Communication is key to translating research into action on global warming

Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California

Despite a mountain of scientific evidence that global warming has not only arrived, but is worsening, getting people to do something about it — or even comprehend its consequences — is supremely difficult, especially amid shifting political winds.

As president of the nation’s largest public research university, I take this challenge seriously.

The University of California, with 10 research campuses and three affiliated national laboratories, has long been at the forefront of cutting-edge research, including decades of exploration into the impact of global warming, and the search for solutions. In my first year as president, I set the ambitious but attainable goal for the entire UC system to be carbon neutral by 2025.

To achieve that goal — and to continue to fulfill our academic research mission — it’s not enough to be on the cutting edge of research. We must also lead the way in how we communicate about that research, and how we motivate people to change their behavior.

“Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change” par of the Climate Lab series by the University of California and Vox

That’s why UC decided to partner with Vox to launch a new video series — Climate Lab — that features scientists, other experts and regular people in compelling conversations about everything from energy use to the ozone hole, from food to smartphones, from plastic bags to the pope. Through this collaboration, we at UC hope to help people understand what science tells us about the world around us, and why it’s essential to act on that knowledge.

As the series notes, the hole in the ozone layer is a good example of how complex problems can be broken down into manageable parts and ultimately solved.

”Going green shouldn’t be this hard” part of the Climate Lab series by the University of California and Vox

I’m old enough to remember those days, back in the 1980s, when scientists alerted the public to the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons — or CFCs, widely used in products such as aerosol spray cans. Scientists had discovered that CFCs were destroying the atmospheric ozone that protects us from ultraviolet light — and skin cancer.

It seemed the problem was unsolvable, as big as the atmosphere itself. But in the end, at least a portion of the solution was literally at our fingertips. By getting rid of aerosol cans, everyone could make a contribution to solving the problem.

Today, scientists estimate the hole in the ozone layer will be healed within the next 25 years. It’s an example of what we’re seeking to accomplish through the Climate Lab series: break down the large, seemingly insurmountable problem of global warming and show people how they can become part of a solution.

One of the scientists who discovered the greenhouse effect of CFCs is Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, a climatologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a participant in the Climate Lab series.

As a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Ram — as everyone calls him — spoke to Pope Francis in 2014 about the threat to humankind from global warming. He had three minutes for his “parking lot pitch.”

Ram told Pope Francis that global warming was a moral and ethical issue, and the pope asked him what he could do. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences subsequently issued a statement that the world’s poor would suffer the most from the effects of global warming, and Pope Francis included some of the academy’s conclusions in one of his encyclicals.

Ram spoke to the Pope from his heart. And the pope spoke to the world. It’s difficult to know how many minds were changed, but fair to say that the pope’s words influenced the thinking of many people across the globe.

More recently, in 2015, Ram led a team of UC researchers who identified 10 scalable, “quick-win” solutions to curb short-lived climate pollutants. Their report, “Bending the Curve,” also cited the difficulty of communicating the urgency of addressing global warming.

“The global warming facts you need to know” part of the Fig. 1 series by the University of California

Today, effective communication about science and research is more important than ever. We must help the public understand that federal investments in research are critical to our nation’s health, economic prosperity and international competitiveness. These are — or should be — non-political imperatives.

Our Climate Lab collaboration with Vox is a step in the right direction toward getting that message out, but not the only step. We will do everything possible to communicate about science and research in ways that spur people to listen, learn and act. For us at the University of California, that’s a moral imperative.

“Why your old phones collect in a junk drawer of sadness” part of the Climate Lab series by the University of California and Vox

UC President Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano is the president of the University of California system of 10 campuses, three affiliated national laboratories and a division of agriculture and natural resources.