Pew’s Climate Change FAQ vs. wonderingmind42

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has released an FAQ document (PDF) that it says will help people to distinguish between myth and reality. As they say,

The issue of climate change has received so much attention in recent years that it has become difficult for interested citizens and policymakers to separate facts from fiction. Climate change is one of the most cutting edge research fields in modern science, but the field has existed for more than a century and much knowledge has been established with high certainty and confidence. This FAQ clears up some of the most common misconceptions about the science of climate change.

The Pew climate change FAQ even touches on the communication problem

The Pew climate change FAQ even touches on the communication problem

The document covers misconceptions about the sun’s influence on climate change, the pre-industrial (non-anthropogenic) changes in climate, the data from the last decade, the question of whether or not there is a scientific consensus, 1970’s predictions of global cooling, and the role of water vapor. After the introduction, it has one page devoted to each of these six topics. It’s a straightforward rebuttal of some of the key arguments made by the climate crisis deniers.

The FAQ document is clear and concise, if a bit vanilla in design, so there’s nothing wrong with it per se. And the Pew Center’s web site contains other FAQ and “Facts and Figures” pages. Bu it’s all rather sleep-inducing…

Part of me wonders about whether this just continues to feed the frame of scientific debate about the issue. I can see a group like the Competitive Disinformation Institute very easily coming out with their own FAQ on the exact same topics where they cherry-pick the sources they want to support their counter-claims. And back and forth we go…

A few years ago, I thought we had moved past that. But the way things are going these days, I don’t know. The denialists are still getting traction. If not so much in the mainstream media, then certainly online and in books. Go ahead and do a search on Amazon for “global warming,” then have a look at just how many of the first page of hits (16) are books by denialists. Go ahead and count them, then come back here and post a comment with your answer and reactions.

Another part of me wonders why Pew, with all their resources, can’t come up with more engaging and relevant communication about the climate crisis. Shouldn’t this organization be able to mount a more compelling response to the seemingly endless debate?

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the YouTube video from a couple of years ago, The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See. Remember that one? OK, don’t click over and watch it just yet, because its creator made a revised and improved version called “How it All Ends,” embedded here for your viewing pleasure.

Chances are that you are among the 7 million people who has watched one or more of Greg Craven‘s (aka wonderingmind42) wonderful short videos on how to think about the climate crisis (well, you are now!). Incidentally, they are all indexed and being translated over at The Manpollo Project. I think there are something like 7 hours of video (you can also get them on a DVD).

By the way, one of The Manpollo Project’s stated aims is:

to shift the question often asked in popular culture from “Are we certain we’re responsible for global warming?” to “Given the risks and uncertainties of global warming, what is the best action to take?”

What's the Worst that Could Happen It turns out that Craven was offered a deal to turn the videos into a book (go figure). That book, What’s the Worst that Could Happen, is now out and costs just $10.

If my point is not obvious yet, let me spell it out. On one side we have a heavily-endowed charitable trust. On the other side, one person, a science teacher and parent (so it’s not like he has time on his hands). Which has had the greater impact on global warming discourse?

Now, of course, Pew has a certain audience for their FAQs, but does the public really want to read more “facts and figures?” I don’t want to dismiss Pew’s work, but I think their communication strategy is a bit old school. I can’t imagine they have reached anywhere near the audience for Craven’s videos.

And why were the videos so popular? Because he used the number-one social media channel (YouTube), had a compelling message (forget the debate, just bring on the precautionary principle), and presented it in an engaging and accessible manner (self-depricating humor and explosions, etc.).

Maybe this is an unfair comparison, but I do think this should give us some pause as we contemplate how to engage the public around the climate crisis.

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About Mark Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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4 Responses to Pew’s Climate Change FAQ vs. wonderingmind42

  1. mtstevo says:

    A useful study on terminology is Whitmarsh’s article in Public Understanding of Science–surveys in the UK to reveal similarities and differences on how people understand and respond to “global warming” v. “climate change.” It’s another nail in the coffin of the info-deficit model, but it also supports my own view that it’s fruitless to search for the perfect phrase. “Crisis” does have its chicken-little dimensions but it’s one of many ways to remind decision-makers that decisions need to be made, inaction is unacceptable.

    Also, at least one scientist (Hansen) uses the rhetoric of crisis…here’s a snippet from Yale’s e360
    “Politicians may have to make concessions on what is right for what is winnable. But as a scientist and a citizen, I believe the right course is very clear: The climate crisis demands a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and safely dispose of all emissions. And mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be permanently prohibited.”


  2. Leo Wiegman says:

    Mark, Great blog, by the way!!
    Yes, “climate crisis” sounds less benign than “global warming.” But I can’t think of a single scientist who regularly uses the term. I understand why Gore and his team use it. But for me “crisis” is too vague: crisis for whom? in what direction? why is a longer golf season a crisis? It also leads to knee-jerk reaction from the public that we have too many crises: health care crisis, foreclosure crisis, property tax crisis, etc. What possible difference can the average Jane or Joe make?
    Instead, I have come to state that we need to take “climate action” because we cause “climate disruption and destabilization” (two different but strongly related events). That leads straight to discussions of “climate solutions,” which is where we all want to spend more time. Avoiding the panic button terms is key. Sticking to the concrete-operational language seems more likely to produce social action and policy that help us mitigate and adapt to the climate shifts underway.

  3. Mark Meisner says:

    Thanks for your comments Leo. You may have noticed that I am following Al Gore’s use of “climate crisis” so far in the blog. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

  4. Leo Wiegman says:

    Dear Mark: Thanks for pointing out Greg Craven’s great short video. I–like many–rely on great orgs like Pew for the facts and figures for my own research and writing. Yet I completely agree that kind of information is most effective with an audience that is already moved into the “take action” column. Short stories and analogies–like Craven’s–about the underlying risk and opportunities (and not about the geeky techno details) are what we need most for the general public outreach on a whole host of different, related issues. For example, how do we explain the value and opportunities of smart grid technology to the public and their local elected and appointed leaders? Jon Krosnick and his group at Woods Institute @Stanford have good survey work on where the American public is on climate:
    I totally agree that the “global warming” label is inadequate, as is “climate change” both of which sound too benign. David Blockstein and I are pushing “climate disruption” (in a forthcoming book in which our Introduction is called “This is NOT global warming!” I like Craven’s use of “climate destabilization” with the light switch visual!

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