Of the 37 climate scientists Carol Reeves has interviewed across the United States, all of them feel a moral obligation to help save the planet. All of them want to tell the world how bad things will get if we don’t take better care of our Earth. The thing is, not all of them have the right words to make people listen.
An English Professor at Butler University, Reeves studies how climate scientists communicate with one another, with policy makers, and with the public about their research findings. While not a climate scientist herself, she teaches courses about the rhetoric and language of science. Through working with students on how to talk about climate change, as well as through interviewing climate scientists over the past several years, Reeves has learned about the nuanced challenges scientists often face in discussing their research.
“In science, you don’t talk about absolute facts: You talk about evidence,” Reeves says. “But normal people listen to dramatic claims. They have trouble getting that we have loads of evidence from research to support that we are heading into a really terrible time if we don’t do anything about it. We are going to have more extremes, more heat waves and draughts, more heavy rains, more wildfires, and stronger hurricanes.”
Reeves says we might view this summer’s heat waves as a sort of “test run” for what climate scientists are warning about the future, and how that heat will continue to affect us.
“Extreme and prolonged high temperatures place an enormous burden on communities and citizens, especially the most vulnerable,” she says. “If you’re wealthy enough to be sitting in your cooled home, you may dismiss this very clear sign of climate change. But if you’re poor, or if you have to work outdoors, you probably wish someone would get to work on the problem.”
Starting in 2008, Reeves decided to start conducting interviews with climate scientists to gain more background for the unit of her class that discusses climate change. She focused on those scientists involved in writing climate assessment reports for the United Nations—reports that analyze where the climate is now, and what will probably happen in the future. These scientists also look at how climate change is already affecting the Earth, and they build recommendations for what humans can do to help.
Researchers see a stark future in the data, but they struggle to spread the word. Reeves says policy makers and members of the public often misunderstand the concept of climate change, especially the way scientists talk about it. This has caused climatologists to sometimes disagree among themselves about what kind of language to use when sharing their research.
“You have a set of data,” she says, “but you have to write about that data, and you have to decide how strong your language is going to be.”
Reeves explains that scientists need to balance the ethical responsibility to stay within their data with their desire to help the public understand.
“It is a tenuous balance between explaining the science in a simple and clear way without simplifying and over-stating,” she says.
But it doesn’t matter what the studies show if people don’t want to think about the future. Scientists want to convince the population that, even though we are facing so many other problems, we need to put climate change at the top of the list. They just aren’t sure how.
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