Newswise — Climate change denial is not based on a lack of empirical evidence, said Northern Michigan University professor Jes Thompson. There are visible indicators and volumes of research material, not to mention overwhelming consensus within the scientific community. Yet there are still people who bristle at the phrase or dispute the dire prognosis for the planet if major changes are not implemented by those who populate it. Thompson said effectively communicating that global warming has reached "the point of no return" in the hope of instigating meaningful policy and behavioral changes requires knowing where the audience’s resistance originates.
“I think it’s an internal mechanism, because if you acknowledge the role of human activity in what’s going on, it puts the responsibility on you to be part of the solution,” said Thompson, who teaches environmental communication as part of the PR sequence. “Those denying it have a vested interest in preserving their everyday conveniences, habits and rituals, and fear that responding to climate change would require too much change on their part.
"While policy will play a role, individual choices matter as well. For example, eating a burger in a Prius is worse (carbon footprint-wise) than having a veggie burger in a Hummer because one pound of methane gas from beef production heats the atmosphere 25 times more than one pound of carbon dioxide. Talking about individual choices is tricky because people don’t like being told what to do, what to eat or what kind of car to drive. It’s better to connect with them through shared values—caring for the next generation, their families or their communities—in hopes that appeals to values will promote more sustainable lifestyle choices.”
Framing environmental information in a way that resonates with different audiences has been a major component of Thompson’s career. She recently gave a TEDx talk at NMU titled "Let's Change the Way We Talk About Climate Change." After graduating from NMU with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and public relations, Thompson earned a master’s in environmental journalism and a doctorate in environmental communication and conflict resolution—both from the University of Utah.
Her research focuses on communicating, educating and managing environmental conflict about complex ecological issues, including global climate change and natural resource conservation. She has served in related capacities on advisory boards for entities including the New England Aquarium’s National Network of Oceans & Climate Change Interpretation, and the National Park Service (NPS) Education Committee.
In early 2009, the NPS established a Climate Change Response Program to address adverse impacts that were becoming more pronounced at the parks. A world-renowned climatologist hired to lead the effort contacted Thompson—in Colorado at the time—for communications guidance.
“She told me, ‘I’m learning that this is not a science or policy problem; it’s a people problem,’” Thompson said. “So I worked with the staff at 16 national parks and wildlife areas to identify localized concerns. Then we worked to engage NPS leaders and surveyed park visitors to identify opportunities to improve climate change education. We also formed collaborative relationships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.”
The survey of more than 4,000 park visitors showed 56 percent were extremely concerned about climate change and many wanted to learn more about it from park staff. But when NPS employees were surveyed, only 1 percent perceived visitors as extremely concerned and did not think there would be sufficient interest in relevant programming.
Thompson said bridging such disconnects is essential for effective communication and education. So is developing key messages with supporting information. For the NPS, those key messages were: climate change is real; there are consequences for the parks; the NPS has implemented some solutions; and individuals are urged to make a difference by reducing their carbon footprints both at the parks and at home.
At the local level, Thompson serves on the steering committee of the Marquette Climate Adaptation Task Force. The group will incorporate a climate resiliency toolkit—developed as part of President Barack Obama’s 2015 climate action plan—into city planning and use a “place-based engagement” approach that emphasizes how inaction could impact the economy and quality of life. Thompson also advises the Northern Climate Network, an NMU student organization that hosts a fall march and festival along with monthly presentations.
“Think globally, act locally” became the mantra for environmentalists after the inaugural Earth Day in 1970. The first half of that slogan may fall short in the modern context, as global climate issues require action, not just thought, as Thompson learned during interdisciplinary research of herding communities in Mongolia. No one can own property, but there are no restrictions on animal ownership. Mongolia has 2.5 million people and more than 35 million head of livestock. You combine that with the impacts of climate change and grazing is a risky livelihood. There’s not enough vegetation.”
Herders also confront dzuds, summer droughts followed by early, heavy snowstorms and temperatures well below average that freeze to death already malnourished livestock. Thompson said they were once considered 100-year storms, but three have been recorded since 2009.
The project to help build rangeland resilience and develop adaptive economic options, such as growing plants to produce essential oils and teas, will wrap up this year.
From Marquette (Mich.) to Mongolia, addressing climate change relies on engaging people in a discussion of the particular issues confronting their community and empowering them to make changes for the collective good.
“Doomsday prophecies and instigating panic never work,” Thompson said. “I could talk about broad changes directly tied to climate variability—the polar vortex; the increase in poison ivy and other invasive species; and the multiple lifecycles of tree beetles. Or the data showing the increase in heat over the past 150 years is equivalent to the temperature difference over an ice age that took 10,000 years to achieve. But we need to package the need for individuals to have a smaller carbon footprint in a way that appeals to their personal values and sense of community or it won’t result in meaningful change.”
Much of this content is from a previous NMU alumni magazine feature on Thompson. View her detailed profile and her TEDx talk at her profile page here.