large, long-term problems: they are too big, too intangible, and too hard to resolve quickly (and individually). Ironically, a problem being too big or abstract, despite having far-reaching implications, can make it easier to ignore or deny. I eventually hope to get a job in the climate field, but finding fulfillment from that job will only come with the knowledge that what I do goes far beyond my office. I look forward to the continuation of this debate, because as is obvious, effectively communicating about climate change, and getting a general audience to care about it, is going to be essential for the future welfare of our planet.
Lexi Brewer is a current Oceanography undergraduate, who works in the PCC Offices.