More communication of climate change science won't spur problem solving, says CU researcher

February 16, 2007

The notion that more information about the science of human-caused climate change will spur effective problem solving by American society is just flat wrong, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder climate policy analyst.

Even the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released Feb. 2, which painted a bleak global portrait of rising seas and temperatures due to human activity, is unlikely by itself to lead to meaningful mitigation or adaptation anytime soon, said Lisa Dilling of CU-Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. "Most people still don't feel the immediacy of the problem," she said. "And those that do are often left with a feeling of hopelessness."

Scientists and the news media have tended to emphasize the global nature of dramatic climate change in recent years, probably a less effective means of promoting societal action than pointing out actions and options that can make a difference, said Dilling. On the positive side, more city and state politicians and local business leaders are taking stands on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, often linking the issue with more immediate concerns like saving money or improving quality of life.

Dilling gave a presentation in a session titled "Communicating Climate Change: Strategies for Effective Engagement" at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held Feb. 15-19 in San Francisco. Dilling and scientist Susanne Moser of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder co-edited a new book titled "Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change," published in 2007 by Cambridge University Press.

"Climate change is a difficult topic to talk about, especially for nonexperts," said Dilling, who is affiliated with CU-Boulder's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at CIRES. "Most people don't connect driving their car or flipping on a light switch with emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. And climate change is not experienced in the same ways as immediate problems like job losses or traffic jams."

Dilling and Moser cited studies showing 90 percent of the U.S. population had heard of global warming and many people judged the problem to be "serious or very serious." But ironically, only about one third of Americans find the issue "worrisome," a percentage that had been on a downward trend until very recently, they said.

"What we do know is that handing out fliers about the consequences of climate change and assuming people will change their ways doesn't work," she said. "Communication campaigns that focus on fear or guilt, especially without providing empowering and practical options, can backfire," she said. More successful are strategies that work to integrate climate issues with more immediate concerns of individuals, businesses and governments, Dilling said.

Motivation to respond to the effects of anthropogenic climate change is significantly higher in Alaska and other regions of the far north, where people are now experiencing warming temperatures, melting sea ice and eroding coastlines, said Dilling. "People in this region require less convincing of the reality and urgency of the issue and are primarily concerned with what to do about it," she said.

Outside of politics, growing numbers of American groups are taking on climate-change, including students, staff and faculty at educational institutions and people involved in faith-based organizations like churches keying in on planetary stewardship issues, she said.
CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Editors: Contents embargoed until 8:30 a.m. PST on Friday, Feb. 16. Dilling will participate in an AAAS session that day from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in Continental Ballroom 4 of the Hilton San Francisco.

University of Colorado at Boulder

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