Most People Aren’t Climate Scientists. We Should Talk About Climate Change Anyway

Citizen Science Salon is a partnership between Discover and SciStarter.org.


Do you find it hard to talk about climate change? You’re not alone. Surveys indicate that 72 percent of Americans believe in climate change, but only 35 percent are talking about it regularly. Climate change is a challenging topic of conversation. Reports of devastating wildfires, hurricanes and other events have increased in frequency, and discussing them can feel scary and difficult. At the same time, many of the ways most people personally experience climate change won’t make the news, and the effects are felt differently depending on where you live.

Your experience with climate change is likely different than that of your relatives living in another state, and probably even different than your cross-town friends. Seemingly mundane factors underlie these differences — how much shade you have on your block, whether you live upstream from contained animal farms, how much concrete you live around. 

Even so, talking about climate change is vitally important. The opportunity to have informed dialogue about it with your peers is critical for building public climate literacy. What’s more — climate science needs you, your viewpoints, your observations and your insight. So how can we get talking more about these emotionally and intellectually challenging, but important topics? 

Enter the Museum of Life + Science in Durham, North Carolina. Over six weeks in 2020, through an online series called Climate-Conscious NC, the museum brought together experts from a variety of professions to discuss how their work and lives intersected with climate change and then facilitated public forums to discuss these topics and provide citizen science calls to action. 

These experts stressed the importance of public discussion and action. That can be as simple as community members noticing and helping track the local effects of climate change around your home, neighborhood, town and city. How do you experience climate change personally in the built environment, or local geography, around you?

Beyond conversation, many experts stress the importance of joining citizen science projects. Climate monitoring projects that ask everyday people to get involved in scientific research are not only good for contributing data to help build our emerging scientific understanding, but they also help combat psychological barriers to attaining climate literacy, like the human tendency to overlook and normalize gradual or slow changes. 

“I think community involvement is very important, in particular: rainfall is very discreet in space and time, and so what happened in my backyard didn’t happen in your backyard. We see that all the time,” said Jared Bowen, one of the Climate-Concious NC Speakers and a Senior Research Scholar in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. “So one thing that I think is a really good community science project program is CoCoRaHS, which is a network where you can actually go and put out a rain gauge, and be able to be an observer. And you might think ‘Oh, this data won’t be used.’ Actually, this data is very important.”

Citizen science, discussion and deliberation have value in helping to address societal problems that are exacerbated by climate change, especially by shining a light on the ways that historical and persistent inequities intersect with emerging threats from climate change. They can also help to ensure broad and diverse participation in the hard work of building resilience and coming up with solutions towards a just, equitable and sustainable world.

We can’t let the conversation drop. With candor, empathy and a strong foundation of sound science, we can make the future look a little brighter, together.

“Planning for climate change involves lots of moving pieces to make our communities safer, more just, and better in-tune with our social and environmental surroundings,” says Nich Weller, an advisor for the forums portion of Climate-Conscious NC and an expert in public dialogue in science at the Arizona State University School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “A very important way to have conversations about the far-reaching impacts of climate change and our efforts to be resilient is to hold these deliberations, where people see how others view the challenges in their community, and see the predictions and uncertainties about the future. Deliberations help people grapple with the tradeoffs by bringing peoples’ values — which are often not about climate but about the other problems you talk about — to the table.”

You can learn more about how to lend your voice, and your data, by joining projects seeking input from people living through climate change in their everyday lives. To do so, visit our page on SciStarter. How will you discuss climate change in your community? Citizen science may just be the perfect conversation starter.

An extended version of this post also ran on SciStarter

Max Cawley is an educator, researcher, evaluator, and science communicator with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. The Climate Hazard Resilience Forum was developed in partnership with Arizona State University and Northeastern University and supported by a NOAA Environmental Literacy Grant, with materials created by the Museum of Science, Boston under the awards NA15SEC0080005 and NA18SEC0080008 from the Environmental Literacy Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the supporters listed.

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