Climate Access hosted an online conversation on May 13 about how United States environmental communicators can build relationships with low-income and minority communities. Insights from Detroit, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Orleans, and southeastern coastal states enriched the conversation.

“The folks who are most impacted or most vulnerable are not at the planning table,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. She said low-income minority communities may have poor-quality housing, live in flood plains, lack infrastructure, and have few grocery stores nearby. During weather-related disasters, women become more likely to experience domestic abuse and sexual violence.

When weather-related disasters happen, authorities don’t always communicate with low-income housing residents, Patterson said. She recalled one flood in Mississippi where people returned to homes that “were contaminated with mold and other toxins.”

In Alabama, Patterson said, a black family was turned away by a nearby church during a tornado and returned home. As a result, almost all of the family died.

Environmental organizations can be part of the solution to climate-related social problems by building genuine, sincere relationships with low-income and minority communities. “A relationship takes time and takes investment,” said Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in the southeastern United States.

For minority communities, Patterson said, contacts from majority organizations can feel very “transactional.” “There is not enough attention to just building relationships,” she said.

Goodwine offered advice for minority community leaders who want to build connections with environmental organizations. “One of the key elements is being vigilant about seeing what people are working on besides your own circle of people. You can start to reach out to groups that don’t even know you exist.”

Approaching people by speaking about topics that interest them already is also valuable. Community activists may not think the issues they care about are connected to climate change. For example, said Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, the Detroit activists she has met care about improving safety, beautifying the city, getting rid of vacant lots, and taking care of trash. Planting rain gardens can beautify Detroit while helping the city adapt to climate change.


Photo Credit: buckshot.jones via Compfight cc

Freshwater Future’s staff went through a one-day training on environmental justice once they realized they needed to reach out to the urban communities in the Great Lakes region which are likely to be hit hard by global warming’s weather and flooding. The training was led by Judy Hatcher, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Local low-income and/or minority communities may be very familiar with the signs of global warming in their own backyards – or on their shores. “We literally live in a hurricane zone,” said Goodwine. “We became knowledgeable for how to watch for different changes in the environment.”

Goodwine observed trees falling along the shore and herbs not growing correctly. “It made me be more inquisitive as to erosion,” she said. This motivated her to learn more about sea level rise and climate change.

“I take examples from my daily life and what has happened and utilize it in inter-generational training,” Goodwine explained. Before she began talking about sea level rise with the Gullah/Geechee Nation, she said, her community thought of sea level rise as a problem which affected people in other countries.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is working to prevent erosion and preserve water quality by planting oyster beds in shoreline areas where people are unlikely to walk. “We have been evaluating areas where oysters grew over the generations,” she said. “Where the shore is more firm, we bag the oyster shells. The more that we have these oyster shells planted into our waterways, the more we have a barrier. There are a number of creatures that feed from the oyster beds. Other sea creatures lay their eggs in the oyster beds so they can have a safe haven.”


Photo Credit: Basenisa via Compfightcc

Cara Pike, director of Climate Access, said hands-on activities like planting oysters can help bring concepts of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion prevention into perspective for people who are new to these subjects.

Localized messaging matters to Goodwine as well. “We are place-based people. Staying there is always part of people’s ongoing life identity in this region. That’s the thing that galvanizes people who have been there for generations.”

Goodwine said she would like to see scientists share their resources by doing community-based environmental work and hiring staff from underrepresented groups.

Environmental organizations can also partner with local leaders. “We come in mostly as a way to provide some resources,” Baughman said. Freshwater Future links local organizations to small grants, professional expertise, and regional policy activism.

Reaching out to underrepresented communities “can be uncomfortable, it can be a little scary, but you have to do it,” Baughman said. “Start building authentic relationships. That trust has to be built on something real.”

Dr. Laura Akers, who works at Oregon Research Institute, has spent years studying what motivates social change movements. She studies both the positive motivations behind activism and the dangerous edges of movements that pose risks to the public.

Recently, Akers wrote about how evoking hope can help us avert disasters like global warming. As she emphasized in several blog posts:

If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.

Whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies… In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.

Research posted on the Climate Access website shows talking about climate change in terms of public health can accomplish this goal.

A webinar Climate Access hosted on Jan. 22 underscored Akers’ recommendations.

“I always encourage people to communicate [about climate change] in combination with solutions – mitigation – what we can do on the front end – and adaptation,” said Dr. Suzanne Moser, one of the presenters.

Moser is working with a team of hundreds of experts to create the United States’ National Climate Assessment. The team is following best practices in communicating its results, which she says can be overwhelming for audiences otherwise.

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I’m starting to believe apocalyptic predictions are becoming a journalistic cliché. Just this last week, an anticlimactic end of the world generated a considerable amount of tourism in Central America. And this isn’t the first time people have expected the world to end recently. The Rapture was scheduled to occur last year. The year 2000 was also supposed to bring mass disruption to society.

Apocalyptic predictions are also becoming commonplace in environmental news, a genre I read and write regularly. Because I wrote a graduate thesis on media framing, I have strong opinions about the uselessness of this story line.

Thinking about apocalypses paralyzes audiences. It also creates fear and removes personal responsibility. The end of the world is, by definition, beyond our control. In contrast, global warming is a situation where we can limit the damage.

Here’s a simple analogy to describe global warming’s effect on how we think.

When I was in junior high, I went sledding with a friend. My sled went out of control and began sailing in a dangerous direction. Since I was a levelheaded pre-teenager, I realized I had three options:

  1. I could pretend nothing was wrong. This is the way most Americans I know respond to global warming today. They make very few lifestyle changes. Most of my friends and relatives are not passionate environmentalists. Inaction is a very common response to large-scale environmental problems.
  2. I could panic. This is the “deer in the headlights” response to global warming which I see very often among concerned environmentalists. Apocalyptic framing in the news feeds directly into this situation. Some people who panic become hyper-focused on self-preservation. Others freeze, do nothing, worry, and never take proactive actions. And some take practical actions that are rational, but do so with a huge burden of fear and guilt.
  3. I could choose to minimize the damage. That is what I did; I intentionally flipped the sled over before it went completely out of control. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t injured. This attitude is the most practical way to respond to global warming today, I think. We need to recognize we’re going out of control, be realistic, take action, risk embarrassment, make mistakes, and salvage the situation as best we can.

Unfortunately, the news industry is not designed to lead audiences toward such a rational response to environmental disasters. Instead, we are given narratives that suggest we have already failed and that the end is near. This happens because:

  1. In the United States, there is a bias within journalism against recommending actions or solutions. There is also a bias against communicating the recommendations of advocacy organizations. I think that in a situation as dire as the one we face with global warming, it’s reasonable to call these judgments biases. There is nothing objective about failing to recommend action in the face of an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend hurricane preparedness; why aren’t more reporters recommending reducing the impact of global warming?
  2. Negative news attracts more pageviews. In the old school lingo – “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories with positive angles lack shock value. If pageviews are a cynical writer’s only goal, then yes, apocalyptic framing works until audiences burn out. Some audiences may already tune out environmental news because of its negativity.
  3. Some environmentalists deliberately frame these stories as apocalyptic to raise awareness or communicate urgency. Reporters then pick up on this culturally powerful framing and transmit it to readers. Based on the popularity of apocalypses today, it’s understandable that this framing is common. But it is also disempowering, discouraging and fear-generating.

What’s the solution? Well, I plan to be a good example for other writers and take the “end of the world” frame out of my media vocabulary. I want to leave readers empowered with common sense information, not paralyzed with anxiety about the future.

And from now on, any time that someone suggests to me that an apocalypse is coming, I will be deeply skeptical. I suggest you do the same.

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Climate scientists care about accuracy. In the storm of misinformation which circulated during and after Hurricane Sandy, their conclusions have been oversimplified and swept away.

The Associated Press published an article which covers the nuances of the situation very well. The website of the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory also has some useful background information on hurricanes. Here’s a very simple summary:

  • One scientist, Gerald North, estimated 80 to 90 percent of this hurricane was due to natural causes.
  • Climate change is gradually making flooding worse. This can amplify the effects of any hurricane.
  • The NOAA is still gathering data, but suggests warming seas may both intensify hurricanes and lower their frequency.

From my experience reading and writing climate-related stories, I can add:

  • One reason the devastation in Haiti has been so serious is that Haiti residents lacked safe housing and infrastructure.
  • If we invest in improving our infrastructure and housing here, that can reduce the damage of the floods from future hurricanes.

