A consistent theme in these columns has been an ambiguity from the author over how to talk about the climate crisis in a way that motivates rather than depresses. Two recent news reports take on this topic directly.

First, a study published in the Journal of Communication wherein researchers tried to answer the question of whether fear, facts or funny was the best motivator. They produced three videos featuring fake weather forecasts; one, with ominous warnings, a second with a “just the facts” approach, and a third using a comedian posing as a “bumbling meteorologist” explaining the climate crisis a la something that might have aired on the Colbert Report.

Each of the three videos ended with a call for viewers to take action. The study (conducted by Cornell University in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund) came up with two primary conclusions. First — averaged over all participants in the study — the ominous, fear-inducing version was the best motivator. However, among 18-to-24-year-olds, humor won out.

According to the study’s lead author, “The humor video made people laugh more, and people who found it funny were more likely to want to plan to partake in activism, recycle more, and believe climate change is risky.” An interesting result, though young people in general tend to be more concerned about the climate crisis than older age groups.

Another interesting result, is that the straightforward “just the facts” approach didn’t appear to work as well as scaring the dickens out of people.

Speaking of meteorologists, there was a very interesting story in Ensia, “an independent, nonprofit magazine presenting new perspectives on environmental challenges and solutions to a global audience” whose mission it is “to share stories and ignite conversations that motivate and empower people to create a more sustainable future.” Ensia is “published with support from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota” as well as by funds from other foundations and individuals. Its focus is on solutions, and as such this is a good source for those who are looking for news from the bright side.

The Ensia article is titled “Talking About Beer, Chocolate, Peaches, and Poison Ivy” and features what appears to be a growing trend among meteorologist to talk about the climate crisis. Not all meteorologists, mind you. A recent survey cited in the article claims that 38 percent of broadcast meteorologists “either don’t believe in climate change or don’t believe it is human caused.” But, the article continues, “of the estimated 2,000 meteorologists around the country about 500 are working with Climate Matters to tell local stories of climate change.”

Climate Matters is a program of Climate Central, “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.” An excellent resource for people looking for “just the facts.”

The chief meteorologist of an ABC affiliate in Denver is quoted in this story indicating that, “Audiences trust their meteorologists” and “we are as close to a scientist as most Americans will ever get. People invite us into their living rooms. We have a responsibility to educate them on the facts.”

OK, so the question is how do they do this? Is it fear, facts, or fun? None of the above. Or, more accurately, facts, but with an emphasis not so much on global concerns such as sea level rise (not a big one for viewers in Denver, for example) but rather with a focus on local issues.

Hence the references to beer, chocolate, peaches, and poison ivy in the title of the article. Using the beer story as an example, the Missouri TV meteorologist starts with, “Beer is mostly water, right. One of our local breweries gets the water they use from a nearby lake. Well, because temperatures are going up there has been an algae bloom in the lake. It’s not a dangerous bloom, but it impacts the taste of the water and, of course, the beer.”

She goes on to talk about how the brewery also uses local fresh fruits and vegetables to give the beer its distinctive flavor, and that “between increasingly violent hail storms and early blooms on peach trees … the brewers may have to turn to imported, frozen products.”

Another broadcaster in South Carolina did a story on a study that showed that “increased carbon dioxide helps poison ivy spread and, crucially, makes it more toxic. He also reported that, “Poison ivy toxicity has doubled since the 1950s” and the study indicates it will double again by the end of the century.

There are numerous other examples, but for me one of the key take-aways from the Ensia article was the origin story; how in 2010 meteorologists joined Climate Central, George Mason and Yale universities, NASA, NOAA and the American Meteorological Society to figure out how “broadcast meteorologists could better communicate climate change. This resulted in the 2012 launch of Climate Matters as a resource for meteorologists to “tell their local story.”

The resources include data for individual markets, including about local attitudes to the climate crisis, and “weekly” communication packages containing location-specific climate analyses and visuals, as well as workshops offering a deeper dive into the science.

Each broadcaster uses the resources to tailor a local message.

— John Mott-Smith is a longtime Davis resident; his column is published on the first and third Wednesdays. Reach him at johnmottsmith@comcast.net

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

 Published online March 20, 2018
Printed March 21, 2018 edition page B6