Climate Communication and Hospitality: Making the Conversation More Welcoming

Fred Clark’s Slacktivist is one of my favorite blogs. Fred is a liberal Baptist who writes brilliantly about ethics and religion. Also Buffy the Vampire Slayer, journalism, mobile home communities… and how those things relate to ethics and religion. One of his frequent topics is evangelism. He points out that evangelism means “hospitality,” but very few people treat it that way. He does, and his comments section is home to a thriving conversation among Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Christians of all sects, and probably people of several faiths I’ve missed.

I have rather more tolerance for conversion attempts than most people. If a Jehovah’s Witness comes to my door, I’m likely to invite them in, feed them pumpkin bread, and spend an enjoyable half hour arguing theology. But nothing, from the well-fed door-to-door debate service to the Chick Tracts that kids used to give out at Orleans Elementary, has ever caused me to question my Jewish faith. Fred, while he hasn’t caused me to question it either, but unlike the others has actually managed to share the appeal of the faith he’s talking about.

Is science communication hospitality, or is it a conversion attempt? We often treat it like the latter, and for good reason: whether people accept the existence of climate change, evolution, germs, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria affects the well-being of everyone on earth. But would we be more effective if we focused on hospitality?

I think the answer is actually a bit complicated. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If my neighbor believes in no gods, one god, or 20 gods, it neither breaks my arm, nor steals my purse.” If my neighbor believes that our town doesn’t need to adapt to a changing climate, it has the potential to do me a great deal of harm.

On the other hand, if I walk up to my neighbor with a pamphlet and a lecture, I’m not likely to get much of anywhere. I’m making the same mistake as someone who thinks, “Have you heard about Jesus Christ?” is an effective opener. (“No, man, I live under a rock.”) If I invite my neighbor over for pumpkin bread, and ask them what they really believe, and why they believe it—start a dialogue that assumes that they disagree for reasons other than stupidity or ignorance—I may get a lot further.

People disbelieve in, or avoid or ignore, climate change for a lot of reasons. These reasons are not unique to climate deniers—they are types of self-protection, biased information seeking, and need to fit in that most people are prone to one way or another. I’ll explore some of these reasons in future posts. For now, I’ll just say that climate communicators might be more effective if we understood our opponents more deeply. And that may take some hospitality.

Before anyone jumps on me, I’m not arguing here for false balance on talk shows and similar nonsense. There are a lot of professional deniers who don’t argue in good faith, and they are always going to try to derail the conversation. But there are even more people who hold legitimately acquired and often complicated opinions, and we need a real, working model of how they think. Treating them like fellow human beings, rather than assuming they’re stupid or ignorant, can go a long way.

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Dreams and Bones: What I Learned From Pete Seeger

I woke up this morning to an e-mail from my sister, letting me know that Pete Seeger had died. Rebecca said, recalling one of his concerts:

“After dorkily waiting for several minutes to shake his hand and tell him I was honored to meet him and I grew up on his music, I left the conference hall. He walked out behind me and looked up. The weather was sunny and lovely, and apparently it made him happy, so he yodeled. And I thought, this has made my year. And also: I have to call Mom and Dad right away.”

We both grew up on his music. As I’ve started to think about sharing my values with my own children, I’ve realized how much my parents passed on through Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie…

Pete Seeger taught me about stewardship, being a part of nature and taking care of it at the same time:

He taught me to work for change–and to have confidence that it will make a difference:

He taught me to question the status quo:

And he taught me that it matters not only how well you sing, but how many people you can get to sing along.

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Building the Internet of (Sustainable) Things

This morning I went to’s 3rd anniversary celebration, at which they accepted this year’s Innovations in American Government Award from the Asch Center. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend included, in her list of awesome things to come out of federal challenges, “clothing that tells you about the quality of the air you’re breathing—how cool is that?” That’s a paraphrase from memory, but she definitely said it was “cool.”

Though she didn’t call them out by name, she was referring to Conscious Clothing, winners of HHS and EPA’s My Air, My Health challenge. I was lucky enough to work on that challenge as a fellow. Like Townsend, I thought their prototype for air-and-heart-rate-sensing athletic clothing was pretty cool. It represents a type of environmental communication that may work better than the well-designed but overwhelming explanations I discussed yesterday.

Conscious Clothing demo

The Conscious Clothing designers demo their prototype to the EPA Innovation Team at the HHS HealthDataPalooza 2013. Dustin Renwick, model/guinea pig.