However, the hurricane seems to have blown common sense out of the window. Of course, when there’s a natural disaster, one can expect people to respond irrationally. The meme which has emerged is very simple and doesn’t require bullet points.

Global warming caused Hurricane Sandy.

As a communicator who works with nonprofits, I’ve been disappointed by many organizations’ responses to the hurricane. My Facebook feed has been full of attractive images implying global warming caused the hurricane. Here’s an example from tcktcktck:

Cuomo's global warming quote
An example of inaccurate nonprofit messaging after Hurricane Sandy.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, it confuses the issue. Increased flooding does not equal increased storms. Second, Cuomo is not a climate scientist and this quote is not based on research.

Not all of the nonprofits on my list used this meme, though. Union of Concerned Scientists published a thoughtful Q&A which presented the situation in a very different light.

If nonprofits want to be recognized as credible sources by the press, they should make sure they don’t let this meme sweep their messaging away.

Does climate change cause flooding? Definitely. Did it cause this hurricane? Not likely. Does it make hurricanes worse? Possibly.

Can we strengthen our infrastructure and adapt to reduce the damage future hurricanes cause? Yes. Regardless of the cause of this storm, we should do that as soon as possible.

Should we take action to limit the effects of climate change? Of course. And environmental nonprofits can help to lead the way.

For months, I’ve been reading posts from environmental news sources saying that belief in the existence of climate change has become a “culture war.” Framing the issue this way is destructive because it draws a line in the sand, further polarizing an already divided community.

Notice that I said “a community.” Regardless of political spin, the United States is  *one* community. Our country is a composite community of many parts, some of which disagree with each other. Isn’t internal disagreement typical in any neighborhood, let alone a nation?

If one spends a lot of one’s time on the Internet – as news reporters often do – it’s tempting to generalize the polarization one sees online to the rest of the world. But people do not communicate the same way offline as they do online. Online, discussions become polarized quickly and easily. If I want to resolve a disagreement, I usually take it off the Internet as soon as possible.

I hesitate to frame *any* ideological disagreement as a “culture war.” Calling a heated discussion a “war” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It tends to escalate the debate rather than reducing tension. And it makes it almost impossible to build bridges.

If David Roberts, Andrew Hoffman and other writers are genuinely interested in resolving the climate change debate and not escalating it, they should skip the military metaphors and start calling the conversation what it is: a controversy. Yes, it’s a culturally loaded controversy. But that is all it is. It’s not a war.

There are more than enough climate scientists receiving violent hate mail as it is. We need to use de-escalating language.

How does one de-escalate conflict to reach solutions? I’ve been studying this topic intermittently for years. Here are some ideas:

  1. Find common ground. What values do you share with the people who oppose you? What can you agree on – at least, provisionally?
  2. Set ground rules about civility and basic respect.
  3. Don’t make assumptions about the people who disagree with you. This is especially true if you have not talked with them and don’t really understand their perspectives.
  4. Take difficult conversations off the Internet. If you aren’t able to do so, moderate online conversations assertively and reduce anonymity. Research has shown repeatedly that online communication is polarizing.
  5. Find ways of getting people out of the “us vs. them” mindset. There are organizations such as Public Conversations Project which specialize in doing this.
  6. Stop seeing the political spectrum as a one-dimensional line between conservative and liberal. The best websites I have seen about political affiliation all agree that there are multiple dimensions to political preference. The Political Compass is a two-dimensional example. There are other models which are more complex.
  7. Get to know people who are different from you in person and preferably offline. Go out in the community and talk to someone who isn’t dressed the same way as you are.
  8. Stop taking things personally. (This is good advice for life in general.)

With that said, I find it completely understandable that Americans confronted with the need to dramatically scale back their lifestyles in response to an environmental threat would retreat into arguments that aren’t logical, oppose change, and dig in their heels.

We live in a country where wealth, productivity and consumption are highly valued by many people. Expecting our entire national community to suddenly put its values and materially based self-image on hold, even in response to a dire environmental need, would be extremely naive.

The environmental movement needs to offer hope, collaborate, and build constructive solutions in the face of intense fear, global risk, and polarized debate. Let’s stop talking about “culture wars” and start talking about solutions. We need new hope, better ideals, and a value system that doesn’t depend on what kind of car we own.

