What could zombies and climate change possibly have in common? According to Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia (UGA) Athletic Association Professor of Geography and the Director of UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, the answer is quite a lot.
Shepherd delivered a lecture entitled “Zombies, Sports, and Cola: Implications for Communicating Weather and Climate Change,” during which he addressed six key challenges facing for communicating weather and climate events. These challenges, he said, are why climate change skepticism arguments have continued to live on like zombies despite the the abundance of scientific evidence refuting them.
In light of recent events, communication about climate and weather is arguably more prominent than ever. Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Ophelia might make us wonder whether we are over-communicating the threat of natural disasters due to the easy accessibility of social media and whether we are failing as communicators if we advise families to evacuate to areas of safety when, in fact, the risk was not as large as initially expected. With stubborn tendencies of many people who believe that hurricanes do not pose any real danger to them, when should we draw the line about emphasizing the risks posed by a hurricane? Are we overly exaggerating the issue to ensure public safety?
Linguistic challenges also persist because the terms may be interpreted differently by scientists and the public. For instance, communicators might want to avoid the words “believe” or “consensus,” so that climate change is viewed as a fact grounded in evidence rather than an opinion. Similarly, scientists may understand a “theory” as an idea backed by scientific consensus; however, the public might view this term as an indication that an idea is merely a hunch which may or may not be true.
In addition, we must take steps to decrease the perception of uncertainty surrounding the issue of global warming in order to effectively communicate. Shepherd referenced the O.J. Simpson trial to make this point, noting that in a court case, if a defendant can show any reasonable doubt that he committed a crime, he can get the suspect off the hook. But why should we apply this way of thinking to climate science? Just because there are uncertainties in climate science doesn’t mean that useful, critical information doesn’t already exist, Shepherd said.
This issue may be partially due to the false equivalency perspective in the media. From its very core, journalism is supposed to be unbiased and show multiple sides of an issue. But is this fair? Is the media really unbiased if it does not show proportional representation of both perspectives? According to a 2008 study by Yale, only 11% of Americans are dismissive of the idea of global warming, even though this is not always clear from media representation of the issue.
So as communicators, what tangible steps can we take to overcome these challenges? According to Shepherd, we can begin by increasing climate literacy through education, which will, in turn, assist in overcoming misinformed public perceptions. Many people mistakenly believe tornadoes, floods, or similar extreme weather events are dangerous, when, in fact, heat actually kills ten times more people each year than any other such event, according to National Geographic. This is critical for the public to be aware of because rising temperatures are one of the most prevalent effects of current climate change trends.
Shepherd concluded his lecture with a call to action. We must find common ground. To do so, we must be forthright about the risks surrounding global warming. We must communicate the direct impact of climate change to each individual. For instance, California’s drought does not just affect California; it has widespread impacts on food supply. California produces roughly 99% of U.S. almonds, 91% of U.S grapes, 95% of U.S. broccoli, and 74% of U.S. lettuce. If we communicated this information to the public, would they be more likely to see it as a tangible issue with very real effects that aren’t just limited to the long-term?
The key take-away point from Shepherd’s talk is this: when you’re having a conversation with a friend and he or she brings up an argument such as “Antarctica is gaining ice, not losing it” or “there’s no certain consensus,” be cognizant of the strategies you use to refute these zombie climate myths. Strategic communication can lead to effective behavior and attitude changes. And we can defeat those persistent zombies.
To learn more:
This article, by the Guardian, does a great job of debunking a well-known “zombie climate myth.” You can also learn more about Shepherd’s thoughts through his Ted Talk: