Williams College Panel Communicates Climate Change, And Empathy

Apr 6, 2017

Williams College hosted a climate change roundtable last night. The focus: to come up with strategies to better communicate climate science. Panelists say in a post-fact world, compassion speaks louder than truth.  

It turns out that bickering about climate change with family members over the dinner table and pursuing social media debates with long-lost high school peers can be easily avoided when scientific facts are substituted with empathy.

“Just arguing with people about the facts or about the science is not how you reach them when it comes to changing their mind about climate change. It turns out the thing that works is empathy. It’s building a human connection,” Gill says.

Jacquelyn Gill is an environmental scientist from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. She was joined on stage by environmental journalist Andrew Revkin, of New York Times’ “Dot Earth” fame, who works on the “Warm Regards” climate podcast with Gill. William College professors Phoebe Cohen and Nicholas Howe moderated the roundtable. 

Revkin says the conversation about climate change has grown tenfold thanks to social media, where anyone can have a voice. But he says the problem is people align themselves with similar thinkers and don’t listen well to anyone outside their bubble.

“The hardest thing was having a conversation with someone where you are not just simply waiting for your next moment to talk –you know this where you, it’s not really a conversation, you are not just actually listening, you are just waiting for your moment to respond – and that takes a, there is a discipline there and pull back to that has to happen to really listen,” Revkin says.

To be clear, the roundtable, part of William College’s full-year study into confronting climate change, was discussed by environmental scientists and advocates in an academic auditorium surrounded by undergrads in a blue state. In other words, there wasn’t much of the denial that is popular in other parts of the country.

Panelists admitted the roundtable was not a very diverse place to discuss climate change issues, but they strategized with students on how to best show a person’s civic responsibility to the issue – which Revkin says can be difficult.

“This is not about like us versus them. This is an issue that is one of those wallpapery phenomena that is stuck in the statistical goo.”

Gill says fellow academics and scientists can be some of the worst communicators of their studies and the issues.

To overcome that problem, Gill suggests mixing theatre tools with science to gain empathy from audiences. Revkin says the arts and sciences need to work hand-in-hand to tackle the conversation.

“If you are not testing, test driving these things, if the arts are not engaged, and if scientists are not helping and working with them, then there is missed opportunities for them, I think, for sure.”

Gill says people think they have to be armed with science knowledge, but…

“It doesn’t actually matter what the data are. It doesn’t matter what the facts are. That if you can make a human connection with the person that you are talking to, that’s the leverage, right? It’s not, you don’t have to have a conversation about the IPCC or about, you know, carbon tax, have a conversation about fly fishing. When you have a conversation about climate change, it could be about, you know, it can be about building houses for Habitat for Humanity, but you are really talking about climate change. It can be about your child’s asthma, right?”

Gill says the Trump administration’s proposal to cut climate science funding is actually starting a national conversation about how science is funded in the first place.

“I think we have data, too, from polling even that just shows the number of people who are aware the problem or concerned about the problem of climate change is increasing through time. It is certainly – I think it is growing on folks’ consciousness.”

Gill says the conflict is empowering people to confront the issue in new ways. 

The roundtable is part of an educational climate change effort launched by Williams College after a call by alumni, students and staff for the college to fully divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies