How to Talk Global Warming in Plain English

  • 2016-03-29
  • Scientific American

In New Orleans, the city’s planners would love to see block-by-block estimates of how sea-level rise might affect neighborhoods and critical infrastructure. In Seattle, they want to know how to shape their municipal culture so that even basic budgeting decisions factor in evolving climate patterns, and not just the past weather patterns that planners have relied on for decades.

Everyone is looking for something different from the next National Climate Assessment, including the scientists and decisionmakers who put together the current guiding document for climate policy in this country. And as they discuss how to put together the next blueprint, they worry about how to best get their message to the people who need most to hear and heed it.

Is anyone reading the assessment? Will anyone read the next one? And how can they make sure that people do?

“If we want to tell the nation the risk, we need to [do it] in plain English,” Alice Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for resilience policy, told scientists at a gathering in Washington, D.C., last week. As her boss, Susan Rice, often notes, Hill said, “climate change is a dire threat to the prosperity and safety of the American people.”

The discussions played out at a two-day meeting of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel advising the group that puts out the assessment: the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Work is beginning on the fourth assessment, a congressionally mandated review of climate change impacts on the United States. The third report, a multiagency effort released in 2014, found increased evidence of human-caused warming and warned of heavier precipitation events and more frequent extreme heat events, including severe droughts.

The climate assessment is intended to guide risk planning for federal, state and local agencies and tribal governments, as well as businesses, and the aim of last week’s meeting was to help shape how the next assessment will characterize and communicate risk given the state of current science, including sea-level rise projections.