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Communications: The Real Climate Change Crisis

Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report designed to settle the perceived disputes surrounding the evidence of climate change once and for all. Titled “What We Know”, the product was hailed by Justin Gillis in the New York Times as “sharper, clearer and more accessible than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.”

Having read the report, I agree that the language is compelling. While it is essentially a survey of existing evidence, that information has been amassed and ruthlessly edited down to the clearest and most concise points. For a piece representing almost exclusively “recycled” content, the editorial product isn’t just remarkably refined and comprehensive—it’s kind of refreshing.

But however great it may be for what it is, it’s not nearly enough to save it from falling on the deaf ears of the common man. And there’s a simple reason for that: it is drier than California’s Central Valley.

The report avails itself of few best practices of modern communications design. It contains no graphics or data visualizations. With the exception of the image of a scientist surveying an landscape on the cover, it’s almost 28 pages of double-spaced yawn. No illustrations depicting the recession of glaciers. No charts plotting the explosive growth in CO2 emissions, no photos of wildfires, droughts, or calamitous storms and their effects on the peoples’ lives. In the era of immersive, multimedia TED talks, these guys threw up a simple splash slide and phoned it in for 7800 words—the equivalent of 60 minute lecture.

I don’t mean to demean the accomplishment. Distilling the evidence on climate science—perhaps the most data rich of all the sciences—to an hour-long lecture is no small feat. But the goal wasn’t just to survey and summarize the evidence climate change once and for all—it was to dispel the perception that the jury is still out. As Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, noted in a recent interview: the strategy of the climate change opposition is to “sow doubt.” It’s the very same strategy tobacco companies had used to forestall “consensus” on the overwhelmingly conclusive data on health effects of smoking. As the defacto jury of its scientific peers, the AAAS needs to do more than weigh the evidence; they need to read the verdict loud and clear in terms that everyone can easily understand.

We are a visual species. Thirty thousand years ago—long before the dawn of written language—man drew pictures on cave walls. Illustration was technologic breakthrough; with just a few shapes and forms, we found we could tell rich, vibrant stories about the world around us. Data visualizations can help us tell stories about our world with shapes and forms as well—they just happen to tell stories that can’t immediately be observed by the naked eye. The omission of visualization devices from a such an aspirational report is more than a missed opportunity; it’s the evolutionary equivalent of competing in the 100-yard dash while crawling on all fours.

It’s frustrating to rely on prose alone when we have such a rich visual language at our disposal. Not only is the public well versed in graphics and data visualizations—they demand them, and declare fierce loyalty to brands that provide them best. From high-brow news publications like the New York Times to celebrity rags like US Weekly, everybody seems to avail themselves of data visualizations and infographics in one way or another. And it makes sense: in the era of mass communication, wary audiences rarely believe what you simply tell them. To convince and convert, you have to show them.

I’m hopeful that a more immersive, accessible, visually engaging report will be coming soon. There is too much at stake to allow so much low-hanging fruit to wither on the vine. In the meantime, we’d all do well to remember that if we want to address the challenges of climate change, we’ve got to address the challenges of communicating about climate change first.

Here are five ways the next effort can succeed where this one did not:

Don’t just tell them—show them. Climate change is an abstract concept; the proof lies not in a single heat wave or a polar vortex, but in macro trends that can’t easily be seen or felt. As a people, Americans are wary of being misled on big, expensive endeavors. So undecideds won’t be converted by yet another study or more partisan reassurances; they will be won over when they see full, incontrovertible evidence. We need to show it to them.

A chart is worth a million stats. As the saying goes, “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Statistics are like anecdotal evidence; they can be compelling, but more often than not, they’re cherry-picked and perverted to support an argument. Data visualizations don’t abstract—they present a fuller view of the evidence, and allow the data to speak for itself with a veracity that a statistic alone can’t match.

Global trends deserve global context. Charts and graphs help translate data from a series of abstract measurements to visually recognizable trends. Maps, in turn, can bring information one step closer to reality by overlaying information onto a representative illustration of our world.

Infographics connect issues and audiences. The AAAS has distilled all the evidence into a 7800 word report; why not take the next step and distill that into visually rich infographics? Not only are they perfect for synthesizing complex information through data visualization and graphic narrative, but the best ones go viral through social media. That can really help the message resonate beyond believers to the undecided.

Use footnotes, not endnotes. Sure, footnotes add another element to the page design that can interrupt the flow of the narrative, but they make up for it by allowing the reader to directly verify each and every point as they read rather than hunt for a source at the end of the document.  If transparency, accessibility and veracity are your goals, there’s no better practice than citing research on the same page as the argument.

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