More Climate Change Stories, Fewer Graphs And Maps

However, a part of me wonders if such maps have become the "car alarms" of climate communication. Global surface temperature was the highest on record. Global sea level was the highest on record. New data does suggest that public is paying attention. The recent report, Climate Change in the American Mind (May 2017) says More than half of Americans (58%) believe climate change is mostly human caused. The scientific literature also supports the efficacy of storytelling or narratives for communicating science to non-expert audiences. Non-experts get most of their science information from mass media content, which is itself already biased toward narrative formats. A study from the University of Cologne also pointed out the value of historical context, longing, and storytelling. They surveyed 200 to 300 Americans from across the political spectrum and found that changing the climate change messaging towards reflecting on the environment of the past resonated more with conservatives. As a scientist, I am often contacted by reporters for quotes for a story.

More Climate Change Stories, Less Graphs And Maps
More Climate Change Stories, Fewer Graphs And Maps
More Climate Change Stories, Less Graphs And Maps

Be honest. If you are walking in the parking lot of the grocery store and you hear someone’s car alarm going off, what do you do? The answer is probably nothing at all (if you even noticed it). Something designed to alert the public now just fades into the background of our busy lives. I also notice a similar phenomenon with the use of the term “breaking news” on social media. On Thursday, the State of the Climate report was released. This report is an annual climate check-up led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and distributed by the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Scientists from around the world contribute to the report. The report basically says the same thing that all recent reports say: Earth’s climate is warming, and that we are beginning to see impacts and trends across the globe. As the report rolled out, I saw excellent articles and information sharing with charts or graphics showing warming areas or trend lines of temperature, sea level, and so forth. However, a part of me wonders if such maps have become the “car alarms” of climate communication. I argue that we need more climate stories, less graphs and maps.

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Picture shows drought effects in the Vinuela reservoir, in La Vinuela, on August 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JORGE GUERRERO (Photo credit should read JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)

The basic findings from the State of the Climate report, which diagnosed 2016, are summarized at NOAA’s website:

  • Greenhouse gases were the highest on record.
  • Global surface temperature was the highest on record.
  • Average sea surface temperature was the highest on record.
  • Global upper-ocean heat content neared record high.
  • Global sea level was the highest on record.
  • Arctic sea ice coverage was at or near record low.
  • Tropical cyclones (globally) were above-average overall.

These finding continue with a story that has emerged in report after report (at least those done carefully and credibly). There are opinion or grey literature (not peer-reviewed) efforts out there that say odd things and advance certain agendas. However, the message is pretty clear if you consume peer-reviewed science reported by National Academies, NASA, NOAA, National Climate Assessment, American Association for the Advancement of Science, IPCC, and the majority of published journal studies.

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A customer grabs Publix Super Markets Inc. brand purified water bottles at the company’s store ahead of Hurricane Matthew making landfall in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Hurricane Matthew has thousands fleeing the U.S. Southeast where it’s expected to batter the coastline and threaten electricity supplies to more than 1 million people. Potential losses are seen as high as $15 billion. Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

These reports are clearly providing ample warning but does the public really pay attention and consume the information the way we as scientists do? Or do they just treat them the way many of us do when the “Check Engine” light comes on in our cars? New data does suggest that public is paying attention. The recent report, Climate Change in the American Mind (May 2017) says

More than half of Americans (58%) believe climate change is mostly human caused. That’s the highest level measured since our surveys began in 2008. By contrast,…

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