Scientists really aren’t the best champions of climate science

But Bill, isn’t it a problem when science guys attempt to bully other people. It’s not working with the public. … That’s the same with tornados….   This is how conversations about climate change often go down. Scientists say climate change is real, but people still doubt them. So, why isn’t the science enough?   It’s not like there’s a shortage of scientific facts out there spelling it all out for us.   But let’s be honest — not many people can relate to scientists sharing their data, no matter how compelling it is.   When I give talks as a scientist versus when I’m talking to a friend, I don’t think I’m any more persuasive. In fact, I think as a scientist, I may be actually less trusted. The problem is you have people who are very, very smart when it comes to reading data, but they’re dumb when it comes to dealing with people. So people's relationship to smarty-pants people, I think you have to take into account. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  But this guy? He cares.   Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan — known by many as “Ram” — is an atmospheric scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And for decades, he’s been a leading and prescient voice on climate change, long before the term was widely known.   Ram also designs instruments to measure climate data on satellites, aircraft, and ships, but he feels like he’s really just writing obituaries for the planet.   Every time I come back from one of my expeditions, it’s always I bring back bad news   His scientific findings were simply not inspiring public action. So, Ram got creative. He’s been a science adviser for the Vatican since 2004. In 2014, Ram was chosen to speak directly to Pope Francis.   Now, he only had three minutes, literally a “parking lot pitch,” outside the pope’s apartment at the Vatican. Ram had memorized a few sentences in Spanish, but when he saw the pope emerge from his Fiat, he just blanked out.

I completely panicked, a panic attack! Then I said the heck with it, I’m going to tell him in English. With a translator between them, Ram told the pope that climate change was a moral and ethical issue.   Most of the pollution comes from the wealthiest 1 billion. And the worst consequences of that is going to be for the poorest 3 billion who had almost nothing to do with this pollution. At this moment, I had finished my two sentences. In English, hopefully. In English. Yeah… And he asked me in Spanish, what can he do about this? And you’re looking quite confused, trying to get your brain around what to say. Yes. I had not planned that. I told him, look, you are now the moral leader of the world. So in your speeches, if you can ask people to be better stewards of the planet that will have a huge impact.   Not only did Pope Francis include this message in an address several days later, but he even took his message to Twitter.   This caused a sensation because it was the first time that the Catholic Church came out and talked about climate change to a global audience of over 1.

2 billion Catholics. This chat with Ram and the pope actually led to what’s since been called the “Francis Effect.”35% of Catholics said that the pope’s message changed their personal views on climate change. I know if I had planned the whole thing, it would have been totally different. I would have gone into carbon dioxide, this, all the pollution, scientific details. Since I was not prepared, I went to my heart. I could have blown this! Instead, Ram jokes that those three minutes were the best scientific moments of his life. They were certainly one his most influential. Just by switching the messenger from a scientist to a religious figure, people listened.   And perhaps nowhere is the messenger more important than in politics. In the US, climate change has become a fiercely partisan issue. The majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, but there’s a sharp difference between liberals and conservatives on the issue.   And that’s largely attributed to who they’re getting their information from, regardless of what the science actually says.

     If the Earth becomes a partisan issue, everybody loses. The good thing is, you’re now seeing people on the conservative and libertarian right saying, hey, hold on a second. We have a right and a liberty as American homeowners to power our homes as we please.   Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Tea Party movement, is one of these conservatives.   People that did not know me made the mistake of calling me a tree hugging, left-wing liberal. A founder of the Tea Party movement! I laughed and I said, well clearly they don’t know me!   I am probably the first well-known conservative in Georgia to come out on a grassroots level and advocate for solar. I don’t like monopolies — they deserve competition and choice.   And Debbie agrees that there really is no reason that climate change should be a partisan issue.

It’s more fiscally responsible to prevent damage to the environment than it is to clean it up. As Ronald Reagan said, “Being good stewards of the environment God gave us should not be a partisan issue.” Focus on the message that resonates no matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or Independent. And the last time I checked, this Earth belongs to all of us. All of us want clean air or water. And we need to protect it. To get this message out, Debbie founded Conservatives for Energy Freedom. And they recently helped defeat an anti-solar amendment in Florida that was pushed by the state’s utilities.   The only message conservatives heard was from groups that were funded by monopolies or fossil fuel that wanted to stop competition from alternative energy. They’re hearing a different message from Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

We’re giving them the facts and we’re having an impact. But not everyone is moved by politics or religion. Often what resonates most with us and gets us motivated is simply understanding what’s going on in our own backyard.   Oakland-based artist and grassroots activist Favianna Rodriguez uses art to draw awareness to climate change.   I grew up in the Latino district of Oakland and I always understood the impacts of environmental devastation just by looking around where I live. The asthma rates that were in my community were astonishing. The accessibility to clean, whole food was very tough. And so for me, these are all impacts of what it means to not live in alignment with the environment.   When I think of environmentalists I think of native people who are at the front lines. I think of people who are impacted, who are really trying to fight for clean air and clean water.

The organization that I co-founded, CultureStrike, one of the main areas we focus on is to show the many faces of environmentalism.   And, Favianna isn’t just talking the talk.   I just converted my entire home to be powered from solar energy, and I'm the first in my community to do so. I want to model to my predominantly immigrant Latino community what it means to go solar. And that this is actually a less expensive way to get our energy. And that we can be the leaders. We are among the most impacted, we can be the solution bearers.   So while scientists should definitely be part of the conversation, they can't be the only messengers. Of course everyone wants clean air, pure water, even cheap energy. So what we need is a chorus, a diversity of many voices to deliver this message and to deliver it in a way that gets their community to sit up and listen.   You are a messenger too.

Maybe the most important one we have. We hope we’ve given you some tools to think more about climate change and how our lives intersect with this giant issue. Head over to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu for more tools and resources..