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Scholars learn to communicate plainly the science of climate change

L.A. Cicero Schneider

Woods Institute senior fellow Stephen Schneider offered advice to help scholars communicate more clearly with the media and policymakers.

BY MARK SHWARTZ

The Woods Institute for the Environment this month launched the Inter-University Scholars Training Program to improve understanding and communication between university researchers and California policymakers working on climate change.

"Engaging researchers from multiple universities is an important way to expand our effectiveness in addressing climate issues," said Linda Schuck, consulting associate professor at the Woods Institute and director of the institute's California Climate Change Project (CCCP), a Stanford, UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis collaboration dedicated to finding effective strategies for reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions. The scholars training program is a joint effort of the CCCP and the Woods Institute Leadership and Training Program.

Fifteen scholars from the three universities were selected to participate in the November program, including five from the Stanford community—Margot Gerritsen, assistant professor of energy resources engineering; Michael Mastrandrea, research associate at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy; Nicholas Switanek, doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Business; Thomas Weber, assistant professor of management science and engineering; and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Stanford-based Global Ecology Department.

"The scholars bring not only their own expertise but also a network of colleagues and contacts around the country and the globe on which they can draw," Schuck noted.

The program consists of four informal training sessions with legislators, regulators and scientists. The first two seminars took place on Nov. 2 at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall. The morning session focused on state climate-change legislation and regulation, with emphasis on Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, co-authored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Speakers included Adrienne Alvord, Pavley's principal consultant; Bart Croes, research division chief of the California Air Resources Board; and Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City.

AB 32 directs the California Air Resources Board to develop regulations that reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020. Supporters have called it the most ambitious government plan to curb global warming in North America.

Examples and metaphors

The afternoon seminar featured an interactive tutorial designed to help participants hone their communications skills led by Woods Institute senior fellow Stephen Schneider, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford. A prominent voice on global warming, Schneider offered advice on dealing with media and governmental representatives who may be unfamiliar with the statistical and scientific fundamentals of climatology or computer modeling.

When communicating with policymakers, consider using straightforward stories and analogies, he said. For example, what do you do when you're about to propose major changes in energy consumption that would affect countless lives and yet are based on a computer model that forecasts only a 10 percent chance of catastrophic climate change? The answer: Use an ordinary example, like home insurance, to make your point.

"How many of you have ever had a fire in your house?" Schneider asked the audience. Only 1 or 2 percent raised their hands.

"How many of you have fire insurance?" he asked. This time, many hands went up, indicating that most homeowners carry insurance even though the risk of an actual fire is well below 10 percent.

"Give them metaphors that they can relate to, that are honest, that really do have a reasonable analogy to the issue you're talking about," Schneider said. "You have limited time, and you're not talking to your colleagues. … You need to come in prepared with as many metaphors as you can come up with."

The next training sessions will be held Nov. 16 at UC-Berkeley and Nov. 30 in Sacramento. Support for the program comes from the Woods Institute and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.