Instead of a storm surge of information on every conceivable aspect of climate change, Conscious Clothing tells you about your immediate environment. This is a particularly exciting aspect of the much-vaunted Internet of Things. We can make invisible, long-term problems into immediate and concrete ones. We can make opportunities to be part of the solution salient and bite-sized.  Salience is a big deal, psychologically—things that are right in front of us are easier to think about, and easier to deal with.

Other recent technologies that follow this same strategy include Air Quality Egg, Kill-a-Watt, and Opower’s smart thermostats. All have measurable effects on people’s willingness and ability to save energy—Opower in particular gets its products into the homes of people who aren’t green geeks, who just want to save money on their electric bills. This is an underrated, but extraordinarily effective, form of communication.

I’d like to see more devices and apps that embed environmental information in the everyday world, rather than lumping it all together in dedicated blogs and museum exhibits. Walk past a LEED-certified building and learn about its innovative green roof. Buy garden seeds and get suggestions for how to avoid run-off pollution in your garden. As augmented reality improves and more Things get on the internet, we could make environmental problems as easy to see as potholes, and chances to help just as easy to spot.

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Helpless at the Museum: What If You Don’t Feel Like Part of the Solution?

A few years ago—the internet tells me it was 2010—the Field Museum in Chicago put on a climate change exhibit. This was at the start of my career transition, and in fact I had just stopped working onva tenure portfolio in favor of a psychology-of-sustainability Twitter feed, so I was pretty excited to go. (Hint to people thinking about leaving academia: Twitter is a lot more fun than a tenure portfolio.)

The Chicago Journal thought the exhibit "lacks urgency."

Chicago under water at the Field Museum – photo by D. Finnin, at

The Field is the best museum I know for telling stories, and I wanted to see how they handled such a complicated topic. I’d been immersed in science communication literature, and as I was walking through I thought they did a pretty good job. They emphasized the known science, but also discussed the real areas of uncertainty. They had hands-on demos showing how climate change would affect local ecosystems. They had lots of sections on both large-scale and personal solutions—things you could do better, things you could fight for society to do better. The exhibit ended with an entire room devoted to comparing renewable energy sources. I always want to see more talk about solutions, so this made me pretty happy. I came out of the exhibit feeling energized and ready to tweet about what a great job they’d done.

Not so, my companions. My wife and a visiting friend—ecologically-minded people who recycle and eat locally, and who bought CFCs before they were cool—both found the exhibit incredibly depressing. They felt like nothing they could do would make a difference, and any resources they needed to survive were too many. They felt helpless. And I, immersed in the climate communication research, had no idea what to say or do.

I’ve seen the figures, and I firmly believe that the needed change is possible—that working together as a society, we can create carbon-neutral communities with a high quality of life. That sustainability doesn’t have to be Spartan. That everyone has something meaningful to contribute to the solutions. That the fact that I gave up my car (and my nightmare commute) and quit my job (for a better one) to focus on environmental issues doesn’t need to be a model for everyone else—that it’s okay that some people are sustainability professionals, and some people are librarians who just try to live lightly on the earth.

And yet, among my friends and family, only the sustainability professionals seem optimistic. Correlation? Causation in either direction? People shouldn’t need to devote themselves to environmental change full-time in order to feel empowered to act.

I still don’t know the answer to this one. It’s a reminder that the psychology research doesn’t always give the full story, and sometimes doesn’t get you anywhere close to the message you want to share. By the book communication is no guarantee—I think if it were, climate messages would have gotten a lot further than they have.

This is one of the open, urgent questions. There are many people out there who know that climate change exists, and want to stop it, but feel helpless and overwhelmed whenever it comes up. They have enormous, largely unused potential to make a real difference. How can we talk about climate change in a way that empowers them?

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Should Climate Communicators Get “On Message”?

Last week I went to a talk by Joe Romm—a really excellent evening discussing climate communication with a guy who has a fair amount of experience doing it right.  We got to see the trailer for Years of Living Dangerously, which looks pretty awesome.  You often hear complaints that climate evangelists spend too much time talking about glaciers and polar bears—this is going to be on-the-ground stories about individual human beings in every part of the globe.

Joe offered up another complaint that I’ve heard a lot, which is that climate deniers are always on message when they talk.  They offer up a few sound bites, over and over, and get a lot of air time for it.  Meanwhile, advocates of action are all over the place, saying whatever they think will be most effective at any given time, and frequently failing to get their points across.

There’s some truth to this complaint—repetition really is persuasive, and a well-organized campaign with one or two key messages is a lot more effective than a bunch of disconnected voices.

