Environmental Communication for Coastal Louisiana

By Zeynep Altinay and Paige Brown

Images and figures by Zeynep Altinay and Paige Brown

Our project’s resultant course in the Manship School of Mass Communication, MC 4971, now has a class blog you can follow for stories about environmental issues in Louisiana and environmental science at LSU and beyond. Visit our blog at scicommlsu.wordpress.com.

Last year, we received a research grant from the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio to survey current approaches and develop new approaches to best practices in modern environmental communication. Throughout the 2013–2014 academic year, we collaborated with coastal scientists, mass communication researchers and science communicators to discuss coastal sustainability and resiliency challenges facing the Gulf Coast and other coastal communities.

What did we find?

In our project interviews, we asked environmental psychologists to describe not only effective communication practices and strategies for motivating pro-environmental behavior, but to focus on those strategies most effective for coastal residents familiar with flooding, coastal land loss, hurricanes and diverse structural and lifestyle barriers to action. Psychologists emphasized 1) writing form a local angle, 2) targeted messaging that takes into account the audience’s needs and concerns, and 3) value messaging that appeals to specific cultural values as well as overarching values relevant to pro-environmental behavior. They also focused on practices of actively listening to audience’s concerns and giving people specific action alternatives in order to empower them to act. Central to Louisiana, psychologists emphasized appealing to an appreciation for nature and local wildlife, local pride and place attachment in motivating people to take action to protect their local environment and local communities.

Environmental communicators that we interviewed focused on localizing the issue, building relationships with local partners, and undertaking efforts to preserve local culture, heritage and traditions as well as undertaking targeted and localized communication of environmental risk.

Placing our findings from interviews with environmental psychologists and communicators in context, a representative survey revealed that Louisiana residents are notably interested in hearing more about how environmental issues such as climate change, coastal land loss and flooding are affecting their own communities. This finding supports the idea that environmental communicators could be tapping more into strong place attachment and sense of community among coastal residents to promote “communities of action.” Empowering people by showing them what they can do about environmental issues – a critical component of motivating pro-environmental action according to environmental psychologists – also seems to be lacking in local media coverage of environmental issues according to the perceptions of surveyed Louisiana residents.

Figure by Paige Brown

Survey Results

An important lesson is that making information locally and personally relevant makes a big difference in climate change discussions. It is especially important for natural scientists to be active communicators and emphasize the global-local link.

The combined survey includes 1,042 respondents including 518 respondents selected from landline telephone numbers via random-digit dialing and 524 respondents selected from available cell phone blocks. Interviews were conducted from March 10th to April 6th 2014. The overall survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.04 percentage points. Based on preliminary data from interviews with environmental psychologists, four questions were designed for the annual Louisiana omnibus survey to determine the messaging needs and preferences of Louisiana residents. Results indicate that when a long-term environmental problem occurs, such as climate change, coastal and loss or flooding, a majority Louisiana residents want to know the most about how the problem will affect the people in their community (45.5%).

When a long-term environmental problem occurs, such as climate change, coastal land loss, flooding and so on, what do you want to know the most?
Figure by Zeynep Altinay and Paige Brown

In terms of solving environmental problems such as climate change, coastal land loss, and flooding, which of the following would you like to know most about?
Figure by Zeynep Altinay and Paige Brown

