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It's time for a new story about climate change

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/19/18 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Climate, Transform

“Tell a new story about climate change.”

This line captures the key take away for me and, hopefully, the fifteen public-facing staffers at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History who spent a full day immersed in a workshop for the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). NNOCCI has meticulously crafted and has been sharing a new story about climate change with hundreds of institutions, including Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden whose educators became our trainers for the day. The idea is to pay it forward to the 183 million annual visitors to zoos and aquaria and 850 million visitors to museums—to better equip them to communicate and interpret climate change.

We need a new story; one that disengages from the heated political discourse whirling about climate change. The current story focuses too heavily on fear of planetary destruction. It assumes that people do not need to know how the climate is being disrupted, only that the disruption is being caused by excessive use of fossil fuels. A new story starts with “framing” the conversation differently. With NNOCCI, a Solutions Frame redirects thinking away from patterns like “climate change is too big, scary or depressing” by creating a safe space for people to gather, discuss and take action to solve climate change. “Taking practical, common sense steps to address problems facing the environment” is an example of a positive frame. “Concern for our climate is normal and action on climate is happening all around us,” is another frame that elicited feelings of empowerment in surveys.

"'Two degrees of global warming can reinforce the perception that the problem is an abstract, technical issue," writes the Communications Handbook for IPCC Scientists. "To counter this, it is important to use language that positions science in a way that is relatable, known as 'framing'."

At our NNOCCI training, we learned a lot about how to help people move from individualism to an engaged community working together to solve climate change. To be engaged means taking action that moves towards greater impact. So, for example, I bike to work (individual action). To turn my individual action into a community-scale solution to climate change I may work with community leaders to get a bike share system in my community.

In a small group exercise, we learned to think beyond individual actions. For example, we selected clean water for Lake Erie as a subject to workshop with framing and solutions elements. Individual actions include removing lawn chemicals and planting native gardens. Collective actions could be volunteering for a watershed group in our community to remove litter, plant native gardens, and use no petroleum-based chemicals throughout an entire river or creek area.

In addition to positive framing, metaphors have been effective in helping people understand climate change. Two metaphors in particular have tested well. First, there’s “Rampant” and “Regular” carbon dioxide. Regular carbon dioxide is created by normal life processes like powering homes and driving cars. Rampant carbon dioxide happens when we burn fossil fuels and the levels of CO2 get out of control. This is our current situation. Burning of fossil fuels is placing an invisible “heat-trapping blanket” on the atmosphere (the second metaphor): We keep adding more blankets and it is disrupting the climate.

A Penn State University study, “Creating a climate for change: Interventions, efficacy and public discussion about climate change” published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology looked specifically at the NNOCCI model and its metaphors, and found that people felt more confident in their ability to talk about climate change which, in turn, motivates them to tell the whole story to others.

“Visitors to presentations conducted post training vs. pre training showed a greater increase in understanding of climate change, greater hope about their ability to participate with others to address climate change, and greater intentions to engage in community behavior,” the study concluded. “Thus, the NNOCCI program was effective at influencing visitors’ ‘heads,’ ‘hearts,’ and ‘hands.’”

Since forming in 2014, NNOCCI has worked with climate scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and psychologists and linguists at Frameworks Institute to develop and test the new story of climate change. They have trained thousands of educators and communicators at centers of informal learning like our museum to address how we talk about and frame solutions for climate change. What they discovered is most Americans share a core set of values. We want to protect people and places from being harmed by the issues facing our environment. Across the political spectrum, Yale University and NNOCCI found, Americans want to take practical steps in managing our natural resources so that future generations can enjoy them.

Still, the majority (six in ten) Americans who Yale surveyed, are concerned but don’t understand how climate change is happening. That lead to a simple, yet important statement developed by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden—seen in this social media post.

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In all, we took an important first step in aligning the Museum’s mission “To inspire, through science and education, a passion for nature, the protection of natural diversity, the fostering of health and leadership to a sustainable future” with NNOCCI’s goal to “train enough voices in proven communication techniques (to) change the national discourse around climate change to be productive, creative, and solutions-focused.”

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