I don’t think we can complain any more that climate advocates are entirely disconnected.  I got to see the community dialogue in person at ScienceOnline Climate last year, and people are talking to each other, making plans, and building on each other’s work.  It just happens that when you’re talking about 99.99mumble percent of the scientific results, you end up with a lot more detail than if you’ve made up a few basic “facts.”

Also, scientists get trained from a young age to make their work stand out from everyone else’s—most especially from everyone else whose findings agree with theirs.  Sounding just like everyone else is great if you’re essentially working on one advertising campaign together (or quoting said campaign).  It’s terrible for a scientific career.

But what I actually thought about this time—and you can tell I’m a scientist because it took me six paragraphs to get here—is what on-message climate advocacy would actually look like.  If we had to pick one message, what would it be?  Some possibilities:

  • The “grand trio” of climate attitudes: “Climate change exists, it’s caused by human activity, and we can do something about it.”
  • Make it personal: “Climate change is going to make things harder for you, your town, your family—be prepared.”
  • Focus on solutions: “We need to do X, Y, & Z”
  • Focus on the findings: “99 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, and the 1 remaining guy is actually a biologist.”
  • Think of the children: “Today’s children will grow up in a world with less food, less security, and worse weather—if we don’t do something now.”

There are probably dozens of other possibilities.  And I can immediately see why no one has settled on one—all of these may be appropriate with different audiences, at different times.  If you’re trying to persuade skeptics, you’ll say different things than if you’re trying to energize existing allies to act.

What’s your “one message”?  And how can we get our point(s) across without actually herding all the cats into a single corral?

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The Unfamiliar Apocalypse

The world has always been about to end.  When I was growing up, it was World War 3.  It was the most well-documented of modern wars, so we all knew the shape of the thing.  Someone would mistake a flock of birds or a computer error for nuclear warhead, and they’d launch all their missiles, and then the other side would launch all their missiles, and that would be the end.  Depending on your literary bent, a few people might survive in bomb shelters, their children growing up as very well-armed mutants.

Charlie Stross has pointed out that World War 3 is topologically equivalent to the return of Cthulhu.

The most common nuclear war/Cthulhu/cometary impact/Rapture story (if such things leave room for stories) is the cozy catastrophe.  A few survivors band together.  Civilization has fallen away, leaving small tight-knit groups to guard their resources and each other.  They live with medieval technology and whatever additions they’ve been able to cobble together from the instructions in preserved encyclopedias.  S. M. Stirling‘s Change books (which I loved the first 5 or so of, it should be said) are the epitome of this form–all the distraction of radiation and so on is forgone, replaced by an unknown force that prevents the use of technology above a certain level.  The world is ruled by Neopagans and medieval re-enactors.  This is quite common in cozy catastrophes, by the way: the reader’s favorite groups, unappreciated in our impersonal modern civilization, turn out to have exactly the skills required in the new world.

A lot of people think about climate change and/or peak oil in the familiar terms of the cozy catastrophe.  They find response strategies appropriate to the Rapture.  Get away from civilization.  Start a homestead.  Learn to keep bees and milk goats.  Assume that cities will fall apart and crowds will riot, and that your best bet is to be far away from targets.

But climate change is not topologically equivalent to nuclear war.  Nuclear war is (mostly) all or nothing.  There is one dramatic event; you have to get through it, and then lay low during the aftermath.  And there’s no missing it.  When the bombs fall and the dead rise, everybody will know, and everybody will react.

Climate change is slow and incremental.  It has already started; the effects are measurable and perceptible.  Some people notice, and some people don’t, and some people who notice aren’t yet alarmed.  Riots are sparse.  Fuel prices rise slowly, but the fuel itself doesn’t disappear overnight.  When peak oil comes (or when we realize we’ve overshot it by 20 years), access will decrease slowly.  If we’re not careful, we’ll get to a very bad place, very slowly–but people who are in a very bad place don’t react like people who are surprised.  They don’t panic, and things don’t collapse so much as disintegrate or simply change–slowly.

So, no riots.  No return to medieval technology, either.  Medieval tech levels depend on a low population density, as much as modern ones depend on a high population density.  And if we implement any solutions, no matter how imperfect or inadequate, many of them will be high-tech solutions.  There will be beekeeping and wind farms.  There will be solar-powered laptops.  There will be sustainability coordinators calling you through the carefully maintained cell phone network to let you know that electricity is rationed tonight and you need to turn off your lights at 8.  There will be cities with local food grown on green roofs, and country homesteads networking with people around the world for efficient organic gardening techniques, and people going hungry because we don’t have the resources for artificial fertilizers, and a ban on plastic packaging because we need that oil to make sterile medical supplies.

