From the monthly archives:

January 2012

Recently, there was an article on Grist that caught my attention: an interview with a climate scientist named Katharine Hayhoe who also happens to be an evangelical Christian.

As the consequences of climate change loom ever larger, it appears that more and more Americans don’t believe that climate change is real. It’s a lie that scientists perpetuate to get grants (damn those thieving scientists!), or it’s part of the “environmental agenda,” or it’s a means for the government to “stifle the free market.” So, you have to wonder: if you’re interpreting climate change — or any politically-charged topic — how do you avoid all the political landmines that can alienate your audience?

I think that Hayhoe’s advice on speaking to evangelical Christians about climate change is great — and helpful for exhibit developers and interpreters as well. Here’s a distillation of her main points:

1. Disassociate the thing you’re interpreting from its political baggage.
Climate change has come to be seen as part of a larger ideology, and people who “believe in” climate change are seen as having a certain identity. Show that climate is its own thing. Hayhoe:

If you can dissociate the issue from Al Gore, if you can dissociate the issue from the Democratic Party, if you can dissociate it from hugging trees, from pro-choice, from evolution vs. creation, if you can strip away all of those ties and only talk about the issue of taking care of the planet God gave us and loving our neighbor as ourself, then there is hardly anyone who will not accept that message. It’s not about theology, it’s about baggage.

2. Anticipate skepticism, address it head-on, and be funny about it.

These things [i.e., climate change is something Al Gore invented] are the elephant in the room. You know that’s what everybody’s thinking. So the best thing to do is just go for it right off the bat, get a laugh out of people.

3. Draw on commonalities.
Despite political differences, the desire for our children to have a good life is universal. Hayhoe:

Talk about what you have in common and move on from there.

4. Show the opportunities.

The average person hears “taxes” and “regulation” and automatically translates that into: it’s gonna hurt. What they don’t understand is how much it’s already hurting, because of the subsidies to fossil fuels, because of the externalities associated with fossil-fuel use. We are paying for that. The companies are not. So it’s important to talk about opportunities related to climate change.

If somebody proposed government regulations that, without one shred of a doubt, you knew would bring a better quality of life and a healthier local economy, I don’t think you’d have too many people objecting to it.

Have you had experience interpreting climate change, or some other politically-charged topic? What advice would you give?