PR expert advocates scientist advocacy on climate change

Environmental communications expert Keri Bolding argued that scientists should take an active role in promoting energy efficiency and sustainability in a Tuesday night talk at Kroon Hall.

Bolding, the vice president of the nonprofit public relations firm Resource Media, discussed techniques of using scientific facts to persuade people to make environmentally conscious decisions before a crowd of roughly 40 students, professors and community members. Though some in the audience challenged her stance that scientists should engage the public, Bolding countered that scientists are the most credible sources on environmental issues and thus have a responsibility to deliver their knowledge to the community.

She said advocates should target people who are skeptical of taking action to combat climate change but who also seem receptive to new ideas. In order to form a persuasive argument, she said, advocates first need to gain a thorough understanding of an audience’s values and knowledge of environmental issues through public opinion research. Advocates must identify how willing people are to pay costs and to make long-term changes, she said.

“When people hear the term ‘climate change,’ they have all these preconceived notions,” she said. “Sometimes they’re negative and sometimes they’re positive.”

In delivering information to the public, Bolding stressed the importance of being concise and “clear about what’s at stake when you’re talking about the climate.” She emphasized the need to offer scientific facts in a story-like way, adding that she hopes a prominent, credible “hero” will emerge who can persuade people that climate change is a clear and present danger while also remaining optimistic about the future.

“‘Junk food for fish’ sounds a lot better than ‘nitrogen pollution,’” Bolding said.

Some environmental scientists in the audience raised concerns about the feasibility of arguing persuasively while also remaining factually accurate. One argued that a scientist’s role is not to be a hero by relating information to the public, adding that persuasion inherently requires the skewing of facts. In response, Bolger stated that scientists are more credible sources of information than politicians, and it is important that scientists serve as “trusted messenger[s]” for the community.

Six audience members interviewed all reacted positively to the talk. Kay McDonald, a New Haven resident, said Bolding was “very persuasive” herself and thought that the talk on the whole was “remarkable.”

Nora Hawkins FES ’14, a student at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was “thrilled” by the talk, as it addressed the interesting challenge of encouraging “scientists to have better sound bytes about climate change without skewing the science.”

Margaret Shultz ’16 said the talk was “thought-provoking and revealing,” also noting that the topic of the discussion created considerable tension among audience members.

“There was a lot of frustration in the room, which I think is endemic of frustration people feel right now about the dichotomy between what we know and what we’re doing and how to communicate what we know,” she said.

The talk was part of a speaker series called “‘C’ Words: Addressing Climate Change Without Talking About Climate Change,” which is co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. The next event in the series on Oct. 16 will feature John Walke, senior attorney and Director of Clean Air Programs with the National Resources Defense Council.

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