If we survive this, it’s not going to be in isolation.  It’s going to be in, and because of, civilization.  This problem is too big to handle in small homesteads with no connection to the outside world, or in 100-person tribes of east African plains apes.  All of the solutions I’ve seen–not just the ones that will minimize the warming, but the ones that will help us adapt to it–depend on the resources of a large and reasonably well-coordinated civilization.  We currently have one of those.  We also have people who are trying to tear it down, who insist that it’s not good for anything.  These are also, in many cases, the people insisting that climate change is not a real problem.  This is not a coincidence.

Much as my society drives me crazy sometimes, I am inextricably intertwined with it.  I cannot get through this by myself.  I cannot huddle off the grid and wait for the storm to blow over.  The evidence very strongly supports the idea that we are all in this together.


Most of this essay appeared a couple of years ago in my private blog. I went to write a new post on the topic, but realized that I still think basically the same thing I did then, except that I’ve gotten bored with the Change series.

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Why Green Minds?

In 2005, I was an assistant professor of psychology at a small midwestern tech school.  I was fascinated with the ways that we rewrite our perceptions of the world to fit our beliefs and expectations, to fit our memories into neat stories.  And I was fascinated with how these revisions play out in the world.  I studied medical error, nanotechnology, and how we get swept up by really good books.  And climate change.

It was climate change that stuck.  Over the next few years, I moved from “studying sustainable behavior as one application of cognitive psychology” to “learning everything I can about climate change and sustainability.”  In 2011, I found this interesting enough—and important enough—to leave academia for an environmental policy fellowship in DC.  One way or another, I’ve been working on climate issues ever since.

The central climate change problem is, ultimately, a psychological one.  People do things that make the problem worse, or don’t do things to improve it, because of what’s going on in their heads.  Maybe they don’t believe the problem exists, or they think the costs of doing something are too severe.  Maybe they don’t think any action they can take will do any good.

This is what has to change.  We have a bucket of possible solutions, but instead of arguing over which ones are the best, too much of the debate is taken up by the “question” of whether we should use any of them.  Change minds, and we’ll be able to spend more time implementing and improving solutions.

So we need to know the baseline facts in order to know what accurate, action-provoking mental states might look like.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • The causes of climate change are simple.  We know exactly what sorts of emissions cause it, and what the sources are.  We know that reducing those emissions would not only address climate change, but improve human health, and end up with more of the world’s energy being produced locally and peacefully.  We know that these changes in energy sources need to be made eventually, because the current sources will eventually run out.  We know that the longer we delay these changes, the more they will cost.  We know that longer delays would still allow us to compensate for many climate change effects, but would also be much more expensive.
  • The effects of climate change are complicated.  Raise the average global temperature, and the effects on weather and climate vary from place to place.  Some places will actually get colder, some of the time.  In the Midwest, you can expect a longer growing season, but with less rain, and shorter winters with more snow compressed into more extreme storms.  In DC, we’re planning for sea level rise, worse storms, and higher temperatures (but relatively little temperature rise relative to much of the rest of the U.S.).  In parallel with atmospheric effects, the ocean temperature changes at a different rate, along with acidity.  Ocean and air temperature interact in only semi-predictable ways.  There is genuine controversy over the effect on hurricanes and other major storms–maybe there will be more of them, maybe fewer but more extreme.
  • Systems theory is crack, even when the system in question is your own planetary climate.  Everything interacts with everything else in a way that is both scary and beautiful.
  • Humans react badly to fear.  We would rather “understand” a situation than be right about it.  We’d rather be wrong than lose something we care about.  The people most likely to deny climate change are those whose career and status depend on the current energy infrastructure.  The best way around this is to offer them outs.  Some of these are useful–getting oil companies to start making money off of wind power is good. Some are greenwashing–getting massive polluters to improve their office recycling rate isn’t exactly bad, but it’s not exactly addressing the core issue either.  Meanwhile, some of the people who believe there’s a problem also believe it’s too late to do anything about it, which is an excellent way of making it too late to do anything about it.  People who feel helpless likewise need outs–things that can be done that are affordable for the recession-pressed household.

I still think the human mind is fascinating in all its screwed-up glory—I can get kind of boom-de-yada about it if you catch me in the right mood.  This is my attempt to explore how we can use that awesomeness to solve one of the biggest problems our species has ever faced.  What features can we hack to make the planet a better place?  What bugs do we need to find workarounds for?  What can we do to make our minds more green?


I’m a scientist, and source obsessively.  Parts of this essay appeared a couple of years ago in my private blog, in substantially different form. Hello to the two people who saw it first there!

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