Reach, don’t Preach.


Sad, cute polar bears might hit you in the feels, but can be a climate communication trap! Let’s talk about perspectives and solutions.

“Climate change is real, it is big, it is now.” These are things I thought as a brand new interpretive educator fresh out of college, preparing to lead programs for the public about estuarine ecology and climate change.

And then I met my audience. And while some of them may have echoed my thoughts, what I read in their expressions, questions, and observations over the following years was, “climate change is big, it is scary, it is complex and controversial.” Luckily, I never heard “climate change is crap,” but I know that denial like that is out there. And while “scary, complex, and controversial” doesn’t necessarily equal climate denial, it still means that the audience for climate change programming might need more support than they might for a more “typical” or “safe” museum experience.

Your audience for climate change programming might generally fall into three broad categories: the choir, most people, and the deniers. The “choir” are the people who believe firmly that climate change is real and chiefly anthropogenic, and they probably already take action in their lives and communities to fight it, which may well include coming to your climate change program to learn more. “Most people” believe that climate change is real thanks to the consensus of 97% of climate scientists, but are not confident in their knowledge of the subject, and may feel overwhelmed by the topic. The “deniers” may or may not believe in climate change, are mostly unconvinced that humans are to blame, and might specifically not attend your program on climate change. Because I am a member of the choir, I’d like to think about ways to step away from preaching to my peers and instead build understanding of climate science among everybody else. The hope is that by better understanding the complexities that confuse and divide us, we can break down barriers and build momentum for innovative solutions to a global problem.

Here are three steps to reach outside the choir, based on what we know about these audiences:

  • Fill in “cognitive holes” with simple, but accurate, science. Get everybody in the room on the same page about the very basics of the problem. The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) recognizes that one of the biggest problems in climate change education are the misunderstandings of climate systems and natural processes. Without knowledge of the scientific language and concepts being used to communicate climate change, many people lack the ability to cognitively access messages about climate [1]. Finding straightforward ways to explain complex science can help eliminate misunderstandings that might create tension among your audience, and help everybody start a conversation on the same page. NNOCCI trains interpreters to use metaphors that quickly convey climate concepts, like “climate’s heart” to describe how the ocean regulates atmospheric temperature [2]. At this stage, its not about “what scientists say” about climate change, but rather “how do earth systems work?”
  • Acknowledge cultural models, values, and belief systems that your audience is operating with. Once you’ve filled in any apparent cognitive holes, take a step back and acknowledge that there are a whole host of cultural factors that you cannot control about your audience. The Climate Literacy Partnership in the Southeast (CLiPSE) conducted climate education research in the southeastern US, where it identified particular audiences that, due to economic factors and “conservative political and faith perspectives typical of” this area tend to be disengaged from the climate change discussion [3]. The researchers note that emotion is often a barrier to climate communication, and can lead to “confirmation bias,” or selective learning about a topic to reinforce previously held beliefs. By acknowledging and working with these beliefs rather than trying to counter them, educators can avoid falling into communication “traps” that might cause your audience to disengage or become combative [4]. Take time to ask questions and make observations that will help you identify where your audience members are coming from. Keep in mind, for example, that protecting our valuable natural resources and using them up while they last are two heads of a consumerist world view, or that recognizing the power of the ocean can inspire stewardship of its greatness or discourage action because it is too great to be helped [5]. Knowing where your audience can “bend without breaking” will be key to our next step.
  • Facilitate a dialogue that validates diverse experiences, builds community, and seeks solutions. How do you acknowledge these different cultural models, you ask, and move them forward? Facilitated dialogue is a useful technique for tackling any divisive or difficult subject with a diverse audience, including climate change. The NPS provides great specific guidelines for creating an “arc of dialogue,” and other similar methods have been used for climate change interpretation. The CLiPSE project brought together people from a variety of backgrounds in the southeast US to have a discussion about climate change, and similar dialogues have occurred in New England states as role-playing “games” under the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP) [6]. What all of these methods have in common is that they provide a safe space for participants, regardless of personal beliefs, to better understand climate science concepts together, to share their experiences with these ideas, consider perspectives other than their own, and try to construct new meaning from the experience. In the CLiPSE discussions, participants addressed their own beliefs in relation to those in different communities around them, and in the NECAP project participants are given fictional characters to play to allow them to take on perspectives that may differ from their own [7]. What matters is that participants involved in dialogue feel heard and are able to see their values interacting with others, and that some follow-up action is identified to synthesize this interaction. This may include further opportunities to learn more, to connect with others, or to take action at a community, state, or national level. Dialogue has the advantage of creating a community experience over an isolated, individual experience. This is important when trying to match the scale of a solution to the scale of the global climate problem.

These steps are not limited to programming on climate change, but rather can be considered for any controversial or difficult subject. It also can be applied to museum experiences beyond public programs, for example exhibit content can follow the same arc of (1) quickly addressing cognitive holes, (2) acknowledging diverse experiences (NOTE: this does not mean presenting all viewpoints as equally “correct” or labelling some as “wrong”)and (3) exploring potential solutions with an invitation to get involved. And for those wondering “why museums” instead of schools for climate education, consider that museums are generally regarded as trustworthy sources of information. The power of a museum actively participating in the climate conversation, particularly one that is inclusive and seeking innovative solutions from its audience, is sure to be remarkable.

Further Reading:


3 thoughts on “Reach, don’t Preach.

  1. michelle

    Thanks for sharing. As I am sure many of your researched showed, this is a sensitive topic to discuss. What I appreciated most was that, your approach stayed optimistic without sugar coating. What could make it particularly difficult to reach this audience is that fact that they aren’t perusing this issue in common places where they are discussed. For example, if a guested wanted to know more, the assumption is that they already have some idea or belief in the idea of climate change. However how do we engage guest with no interest in the subject, without badgering them. We should pay close attention to the new Climate Museum in New York. There can be lots of skills of designing dialogue that encourages action.


  2. kellyrweiss

    Kate, thank you so much for your thorough discussion in class and in this post. You provide direct, usable solutions that I could implement immediately. I appreciate their far-reaching nature, in that it is not a stretch for me to see how to use these tools in reference to other controversial topics. Additionally, your suggestions are not age specific and can be used at all levels of development. An important part of handling climate change discussions is having the right people in the right roles as well. Not everyone can leave their personal beliefs at the door when they come to work (I know that I struggle with this). You have provided us with a great model on how to improve on providing objective programming.


  3. Taylor Horst

    Thank you so much for tackling such a difficult topic. With our changing political climate, it’s even more important that we address climate change and how to talk to people we may disagree with. I have encountered climate change deniers in my life, and in my specific experience, they seem to resent the “fear mongering” used by climate change activists. Whether their resentment is justified or not, I appreciate that you have provided a solid framework for how to address it.



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