Climate change’s PR problem

This is a rant.

Reading about climate change and Lake Tahoe, I notice a pattern that makes me see clearly why climate change has a PR problem. Climate change isn’t new — and neither is the manner in which it’s reported upon. This is not an atypical article.

Here are the kinds of phrases most journalists and climate change scientists use:

Average annual clarity also decreased 4.8 feet to 73.1 feet, although it’s still more clear than it was in 1997 when clarity was 64.1 feet.

Although it was a decrease of .7 degrees from the previous year, it was still the fourth warmest on record and continues an overall warming trend.

Although the Lake Tahoe region enjoyed a slightly snowier-than-normal winter after the period covered in the latest data, Schladow doesn’t expect the warming trend to change much.

So, things are getting sorta worse, but not the worst they’ve been, but although it snowed a lot last year, we actually don’t expect things to get better.

I am not surprised that lay-people read articles like this and come away thinking “well, I’m not convinced.” And you shouldn’t be surprised either.

Why do we not read the following in these kinds of articles?

If we don’t do something within the next 5 years, we will have doomed our children and grand-children to a catastrophic near-extinction event.

Hotter summers, colder winters, and rising sea levels will make mass migration a reality. This will absolutely happen if we do nothing now.

We’re literally relying on Elon Musk and NASA to make humanity a multi-planet species, because if they fail, we’re going to lose 90% of our population.

In other words, how are we OK being flabbergasted by what we read in the mainstream media about our national politics (he’ll be impeached, just give it some time, it’s practically inevitable) but the PR we see in mainstream media on one of the most far-reaching, scientifically sound predictions into the future remains mired in vernacular that makes the whole thing sound like it’s changing slowly and we’ve got plenty of time? Who’s going to be driven to action when they read that the temperature has changed by 7 tenths of a degree?

Yes, it’s hyperbole. That’s the point. Not being hyperbolic is severely hurting public perception of this issue. It’s totally possible to catch someone’s attention with a headline and drive home these points and still back them up with appropriate evidence. The evidence isn’t the argument, though! The argument is that humanity is going to seriously suffer if we don’t do something. That’s what we need to read over and over again in the press. Not the evidence of 0.5″ of change in precipitation here, half a degree of global temperature change there.

Judging by the recent political climate, we cannot assume the average reader has any understanding of statistics, the scientific method, and dare I say critical thinking. I wish we could, but we can’t. We just can’t. The way this article was written, with a half-measure of conviction and numbers with scientific-sounding decimal points (4.8 feet to 73.1 feet, wow they must be measuring really closely)! It increased by 5 feet. Why is that important?

I fear articles like this do more harm than good, because they give the layperson reasonable cause to be doubtful. And it trickles into our politics, and it means we may not actually succeed in changing things for the better.