Talking About Climate Change, from South Florida

by Mike Gunter, Ph.D.

The sun is setting as I shoot off the freeway and drive past American Airlines Arena. Like another, slightly more famous Akron, Ohio native, I’ve taken my talents to South Florida this early autumn evening. Only difference is…hey, whom am I kidding? There are lots of differences between the Chosen One and me, but wild speculation saved me over the past four hours of tedious driving along the Florida turnpike and I-95, and I need to stay ever more alert now, negotiating this big city traffic. In any case, such wanton daydreaming sure as heck beats trying to calculate my carbon footprint.

That’s weighing on me a bit, by the way. My emissions, even in this fuel-efficient economy car, are already on par with what I typically register during an entire month of driving at home. As this guilt settles in firmly the next day, I remind myself, technically speaking, this trip is climate neutral. At least that’s what the sponsors say, although you’d never guess it from the chilly temperature inside the Hyatt Regency conference room this balmy Monday morning, or the pop music blasting during a handful of breaks. I suppose the vegetarian menu does help, as does my one block walking commute from a slightly cheaper hotel. But you’re still going to have to buy a lot of carbon offsets for any gathering of this size.

The real reason I’m here, along with 1,200 fellow climate activists, from 86 different countries, is to help spark a revolution – an end to the fossil fuel era. The event is part conference, part workshop training session, part networking extravaganza. It’s the 30th Climate Reality Leadership Corps training workshop and, over the next 72 hours, world-class scientists and award-winning PR strategists, not to mention Chairman Al Gore himself, will walk us through the science, politics, and communications strategies of talking climate change.

Dr. Eric Rignot, senior research scientist of radar science and engineering at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is definitely one of the highlights. Debbie Dooley, Founder Conservatives for Energy Freedom and the aptly named Green Tea Party is another. Then there’s Philippe Cousteau, co-founder and president of EarthEchol International (not to mention grandson of Jacques) and, of course, founder of the Climate Reality Project, former Vice President, and Nobel Prize winner, Al Gore. Gore is going to moderate a couple of panels for us and give three different versions of the famous slide show featured in An Inconvenient Truth. There’s a two and a half hour version, an hour and a half version, and a 45-minute version, all complete with extensive Q & A afterwards.

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Former Vice President Al Gore opens a three-day summit on climate change at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami on Monday. C.M. GUERRERO

As a side bar, as polarizing as Gore has become within our American political landscape, he really is a rock star. The literal crush to meet him during the reception on Day 2 proves that point. By chance I’m within hugging reach/spitting range (depending on your persuasion) of Gore and nearly trampled by a stampede of admirers seeking photo ops not to mention, from the look of surprise and disgust on Gore’s face after one exchange with a young female, something definitely not printable on a college-hosted site such as this one. It makes me wonder, for all the benefits that celebrity affords in terms of access to information, that same celebrity ironically handicaps access as well. I mean, Gore will never be able to meander through a gathering like this as I am and develop relationships organically like normal people do. All his contacts must be vetted.

That’s a shame because there truly is a wealth of diversity in attendance during this leadership training. During bites of vegetables on Day 1, for example, I chat with an Englishman heading a reserve in Costa Rica and a PhD student completing her studies in Ag Sciences from Penn State. On Day 2, I exchange stump speech ideas and business cards with a Sri Lankan electrical engineer. And on Day 3, I’m inspired by an elderly solar activist from Arizona, not to mention a handful of college and middle school attendees.

One of the first lessons I learn from a former Nature Conservancy staffer participating here in Miami with me is that this city was chosen as a host site with good reason. When it comes to climate change, this city has the highest capital asset risk in the world (Calcutta is #1 in terms of population risk.). It’s also no accident that we are meeting now in late September. The event was cleverly timed to coincide with high tide and the regularly flooded streets that accompany it. Sunday’s super moon make the flooding all the worse that Monday morning. The city of South Beach recently spent $400 million on a series of pumps to handle such flooding, but over the last 4 years Miami area seas have risen an astounding 5 to 8 inches. It doesn’t take an expert to calculate, if nothing else, they are going to need a lot more pumps down here.

For now at least, there’s a flood advisory issued for South Florida and high tides have shut down Miami Beach road. Forever politically astute, Gore maximizes the opportunity and is a little late for his opening address after touring the flooding with local media and having to change outfits afterwards as his wader boots ended up not being high enough. There’s all sorts of messages and mixed metaphors in that short story, but perhaps the most notable one is, when it comes to climate change, let’s not be late ourselves!

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Flooding at Indian Creek Drive and 30th Street in Miami Beach. EMILY MICHOT

Yet, in terms of telling at least the story of climate change, I’m afraid we already are, especially within much of the mainstream media. As an award-winning media panel admits on Day 2, climate is a hard story to tell. For one, it breaks more slowly than conventional news. Attention-getting weather events are related, but only snapshots. Chris Hayes, an Emmy-winning host on MSNBC, cautions not to let this trick you into thinking that makes climate less significant. Pulitzer prize-winning author Elizabeth (Betsy) Kolbert agrees, asserting we need to move beyond silo-based news reporting in transmitting information on climate change.

Different mediums can be an asset in that endeavor. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this workshop, to train people from all walks of life on how to give presentations on climate change. Arguably, the most useful breakout session for me, then, comes towards the end of Day 3. When communicating climate, the best advice on selling the seriousness of climate change is to find a hook. As best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell would say, make it sticky. That means when you hear someone say government is wasteful, you agree, to a point. Waste is a problem. We as a country need to live within our means. And we are not doing it. In fact, there are all sorts of hidden costs that too often go ignored. Economists call these externalities. Normal people like you and me call it fudging the data.

Anybody that has to balance a checking account knows you can’t get away with this for very long. It’s the same thing when it comes to climate change. We can’t get away with fudging the data for very much longer.

On the other hand, too often, climate activists, as emotional as they often are, paradoxically become overly absorbed in the facts. They like to emphasize things like 97% of peer reviewed research finds anthropogenic climate change a problem. When communicating the significance of climate change, though, one must be careful with emphasizing that someone is wrong. That ends the conversation. People shut down.

As Brandon Fureigh, chief strategy officer for the Truman National Security Project, contends, climate change agnostics and deniers attack facts as if they were a sabre tooth tiger encroaching on their family den. It’s an age-old fight or flight response. Instead, Fureigh recommends an emotional connection. Shared values, often conveyed through personal stories, help build a relationship so that data actually matters. Going straight to the data is counter-productive, at least on an emotional issue like climate change.

Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, agrees. He pioneered work in the 1960s on communicating emotional content through body language and non-verbal communication. His research found, in terms of statistical effectiveness in imparting message with emotional content, words only mattered an astounding 7% of the time. That’s heartbreaking to a fellow like me that makes a good portion of his livelihood through words. Then again, as not only a professor but a teacher, I have learned that tone of voice matters too. In Mehrabian terms, 38% of the time, with emotional content that is, it makes the difference. And when it comes to body language and facial expression that number jumps to 55%.

If you can’t tell, I’m frowning at this point. That frown, though, quickly reverses into a smile along with a twinkle in my eye as I head back to Central Florida. Once again passing American Airlines Arena with a chuckle about my hoop dreams and distant connection to its former lead occupant, I have renewed confidence in the power of story to convey political messages like climate change. Armed with this knowledge, there’s more hope than ever that we can learn to understand the threats underway today in time to make a difference.

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Oakley and Casey Jones, tourists from Idaho Falls, navigate the flooded streets of Miami Beach as they try to make their way to their hotel on Collins Avenue and 30th Street during a King Tide on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Emily Michot


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