How does language color the perception of the science surrounding climate change in America?

Researchers at UC Merced's Center for Climate Communications are grappling with this and are studying the best ways to convey the risks that face the planet.

Climate change is one of the country’s most divisive, challenging issues, even though more than 97 percent of scientists agree that unprecedented changes already are happening.

“It’s crucial to clearly convey short-term, immediate risks when it comes to climate issues,” said Professor Teenie Matlock who’s with the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, and is heading the center that is part of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. “It is also important to realize that the audience of climate messages is diverse, with stakeholders from different cultural and educational backgrounds.”

Climate variability and change are the most difficult issues the world is facing and will continue to face for the foreseeable future, SNRI Interim Director Martha Conklin said. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults disagree there’s solid evidence the Earth is getting warmer, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Our mission is research to fill critical knowledge gaps,” Conklin said, “and these issues are at the cutting edge of research and integrate across many disciplines.”

Where's the disconnect?

Matlock, McClatchy chair in Communications and founder of the cognitive science group at UC Merced, studies how word choice in political messages affects voters. Now she’s applying that kind of investigation to the words used in climate communications.

For example, a lot of government agencies have certain, formulaic ways they present scientific information.

“Much of the language is very technical because it needs to be accurate,” Matlock said. “But is it really the most effective way to communicate with the general public? Not always.”

She said the new center isn’t interested in focusing on the politics of climate change discussions per se. The center will instead concentrate on climate communication and perception of risk around climate issues quite broadly, including, for instance, how journalists talk about California’s current drought, wildfire risk in summer and extreme weather conditions as they arise.

Remove politics from the conversation

“One of the goals is to de-politicize climate messages whenever possible,” Matlock said. “Politics polarizes people and in some cases, causes them to tune out.”

Matlock and other SNRI affiliates, such as professor Tony Westerling, known for his wildfire research, and colleagues at other UC campuses like Berkeley, are collaborating on a suite of studies, journal articles and presentations at conferences.

The center has also launched a new lecture series, starting with renowned author and University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman, who spoke April 30. His lecture, entitled “A Great Divide: The Cultural Schism Over Climate Change,” was well attended.

Reconcile values and science

Hoffman, whose work has been widely cited and mentioned in the New York Times, Scientific American, Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio, contends the social debate on climate change is no longer about carbon dioxide and climate models, but is about values, culture, world views and ideology. As physical scientists explore the mechanics and implications of anthropogenic climate change, social scientists explore the cultural reasons why people support or reject their scientific conclusions.

People develop positions consistent with the values held by others within their groups. Efforts to present more data, without addressing the threat to the deeper values they have formed, will only yield greater resistance and make a social consensus even more elusive.

Matlock said she hopes the center will be able to reach out to policymakers and help them engage more effectively on climate issues, and help relevant groups better convey their messages.

“Public agencies are not always good at saying ‘Here’s the problem and here are some options for addressing it,’” she said.

Some of the research she and other researchers are working on involves giving people scenarios and see how they react to different language choices, using undergraduates on campus, but also people across the country, through an online system.

UC Merced’s Center for Climate Communications is one of few similar institutes in the country, in the company of such schools as George Mason University, Yale University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“UC Merced is the perfect place to do this,” Matlock said, “given its collective, interdisciplinary research strengths, including environmental sciences and cognitive science, and its geographical placement, in Central California at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”