What Anyone Who Writes About Climate Change Needs to Know


Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

As a fervent browser of news in its many forms, I do not question the availability and constancy of information reported about climate change. It's out there, and we can get it. The question I do have is this: If the information is available, why do only 40% of U.S. citizens think climate change is a major threat?

My experience as an environmental studies major in college, paired with my current pursuit of a master’s degree in journalism, has lead me to one answer: poor communication.

To repair our broken line of communication, here are 4 things anyone talking or writing about climate change should keep in mind. 

1. Tell it to your mom.

This is my number one rule whenever I write about any potentially confusing issue.

Your mom is a smart lady, but she may not be an expert on carbon taxing or ocean acidification. You want to explain to her what the issue is about, but without using too many wonky words or acronyms (see #3). 

Another thing, don't dumb it down. I will say it again, your mom is a smart lady! It's okay to tell a kid that fossil fuels are things like oil that come from the ground and help run our cars ... but your mom can handle more than that. You should take more time to explain how we use the term 'fossil fuel' to describe nonrenewable (explain that too!) fuels. You can even and add on that they create carbon dioxide when they are burned, and on and on. 

For example, if you were to explain anthropogenic climate change, what would you say? 

a) Climate change that is caused by human activity on earth and is not a part of natural processes.

b) Human-caused climate change. 

Please choose b. Reaction to answer a) is shown above.

2. Don't be afraid to use humor!

This bar graph is one of my favorite examples of how to effectively use humor when covering climate change. It makes you feel something. Yes, climate change is a nasty, depressing subject, but using humor doesn't mean you are downplaying the issue or being insensitive. 

Humor can be so effective because it magnifies an issue. It points right at the most sensitive area of an issue and forces you to deal with it. How many times have you heard someone say, "It's funny because it's true!"?

3. OMG. Stop using acronyms ASAP, OK?

The fastest way to lose a reader or listener is by using acronyms. 

Easy fix: Only use an acronym if it is SUPER important. Always explain what it is, not just the words it stands for. (Remember to tell it to your mom!) Here's an example: If you need to use the term 398 ppm, don't just say "parts per million." Explain that it's a measure of how much carbon is in the atmosphere. 

UNFCCC, IPCC, REDD, COP ... unless you are discussing these topics in depth, avoid talking about them in non-wonk crowds. If you do, again make sure you can explain what they mean and give them context!

4. Use characters to tell the story of climate change.

As often as you can, put a face on climate change. Whether it is a farmer whose crops have failed for the third season in a row, or a family displaced by intense, unusual flooding, your audience needs to see that effects of climate change are real. 

Step away from your computer and look for stories of people around you. You might be surprised by their desire to have their story told. 

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