By Michael Levkowitz, Assistant Coastal Planner, Washington State Department of Ecology
I know that human actions are the primary driver of climate change. I am about as confident in the fact that humans are causing climate change as I am in the fact that smoking increases cancer risk (which is, incidentally, a good way to explain the scientific consensus in human-caused climate change). To put it another way, I have no doubt in the fact that humans have caused and are continuing to cause climate change. My guess is that if you are reading this, you’re in the same boat. What remains is an open question to me: When is it necessary for us to mention this fact?
I recently led an effort to develop and facilitate How to Communicate About Sea Level Rise, a course taught through the Washington Coastal Training Program‘s Climate Adaptation Series. This question came up repeatedly during the class, and it proved tremendously difficult to parse. One school of thought, championed by the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCI) and others, argues that acknowledging the need for mitigation, and humans’ role in driving climate change, is absolutely necessary whenever addressing the need for adaptation. Communicating these links is sometimes argued as necessary due to a moral imperative (we must acknowledge humans’ role in carbon emissions and broach the subject of mitigation when talking to people about coastal adaptation; to meet our obligation as global citizens, we need to address all aspects of these multi-faceted issues). Other times, it is framed as a prudent policy decision (failing to consider the role humans play in causing climate change together with mitigation and adaptation prevents the development of comprehensive and effective policy). A 2012 study found that introducing the mechanisms of climate change dramatically increases acceptance of climate change. Thus, so goes the argument, whether you want to convince people to mitigate, adapt, or both, you should first establish a baseline understanding of the drivers of climate change: humans.
On the other side of this issue are those with a more traditional risk-communication mentality: learn as much as you can about your audience and use that information to frame your message in a way that is likely going to fit within their existing worldview, appeals to their core values, and dislodges the conversation from politically-charged topics. The basic logic here is easy to understand: Rome wasn’t built in a day (climate change skeptics won’t be making protest signs for the next climate march no matter what you say in one conversation; it’s better to pick your battles). So goes the thinking - if we can convince people to do something now…isn’t that better than nothing?
But where does that leave us?
I certainly think it’s better to look at these issues holistically when possible, but how should we weigh the potential short-term losses with the long-term gains? To put it more concretely, let’s take the example of a homeowner who approaches the permit desk at his city planner’s office hoping to discuss ways to prevent damage from the increasingly frequent floods. Let’s assume that the permitting staff has reason to believe this citizen is highly skeptical of the role humankind is playing in climate change. Should that permitting staff really bring up greenhouse gas emissions in that conversation? Is addressing mitigation so important that it’s worth jeopardizing a risk-reducing adaptation action? Where do we draw the line, and how do we know when we’ve crossed it?
 (2012). In J. van Aalst, K. Thompson, M. M. Jacobson, & P. Reimann (Eds.), The Future of Learning: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Volume 2 (pp. 2-481 to 2-482). International Society of the Learning Sciences, Inc.
Photo credit: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. 2014. "What's in a Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change."
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