New York Times' Andrew Revkin, American University's Matthew Nisbet, Urge Better Communication on Climate Change

  • Lucia Cordon
| Feb. 05, 2010

Panel Looks at Causes, Solutions for Public Divide on Climate Change Policy

Listen to New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin and American University's Matthew Nisbet discuss "The Public Divide Surrounding Climate Change" along with questions from the audience at the Harvard Kennedy School event on Thursday, February 4, 2010:


Andrew Revkin of  the New York Times' blog "Dot Earth" and Matthew Nisbet, assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, headlined a panel discussion at Harvard Kennedy School Thursday on "The Public Divide Surrounding Climate Change." Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Shorenstein Center, took part as discussant on the panel co-sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. The panel was moderated by Cristine Russell, senior fellow at the Belfer Center.

Henry Lee, director of the Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program, said that according to a recent Yale poll, only 20 percent of Americans felt that climate was a critical issue, and in a Pew poll of the most important issues, climate finished 20th. Panelists discussed causes and possible solutions for this public divide that has negatively affected climate change mitigation policies.

"People think that if the media changes the way in which it reports on climate change, [public attitudes] would change, but unfortunately it is more complicated," Revkin told the overflow crowd in the Nye conference room.

"Climate change, which rarely makes the front page of major newspapers, has found its voice through online social networks such as blogs and Twitter," Revkin said. "There is immense potential to create global conversations through the Internet, which transcends conventional media. Now we have an instantaneous force coming at us at the speed of light."

Revkin pointed out that a major challenge is ensuring that the public get credible information on climate change issues -- and not just views of advocates or skeptics. He suggested that exposure to information can be unconstructive if there is no guide or mentor to explain it. For example, he said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should have responded to recent reports of unsubstantiated statements about Himalayan glaciers by explaining the process of their panel's inclusion of scientific findings, rather than making defensive comments.

Nisbet said studies have indicated that the public may be more willing to take climate change seriously when considered in the context of public health or national security.  With regard to public health, he said, "Consider what happens when you start to talk about climate change not as an environmental problem...but shift focus to some of the well-documented impacts on global health...such as childhood allergies."

He focused on the need to create connections between climate change and other issues -- local and global -- that affect people's lives. This can be done by shifting the location of the problem from a global perspective to a local one, in which people understand how climate change affects them directly.

The panelists discussed the need to get information and use it to take action on this issue. "Everyone needs to get involved and take advantage of the speed of global communications today," Revkin said.

Revkin and Nisbet spoke about the dilemma posed when scientists become activists rather than observers to the issue. "Scientists need to be more involved in public engagement and become more directly involved in causing political change," said Nisbet, while Revkin cautioned that when scientists say "ought" instead of "is" about science, their credibility can be subject to question.

"The message isn't just the information but how and to whom it is delivered. Scientists often act as purveyors of the information but rarely purveyors of the message." Revkin said.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cordon, Lucia. “New York Times' Andrew Revkin, American University's Matthew Nisbet, Urge Better Communication on Climate Change.” News, , February 5, 2010.

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