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Reporter explains local effects of climate change through advice column

January 15, 2019

Mark in Charleston wants to know how to tell his fellow South Carolinians about the gravity of sea level rise without pushing them to anger or despair. Katie in Virginia is concerned about public health in her home state of North Carolina. And an anonymous New Yorker isn’t sure how to talk to her Republican friend about the floods that will make her friend’s Miami mansion uninhabitable.

For Americans with personal questions about climate change, there are few outlets that can provide both clarity on complex science and individualized insights on its effects—a void that inspired Sara Peach, senior editor at Yale Climate Connections, to start an advice column dedicated solely to such concerns. With an administration dedicated to undermining its own climate science and a news media overwhelmed with unending political scandal, climate change and environmental issues have struggled to take a leading spot in our national discourse, despite being one of the largest threats facing humanity today.

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“People oftentimes don’t even realize the severity of what we’re talking about with climate change, and I just believe so deeply that people need to know,” Peach says. “It’s my duty to help them understand that, so that they can make the decisions they need to make for their families and their communities and for the country as a whole.”

Peach, who has been on the climate beat since covering the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, began tinkering with the idea of a climate advice column after reading a transcript of Ira Glass’s commencement speech to the Columbia Journalism School’s 2018 class. Glass talked about the need to be “cunning” to draw audiences to difficult stories, particularly when dealing with large-scale humanitarian issues, which can otherwise feel overwhelming and inaccessible.

“I really took that to heart,” Peach says. “It’s my job as a journalist to help people understand what’s happening so they can make decisions… If they’re just tuning me out, then what’s the point?”

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Peach currently publishes her column once a month, answering questions that arrive via Twitter, Facebook, and email. While Peach is a fan of advice columns and their empathic approach, she responds with a journalist’s tone and grounds her answers firmly in her own reporting and research, both from previous stories and new interviews specific to the letter writers’ quandaries. The resulting column is perhaps the most direct instantiation of advice science journalists know well: to communicate something distant and complex, find a way to bring the story home.

There’s evidence that Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, even as their fears struggle to take precedent in our national conversation. A recent Pew study found that 59 percent of Americans already think climate change is affecting their local communities, while another found that 67 percent of respondents think the federal government is doing too little to address its effects. But personal concern over climate change isn’t translating into conversations about it. In a 2016 survey from Yale and George Mason universities, 67 percent of Americans said they were very or moderately interested in climate change, while only 22 percent said they saw climate in the news at least once a week. Just 5 percent hear people they know talking about climate change at least once a week while for 24 percent of respondents, the term doesn’t come up.

“Most people don’t want to start a conversation or express an opinion about climate change because they don’t feel they know enough to explain or defend their point of view,” says Edward Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Communication and an author of the survey. “The reality of the situation is that most Americans don’t know very much about climate change and don’t feel confident in what they do know.”

Maibach and his colleagues dubbed this situation the “spiral of silence”: even people who want to discuss climate change avoid the subject because it’s yet to become an accepted topic of conversation. The politicization of climate science has only intensified the spiral, Maibach says.

“We are taught that some topics don’t make for polite dinner table conversation—including politics—so people prefer to simply steer clear of it,” Maibach says. “But unless we learn to start talking about our problem, we are unlikely to solve it.”

A climate advice column, then, provides a forum to talk openly about the ways it directly affects individuals, a key component in moving the climate conversation forward. Research has shown that simply providing more facts—what’s known as the information deficit model—is sometimes ineffective at and even actively harmful toward, efforts to bring divided communities closer together. Connecting on a personal level, however, can help to de-escalate and depoliticize, similar research suggests.

Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, for example, shifted from denying climate science to spearheading conservation efforts after a dive on the Great Barrier Reef with oceanographer and fellow Christian Scott Heron. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has made inroads with American Evangelicals, many of whom staunchly deny the reality of climate change, by embracing and sharing her own identity as an Evangelical Christian.

For Mark in Charleston, who wanted to talk about the dangers of climate change without shutting down others, Peach turned to the collective knowledge of another group of people who regularly have to provide startling, potentially devastating information: doctors. Drawing on the evidence-based protocol doctors use to tell patients of a cancer diagnosis, Peach advised an informed, compassionate, practical approach to talking about climate change that could benefit us all.

“Even as journalists, we can get pulled into, ‘This person is wrong’ and ‘That’s an incorrect fact,’” Peach says. “That is valuable, but I really love the chance to think about approaching the conversation in an empathic way.”

RELATED: Reporters must convey the perils of climate change without paralyzing their audience

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Bob Inglis is a representative, not a senator, and to more accurately describe the research on the information deficit model.

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.