While efforts to stall action on climate are also sure to continue and it is unlikely a technical report will capture most Americans’ attention or inspire action, I think the release of the draft NCA and discussions underway hold promise.
If it wasn’t clear already, we can argue about scientific certainty all we want but the reality is that climate impacts are occurring already and they are happening more rapidly than anticipated. Public debate over climate change was already shifting to impacts due to the year of extreme weather events we experienced in 2012. The NCA helps focus the conversation by presenting the consensus of scientific opinion, albeit conservative, around regional impacts and key trends such as sea level rise.
The NCA sends out a loud signal that if current emission levels continue, we may see temperatures increases of up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius). Many policy efforts and climate action plans address a 3.6-degree F (2 degrees Celsius) temperature increase at most so the draft report has the potential to increase urgency in setting more aggressive reduction targets.
The 3rd National Climate Assessment was developed with help from hundreds of experts and organizations. This represents a shift in the approach from one based on releasing a report every four years to an emphasis on an ongoing assessment and sustained discussion of impacts. The key will be for climate leaders to keep up the momentum and determine how best to bridge quickly to what can be done to both mitigate and prepare for impacts.
There are benefits to having a sustainable conversation around climate impacts. For many Americans, climate change has seemed distant in time and space. Moving into impacts, particularly local trends, and what to do about them has the potential to increase the sense of urgency and desire for action.
At the same time, there are complexities involved, such as how to turn up the dial on impacts without contributing to fatalism, how to drive the conversation in the absence of extreme weather events (if we are to be so lucky to have a reprieve), how to portray near-term versus more long-term impacts, remaining uncertainty around impact trends, and finally and perhaps most importantly, how to address the many inequities that are at risk of intensifying as the planet warms.
While it is difficult to wrap the mind around what a 10-degree F temperature increase would mean for human life on the planet, the good news is that researchers are finding out where the public is at in terms of understanding climate impacts and are learning that the subtle changes (i.e. shifts in the growing season in a region) spark interest and concern as much as more catastrophic events. This suggests that we don’t need to wait for impacts to get worse or hit people directly to start climate impact and preparation conversations.
With that in mind, Climate Access, with the help of our partners Climate Nexus and advisory board member, Dr. Ed Maibach (director of George Mason University’s Center of Climate Change Communication and co-chair of the public engagement and outreach working group of the NCADAC) just released a webcastfocused on how to talk about climate impacts and the importance of the NCA report. Also, we are presenting a roundtable discussion “Inside the National Climate Assessment: Communicating Climate Impacts” roundtable on Tuesday January 22 from 1-2:30 p.m. EST (10-11:30 a.m PST) featuring leading climate communication experts Susan Joy Hassol, senior science writer for the NCA, and Susanne Moser, who is on the federal advisory committee to the NCA.
In the meantime, check out the draft NCA report and take advantage of the public comment period. There is a clear opportunity for communicators and public engagement specialists to let NCADAC know how climate impact information could be better presented to help promote public understanding of the risks and the type of ongoing dialogue about response to those impacts that is needed. We are also interested in learning how practitioners are using the NCA to shape their outreach efforts so please drop us a line at email@example.com.
Recently I read an interview of Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, in the Washington Post, where he reflected on the stunning success of Upworthy in its first year of operation as a website for viral content. Pariser said, “In general, I would say we focus on the things that are visual, meaningful and shareable — that’s our triad and I think that’s served us well.”
“Climate resiliency” is a new buzzword in environmental communications. Buzzwords are exciting because when successful, they convey important concepts in a compact and compelling way. At the same time, it is easy to assume audience understanding and for terms to be co-opted over time.
Climate Access is an initiative of The Resource Innovation Group's Social Capital Project. We are grateful to our founding partners, the Stonehouse Standing Circle and the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society.