Climate change has precipitated another sticky situation: shortages of peanuts. That may also mean shortages of peanut sauce, which disappears from our refrigerator rapidly.

The Google search I did this morning says no one has written about this problem from a vegetarian or working class angle yet. Peanut butter is a staple source of protein and fat for vegans, vegetarians, and people who are attempting to save money when packing school lunches.

Vegans rely on nut butters. While vegetarians have the option of turning to eggs or dairy, vegans use nuts, soy and other plant-based sources of protein. Since some vegans take steps to make their diets more affordable – and their economic situations vary – a 30-40% increase in the cost of peanut butter might affect their options.

Peanut butter heart
Will Americans still love peanut butter if its cost goes up by 30-40%?

Slate published a story about Americans’ love of peanut butter in 2009.  Peanut butter becomes a staple during hard times. It became popular during World War II, when there was a meat shortage. Before the Civil War, Southerners ate peanuts to combat malnutrition. African slaves brought peanuts to the United States. Today, African restaurants in the United States serve peanut stew.

Are there substitutes for peanut butter? Other nut butters tend to be expensive. If vegetarians and/or low-income people are reading this post, I encourage them to chime in and leave a comment about their options. Will the peanut butter shortage affect you?

Should we fight global warming to save our urban infrastructure? Alexis Madrigal suggested this approach in an article for The Atlantic. In this article, I’m bringing that idea down to the ground level. Communities that deal with racial disparities in environmental health – also known as environmental justice communities – may become the places that suffer most.

Environmental justice health risks and global warming go hand in hand. For example, when sea levels rise, leaky storage tanks may yield their oily contents, disturbing the low-income neighborhoods where the tanks reside.

Scientists sometimes present global warming impersonally. This approach has led to criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But scientists can also use data to make research relevant to audiences without biasing or oversimplifying their results.

On September 24, I saw global warming data presented persuasively during a tour called “Sea Level Rise in East Boston.” Common Boston, an interest group within the Boston Society of Architects, organized the event.

Roadway support removed during Boston's Big Dig
This roadway support was removed during Boston's Big Dig. Credit: xianstudio

To set the stage for the tour, Torrey Wolff and Neenah Estrella Luna showed visitors maps of potential flooding in East Boston and Chelsea, two communities where activists are seeking environmental justice and sustainable development. The projected floods resulted from a combination of storm surges and sea level rise.

In a global warming context, sea levels increase for multiple reasons – including oceans warming, icebergs and glaciers melting, and ocean circulation changing to create massive waves. Luna referred to the highest waves as “wicked high tide.” (In Boston slang, “wicked” means “very.”)

The term “wicked” was well-chosen. Although there’s considerable uncertainty in the projected flooding, none of the scenarios look manageable for East Boston or Chelsea. The maps showed the lowest projected flooding, a sea-level increase of 2.5 feet by 2100, could lead to massive damage during storms. Wolff said these storms might occur bimonthly.

Homeless person in Boston
A homeless person sitting in downtown Boston. Credit: juliaf

Kim Foltz described the economic challenges of salvaging the shoreline. East Boston and Chelsea were built on landfills connecting smaller islands in the Boston harbor. These low-lying areas are being gentrified but are still home to a largely international population. Many of the recent immigrants are from Central America, South America, or North Africa. Foltz added that over half of East Boston’s population is Latino.

The hands-on demonstration showed the risk of sea level rise more powerfully than the maps could accomplish. Wolff asked the group to plant flags on Constitution Beach to discover the potential effects of storm surges in the year 2100. Near the beach, storm surges – estimated conservatively at 1 meter – could cover public transit tracks and reach houses and businesses that are hundreds of feet from the water now. The businesses near Constitution Beach include a Latino supermarket, a tool lending store, and a Burger King.

The tour leaders didn’t discuss what might happen to these neighborhoods if they are flooded. I’m concerned that these seafront properties, which developers eye with acquisitive interest today, could become tomorrow’s slums. If homeowners abandon the houses they cannot repair and buildings are sitting vacant, crime might increase. Given the stories that came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this idea is not farfetched.

Wolff painted a relatively optimistic picture, saying buildings could be built on piles or reconstructed so that they can lift up during storm surges. She said these innovations are becoming common in the Netherlands but are unusual in the United States.

