Graphs and numbers make way for human stories on climate change

United Nations experts are urging scientists to use human stories to help the public identify with climate change. If people are unaware of the benefits of switching to a greener lifestyle, experts fear scientists' warnings will fall on deaf ears.

Thibault Camus/AP
A man uses a dinghy boat in a flooded street of the island of Vaux, west of Paris, on Jan. 30. Rivers swollen by France's heaviest rains in 50 years have engulfed Paris, swallowed up gardens and roads, and raised concerns about climate change. The United Nations is urging scientists to use human stories to talk to the public about climate change.

Scientists should ease off using graphs and numbers to talk to the public about climate change and instead speak through human stories and colorful metaphors, or climate warnings may fall on deaf ears, United Nations experts say.

Global warming, for example, can be described as a "heat-trapping blanket" – where burning fossil fuels makes the blanket thicker, raising the temperature of the planet, they say in a guide published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Climate change can feel distant and intangible, and yet it's never been more important to make sure the science around it is heard and understood," said Roz Pidcock, who commissioned the guide.

With hurricanes, floods, and other impacts of climate change becoming increasingly destructive, countries urgently need to step up their ambitions to cut emissions if they are to keep global warming within safe limits, say experts.

But efforts to spur climate action will be wasted unless scientists do a better job of explaining climate issues, Mr. Pidcock said in a webinar event.

Jamie Coles from Bax & Company, a consultancy that works on science and technology issues, said that when it comes to climate, "we're still dancing around the severity of the problem."

"The public may be talking more about climate change than before but they don't necessarily understand its imminent and severe impact, such as the threat that rising sea levels pose to island nations," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.

Adam Corner, one of the authors of the IPCC report, said that uncertainty around climate change – such as how rainfall patterns will change with rising global temperatures – could lead to the public thinking "scientists don't actually know anything."

"Leading with what you do know, such as the consensus on how human activity is affecting the climate, is a useful communication tool and builds trust with your audience," said Mr. Corner, who is research director at Climate Outreach, a British think tank.

To help people identify with climate change, scientists need to "get out of their specialist bubble" and instead use examples that relate to people's everyday lives, said Corner.

"Instead of talking about emissions trajectories, for example, why not discuss the health benefits of decarbonization – like cleaner air?" he asked.

If people are unaware of the benefits of a particular change in lifestyle, they are less likely to make the switch to greener options, according to Mr. Coles.

"We're telling people to stop driving diesel cars and go electric to reduce emissions – and that's great," he said.

"But what does it really mean? I'm not sure the public understands why they should drive electric cars, or how the ensuing reduction in emissions would benefit them," he added.

Focusing on abstract ideas such as global temperature targets could even provoke an unintended reaction in cold parts of the world where a temperature increase of two degrees would be welcome, says the IPCC guide.

Metaphors and analogies can also help express complex ideas. For example, "loaded dice" can explain how climate change makes some extreme weather events more likely, the IPCC says.

Showing the human face of climate change – be it a farmer battling drought or a neighbor paying their electricity bill – is also important, explained Corner.

Images help people identify with the issue, so long as they show "real people" rather than "classic" representations of climate change like polar bears or deforestation, he added.

The IPCC guide, published last week, says showcasing solutions to climate change can also trigger positive reactions regardless of people's beliefs.

Scientists are not the only ones trying to boost public awareness of climate change.

In Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, artists have put together an hour-long dance show that challenges audiences to consider how humans will survive if large parts of the world become uninhabitable.

In northern Burkina Faso, journalists and aid workers have developed a guide that translates French and English meteorological terms into the more colorful phrases that local farmers use. A solar eclipse, for example, is when "the cat catches the sun."

Ultimately, the fact that scientific papers and assessments are published is not enough, said Pidcock.

"We have to make sure that information reaches the audiences who need it."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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