Faith Leaders Join Scientists to Model Inequality in Climate Communications

For most Americans, scientific data is abstract, complicated, and generally unconvincing in its plea for climate solutions. While most skilled communicators would agree that effective climate messages avoid arguing over science, should we throw the baby out with the bathwater and leave science out completely? It is, after all, the only reason we actually know anything about climate change. We are dependent on it to help determine our solutions and track their progress — still, there is something amiss. Scientific data, however accurate, remains sterile and lacks humanity. It seems incapable of transmitting the human side of our climate story.

Some scientists have noticed their discipline’s inadequacy in this regard – but rather than exclude themselves entirely from advocating for solutions, they’ve employed the assistance of faith leaders to sharpen their communication skills. Following a panel discussion that featured our latest report, Let’s Talk Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders — one of the world’s largest general science conferences invited Rev. Fletcher Harper, Blessed Tomorrow leader and founder of Greenfaith, to speak about value-based climate communications. “My entreaty for scientists is to be able to speak publicly about why they care,” explained Harper. It’s a move that climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe calls, “connecting our heads to our hearts” — a goal she’s worked toward within her own Evangelical Christian community.

In Palm Beach, Florida, Nature’s Spirit Conference took a similar approach when they brought faith leaders and scientists together “to explore interfaith and spiritual opportunities that will invigorate environmental activism.” Rather than continue to operate in their respective echo chambers, these faith leaders and scientists are working with one another to better understand climate change and find solutions for Florida’s sinking south shore.

Not everyone, however, shares their enthusiasm for turning scientists into climate advocates, and that includes some scientists. Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, knows a lot about climate communications. For years, he was tasked with conveying the urgency of climate change to politicians using scientific data, models, and predictions. According to Young’s account, his use of scientific proof was largely unsuccessful, resulting in his suggestion to cancel the March for Science on April 22nd, citing concerns over the march’s potential to “trivialize and politicize the science.” Young's hesitation toward advocacy is common among scientists, but, as Chris Mooney explained, their fear is largely unfounded with little evidence to suggest that will jeopardize their standing.

Scheduled to occur in cities across America, including Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago, the March for Science coincides with Earth Day and challenges scientists to “get out of the labs and into the streets." While Young’s suggestion to move away from using scientific imperatives to incite climate action is reasonable given his experience, his opposition to the march isn’t exactly a remedy to the issue.

Katharine Hayhoe, by contrast, agrees that if climate science hasn’t swayed public opinion by now, there is no reason to believe that more science will help us achieve our goal. But her suggestion is not about rejecting scientists as valuable advocates – rather, it's a call to empower them with the tools needed to become effective communicators. More and more researchers are finding good communication skills imperative to motivating Americans to action, but they also think that scientific models must reflect the values that climate change threatens.

A study from the University of Maryland, published in the National Science Review, explained that for the past two centuries, scientists have followed an “Earth Science” model, focusing exclusively on the state of our planet and its various ecosystems. The primary issue with these models is that they usually neglect the impact on humans beyond a biological framework, overlooking sociological ramifications. While “Human-System models” do exist, researchers are now suggesting that scientists converge the two, to offer what they call an “Earth-Human System,” that will factor things like population, inequality, and consumption into their climate models.

Adopting an Earth-Human System could be an important move in connecting systemic inequality, racism, economic disadvantages, gender, and other social issues that alter how the climate changes and how those changes will impact people differently. Not only would these models better display the trajectory of climate impacts, they would humanize the abstract data that turns so many Americans away from climate science in the first place.

Our goal as climate communicators is to find more effective methods of connecting with our values, not to dismiss the science that helps us protect them. Instead of rejecting the March for Science, we should join scientists by helping them speak more effectively about climate change and better incorporate aspects that speak to our deeply held beliefs.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.

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