National Association of Science Writers Annual Meeting

For our CSS Environmental Communication project, I traveled to University of Florida for the annual NASW conference. During the conference I had the opportunity to meet with brilliant researchers and professionals from the field. After five days of talking and listening about science and communication, it was time to fly back to Baton Rouge. I took a cab early in the morning from my hotel to the airport. The cab driver was friendly, unusually cheerful and talkative. Unlike me, he was a morning person. And a very very talkative one. We talked about a variety of things (and when I say ‘we,’ I actually mean ‘he”), from whether it is legal for cab drivers to cut through parking lots to some singer who never had grilled cheese until he was 26. And then, he asked me if I came to Florida for the science writers conference. I said ‘yes!’, which led a whole different conversation. “Science writers, they are pretty good. Good, but isolated from society,” he said. I asked him what he meant by “isolated” but he did not elaborate much on that. He was, actually, already in the middle the next sentence. And, then I asked him what he thought about global warming as it is a popular topic among science writers. Well, that got him really talking! “I don’t believe global warming,” he said. “Climate is always changing. Have you ever seen climate not changing?! This planet once used be ice” he continued. I did not want to interrupt him. I wanted to hear everything he had to say. The more he talked, more interesting it got. “Al Gore, you know Al Gore? Global warming made him rich! He is running electricity in his mansion and driving cars. He does not talk about global warming when he is throwing parties and wasting energy in his mansion!” (There is something I want to make it very clear. Throughout the conversation, I had not said a single word. I was only listening. No follow-up questions, no probing, and no counter-arguments. Just listening. Everything he said, he came up all by himself.) “You know what,” he continued “they have been talking about global warming for 50 years now. They said global warming was going to destroy everything. Now they are saying it is going to happen 100 years from now. I won’t be here 100 years later, you won’t be here either. They want us to believe [global warming] so that they can get rich.”

And then he said something very interesting. He said we should “honor” the environment and respect it, however, we shouldn’t “go crazy” about it, and that we should be able to enjoy our lives. What he said was very important because for the first time he was talking about values. He was not talking about dirty politics, science, or future. He was talking about environmental values. He cared about the environment, but he had a problem trusting information sources. Moreover, he had a problem with people saying climate change being the end of the world. For him, global warming was an exaggeration, which was fabricated by some greedy people. When he was talking, NASW conference sessions flashed before my eyes. Why did he think global warming was going to be an immediate catastrophic event like an earthquake? Why did he think global warming was going to happen in the future as opposed to a phenomenon that is happening right now? Why did he bring up Al Gore? Who are these people who got rich?

Global warming is a catastrophic event that has been happening since the industrial revolution. It has been progressing slowly. And, unfortunately similar to many environmental issues, degradation is largely invisible to human eye, especially in the absence of data visualization tools such as GIS. So, why then so many people think global warming is going to happen over-night? Media depiction of global warming is one of the reasons. The issue of global warming was most recently picked up by the entertainment industry with the release of “The Day After Tomorrow.” The movie is about global warming throwing the Earth into a new ice age in a matter of days. What are the consequences of an unrealistic portrayal of science? It might trigger negative emotions (such as fear), leading people to think about the negative consequence of their present behavior. Threat can lead to attitude change; however high level of threat can also make receivers deny the disturbing information. Even though Hollywood science is not always reliable; however even bad science can teach a thing and two. More mportantly,Hollywood dramatization makes science interesting to lay audience. While Hollywood can keep science fun and engaging, science writing can make sure that science is communicated accurately to public and policy-makers.

What are the challenges regarding climate change communication?

At NASW, Dr. Marc Jaccard explained five major challenges:

a) It is a complex issue, and media like deniers to make the story interesting.

b) One can talk about extreme weather events, however long periods without weather events may weaken the argument.

c) Impacts of carbon pollution are complex (ocean acidification, sea level rise, desertification etc).

d) Promising technologies such as wind and solar may create false sense that we can solve problems without public policies.

e) Apparent lack of public interest.

The emerging story for science writers is our inability to act. Science writers should not get discouraged and give up. Instead, they should be creative by linking the topic to their expertise such as energy systems, technology, and policy and economics. Climate change is a case of Global Tragedy of the Commons. Science writers should explain this phenomenon and that atmosphere is a global common property resource, which is vulnerable to over-exploitation. And, therefore there needs to be a global agreement and a coordination effort to protect this global public good.

Despite the growing consensus that global warming needs to be mitigated, we fail to act because “vested interests continue to delude the public and politicians that expanding carbon polluting infrastructure is somehow good (i.e. jobs, taxes, clean, necessary etc).”

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