Climate Crisis

No Room for Doom and Gloom in Climate Talks

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Treating every day as Earth Day is one way to lessen the despair that surrounds the climate crisis. (Thomas Wojick)

Educating others about climate change in a nonthreatening way is a challenge. Heck, getting people to even pay attention to the crisis is difficult.

But educating and mobilizing politicians, policymakers, municipal officials, business owners, civic leaders, students, and the public about this emergency is the only way to confront the problem before it’s too late. The clock is ticking. There’s no time to waste.

But despite this sense of urgency, the manner in which climate change is communicated needs to move away from science and doom and gloom to hopefulness and solutions, according to Jennifer West, the coastal training program coordinator for the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

“Crisis messaging doesn’t work,” West said. “People get numb and feel hopeless. It’s important to talk about successes to give people hope. Hope promotes discourse and action.”

The Scituate resident has been communicating with audiences about climate change since 2014, after finishing a yearlong training with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). She has spent the past eight years speaking with city and town officials, state and federal employees, nonprofits, college students, and consultants about how to talk about climate change.

West, president-elect of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association board, said it’s about telling stories that resonate with audiences. She noted 70% of Americans think climate change is happening, but 65% never or only occasionally talk about it — mostly because they’re not confident enough to talk about it correctly, she said.

She said effective climate action requires productive public dialogue and civic engagement, noting hopeful people are more likely to discuss global warming with friends and family. She said the focus should be on the 93% who acknowledge climate change and not on the minority that denies the obvious.

Everyone can, and should, play a role, by sharing solutions and advocating for change, because conversations about climate change also address clean air and water, health care, and the economy.

But explaining the scale of the climate crisis — one of the biggest challenges humankind has faced — can be overwhelming, leading people to lose interest. Their eyes glaze over. It’s both daunting to communicate and comprehend. The best way to get past this disillusionment, according to West, is to convey a hopeful message focused on solutions, both large and small that can be tackled by a school, a business, a municipality, or a neighborhood. She said group efforts empower action.

Starting a community garden in an abandoned lot, for example, builds community and soil; helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions; absorbs rain to help reduce stormwater runoff; feeds local people with local food; and helps increase local property values.

Organizing neighbors to install native plants in their gardens to create pollinator pathways boosts populations of bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Getting others to replace sections of their lawns with native shrubs and trees will help cool the neighborhood.

Climate change is not just about science, 1.5 degrees Celsius, warming temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting ice sheets, and sea-level rise. It’s also an issue of justice. The poor and marginalized are often hit the hardest, even though they contribute the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. So solving the climate crisis also requires addressing the injustices it’s creating.

To address the challenges presented by climate change, NNOCCI teaches people need to understand three things:

Why it matters to society. Protecting habitats and ecosystems benefits us; future generations depend on the decisions and plans we make today; showing concern for the welfare of others is the right thing to do.

How climate change works. Plants grow by using the carbon dioxide that animals exhale, thus some CO2 is part of normal life processes, but we are also adding carbon dioxide to the air when we burn oil, coal, and methane for energy; the atmosphere is like a blanket that surrounds the earth and when we burn fossil fuels we add carbon dioxide which thickens this metaphorical blanket; this rampant carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere and ocean where it causes problems for the Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

How to improve the situation. Move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy; reduce demand for and use of fossil fuels; empower others to raise the topic of climate change in more settings.

Note: To contact Jennifer West about a possible presentation, send an email to jennifer.west@dem.ri.gov. To watch a video of one of her talks, click here.

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