On August 12, the American Security Project hosted a discussion with a panel of experts titled “Communicating the Climate Crisis — Effective Messaging & Dispelling Disinformation.” The panelists included Dr. Edward W. Maibach, a professor at George Mason University and the director of the University’s Center for Climate Change Communication; Dr. David Benac, a history professor at Western Michigan University with a focus on the intersection of the environment and history; and Dr. Anne Armstrong, a climate educator and lead author on Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Educators. ASP CEO Patrick Costello facilitated the discussion.
Costello began the conversation with a question for Dr. Armstrong concerning the best methods for calibrating climate change education. Dr. Armstrong emphasized the importance of tailoring the information towards the audience according to where they land on the climate change “spectrum” (e.g., “alarmed” vs. “dismissive”). This led to a discussion surrounding the polarization of climate education and climate policy, and how the intertwining of politics and climate change threatens collective action against climate change.
During this discussion, Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Maibach discussed what Dr. Armstrong called a “spiral of silence,” meaning that people are wary to talk about the climate crisis because they know how polarizing the issue is, which ultimately reinforces the polarization. Dr. Benac then asked his fellow panelists if they worry that vilifying this polarization might prevent good ideas that come from the fringes, as many good ideas do, from surfacing. In response, Dr. Armstrong emphasized the need for a spectrum of ideas, which encourages discussion, rather than two divided sides, which inhibit discussion.
The conversation closed with a brief focus on effective climate educators and climate activism. Dr. Maibach discussed his research showing that local meteorologists are widely trusted science communicators that can play a very important role in people’s opinions about climate. Similarly, Dr. Armstrong talked about how zoos and aquariums are also trusted messengers for climate change information. Dr. Maibach then turned towards climate activism, bringing up the large gap between those who say they would participate in civil disobedience to support climate policy and those who actually do, saying that climate change activists must focus on closing this gap in order for real change to take place.