The amount of capital required to complete this transformation of the shore would be immense, since many buildings in East Boston and Chelsea are former industrial sites. Building hills and sea walls would probably be more affordable than redesigning buildings, but either option could be costly. Foltz said that planting water-absorbing vegetation or introducing parks and wetlands could act as a stopgap measure to save some of East Boston and Chelsea.

Although few environmentalists might support the slogan “Save Burger King!,” it may be time to rethink how we talk about the resources low-income areas could lose. Global warming could wipe out our beaches, seaside restaurants, low-lying urban neighborhoods, and international grocery stores.

Although Chelsea and East Boston may never become high-crime ghost towns, curbing our appetite for the activities that cause global warming could help ensure those supermarkets will still be there for immigrants who may be escaping global warming elsewhere in the world.

Asking architects to demonstrate the effect of sea level rise on local beaches, stores and restaurants could help galvanize support for the changes we may be forced to make later – one way or the other.

With global warming, there is no “opt out” button. Either we face the situation or we don’t. Creative uses of data can help us see what could happen to our communities.

Originally published at Scientific American

It’s easy to assume other people learn the same way we do. If we are used to explaining ideas verbally, we may forget the value of pictures.

Studying learning styles is valuable for people who are interested in mass communication.

Eye tracking studies show how audiences read images in the news. Poynter’s online class on color in news design quotes some of this research: readers look at 80% of the artwork on a page but only read 25% of the text.

This article from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media demonstrates how graphics can clarify stories about climate change. The image of how shorelines change when sea levels rise could be very eye-catching for local readers.

Part of the communication appeal of science graphics is their “just the facts” approach.  But even though a science graphic may be matter-of-fact, it’s important to remember there is uncertainty in the data.

Also, one can change audience perceptions of a science story by choosing how one presents graphics. One can alter audience reactions by changing the scale of an axis, adjusting how one compares data sets, moving a zero point, or even changing the color of a bar.

Graph showing two contrasting lines: "dream" and "reality"
If this red line was green, would that change how you respond to the graph?

Some academics spend their careers writing papers about how to present statistics effectively.

Today, I took a closer look at the Grist article on the behavior change research I did earlier this year. Here’s a quote:

If you want to know how to change behavior, don’t read a bunch of polls about the messages that make people say positive things to pollsters; read a report like this one from ACEEE, which looks at which behavioral programs around energy efficiency have worked, i.e., demonstrated tangible, consistent results.

I would reframe that point and expand it to say that awareness, motivation and action are three different things.

Here’s one practical example. An avid snowboarder who studied science in college may be deeply opposed to global warming. This person might even answer market research surveys in a way that shows commitment to a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. But the snowboarder might still buy a ticket to Alaska for an outdoor vacation without thinking about the global warming effect of the plane flight.

Meanwhile, the snowboarder’s next-door neighbor may have never taken a college-level science class. This neighbor might take a local fishing vacation with a much lower environmental impact than the environmentalist’s trip to Alaska.

Scientists and environmentalists often believe providing information leads to action. The reality is much more complicated than that. People tend to take actions that are convenient, socially respected and expected, entertaining and economical. People also view time and mental energy as expenditures, too; efficiency isn’t just a matter of saving money. Community respect and support motivate many environmental choices.

There are many potential motives for environmental learning. Curiosity about science motivates some people to seek out environmental news. Self-sufficiency also appeals to many people. Many people take an interest in health and community well-being. But motivation and learning are distinct from action.

I haven’t seen enough evidence to say that I support Grist’s conclusion about action leading to changes in beliefs. It does certainly lead to changes in habits. It would be interesting to look into this question further.

The snowboarder I mentioned isn’t lacking information. There’s plenty of carbon footprint information available online. But the appeal of outdoor sports, the sense of adventure, and the desire to see new places are high priorities for some people.

Instead of judging the snowboarder’s sense of adventure, we should talk about ways those adventures can happen closer to home. Although going without the things one enjoys may seem like a reasonable response to environmental concerns, environmentalism – like dieting or exercise – can be taken to an extreme where people lose their sense of enjoyment and feel isolated or discouraged in their efforts. Environmental issues are long-term; our responses should be long-term, too.

P.S. As always, my blog reflects my personal perspectives, not those of any organization where I’ve worked.

Snowy slope
Environmental behavior change doesn't have to be this difficult.