Mandia looks to change the way we communicate about climate change

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By Carina Sorrentino

This Wednesday, Union welcomed Professor Scott Mandia of the Department of Physical Sciences at Suffolk County Community College to speak in the Nott Memorial on the issue of communicating climate change.

Mandia, a specialist in meteorology and climate communication, began his talk with many facts surrounding global warming that most students of our generation have been taught since elementary school.

He stated that it has been proven in various studies that sea levels are rising, temperatures in the oceans are rising and tree lines are slowly moving upward. There are more traces of fossil fuel in coral and the atmosphere and the nights are starting to grow warm at a more rapid pace.

“We know the planet is warmer, which means that our planet is holding more energy. This means that we are getting more heat from the sun or that less heat is escaping our planet,” Mandia remarked. “We have been studying solar activity for years, and, in fact, we are at a low point of solar exposure.”

In the past century, the Earth’s temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees, which is typically a change that would take over 1,000 years before we begin emitting pollution into the atmosphere, he said. The human impact on climate change is quite measurable and proven.

However, the focus of Mandia’s talk was not to give statistics to prove that the global climate has dramatically changed in the last century, but rather that effective communication of climate change must attack the issue from a perspective that does not consist of figures and numbers.

“It’s not about convincing people with more science,” Mandia stated. “Instead we have to refer to the social sciences, not the physical sciences.”

“There are about 30 percent of Americans who do not accept or understand this reality,” Mandia said.

The question then arose that, if there have been several published and credible studies, how can a large number of people dispute that humans are playing a role in the warming of our planet? Mandia answered, “Public confusion is being driven by merchants of doubt who have very deep pockets and a desire to maintain the status quo.”

Mandia claimed that books published that refute the human impact on the environment are controversial and entertaining. In fact, he pointed out that it is far easier to get a book published than it is for a peer-reviewed scientific journal article to be published, because the latter is fact-checked quite rigorously.

Mandia also gave some statistics about some of the largest producers of news material in the United States. When checked for accuracy, only about 28 percent of Fox News, 92 percent of MSNBC and 81 percent of the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page stories stacked up.

A great deal of the division between those who believe in climate change and those who don’t often becomes associated with political party alignment. Mandia used the example of dropping an apple to the ground and asked whether people thought a Republican or a Democrat would disagree that the apple would indeed fall. He said that anyone would agree that the apple would fall and used this to state his point that it simply should not matter what party you align yourself with if the science is on your side.

Mandia discussed the idea that the outcomes, rather than the actual science, that affect the political sphere motivate people to disagree or disagree about climate change. For instance, if it is proposed that the answer to climate change is to put more regulation on companies that emit fossil fuels, then certain groups that maintain interest in that field will disagree.

However, if the solution to climate change is proposed as developing clean energy to put us ahead of any other country in the world, then those same groups will change their opinions. “When the solution was palatable, people accepted the science,” Mandia stated, “and when it was not, they simply denied it.”

“The lesson here is when you are talking to someone about climate change, you do not necessarily need more science — you just need to tell them how it affects their world,” Mandia added.

“Always make it personal,” he continued.

Mandia prompted two photos that were meant to invoke emotion and motivate people to see the human impact on the climate. One photograph was of a polar bear floating on an iceberg in the middle of a melting arctic climate, and the other was of a farmer who did not have enough water to grow a sufficient crop for the season.

Mandia highlighted the fact that the polar bear may seem cute, but it is more likely that the photo of another human being who is struggling will gain more empathy from an audience.

Furthermore, by making the issue of climate change an issue of national security, certain groups were more likely to respond, as well. Heat-seeking missiles that the United States uses to keep people safe cannot function in the atmosphere accurately anymore because temperatures are too warm.

Mandia stated that the best way to change someone’s view is to lead with the facts, keep your argument simple, warn listeners before stating the myth and then provide a more credible alternative. If you present information incorrectly, you can leave someone more confused than they were in the first place.

Students responded positively to the talk and were surprised by many of Mandia’s facts.

“It’s amazing how sometimes it does not matter about what facts one has, but how they present it and who is presenting it,” remarked Maxwell Barrett ’15. “The smartest and most qualified person in the world can be presenting a talk on global warming with the most accurate and precise results, and people would base decisions off of the less qualified person. Today, what matters most is the style and format the data is presented. The person that sounds the most persuasive will end up winning the debate.”

Jill Ackerman ’15 commented, “Listening to speakers like Dr. Scott Mandia always inspire me and remind me why I want to into this field.  I liked how Dr. Mandia not only addressed the science of climate change, but also how to effectively communicate the need for reform, which I think is equally as important.”

“Climate change is an issue that everyone has to deal with,” added Adam Rosenthal ’15, “There should be no divisiveness on the issue if we are going to have a more positive impact on our planet. All sides should be considered, and consistent deliberation between people is a way to hear people’s opinions, ideas and concerns. There can be no pointing fingers at others, as we can all better ourselves before being critical of others and their beliefs.”

Carbon emissions and the human population are increasing at an exponential rate. Mandia concluded, “It will not be easy to fix our climate. It will be a challenge, but I am certain that we can do it.”

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