Susan Joy Hassol and climate communication

Language is spectacularly imprecise. Susan Joy Hassol from Climate Communication has made a career out of studying how to — and how not to — use language to most effectively communicate climate science to a broad audience.

susan hassol portait
Susan Joy Hassol

Well, you might think, surely this isn’t too complicated. But step back for a moment and think about some of the terms you’ll see on a daily basis in the formal language of climate scientists speaking to one another: THC, aerosols, enhance, error, bias, negative emissions, positive feedback, positive trend.

These words might sound innocuous enough in a scientific context, but to a non-scientist, or even to scientists from a different field, these words can have entirely different meanings: the active ingredient in marijuana, spray cans, make better, mistake, preconceived notion, bad emissions, something good, a helpful development.

Susan has worked for years to collate a list of these and other trigger words, as well as suggested replacements. If you see yourself using potentially confusing terminology in public communication, then you might like to check out the articles in Physics Today and EOS on the resources page of Susan’s website (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for all manner of climate communication info!).

Susan’s career provides a great example of how to build a non-academic career in climate science. It’s possible, but you need a passion for what you’re doing, and the ability to pull together a diverse line of work. Susan started with a long stint as a writer/communicator for the Aspen Global Change Institute, followed by an increasingly diverse portfolio including one-on-one coaching, running communication workshops, writing a documentary for HBO, serving as the Senior Science Writer for the National Climate Assessments,  and a great deal of public outreach, including a terrific TEDx talk.

susan hassol TEDx talk
Susan during her TEDx talk at the University of Montana.

Susan grew up in a four-generation apartment in Brooklyn, with Yiddish spoken. Her parents always said she was a good communicator, and that’s certainly remained true. From her years of experience with climate communication, some of Susan’s take-home messages are:

  • Good communication means “simple, clear messages repeated often by a variety of trusted sources”.
  • Stories are important: you have to speak for the facts, which don’t speak for themselves.
  • Speak a common language: “…while there is always complexity, I find that the basic story in many cases is really pretty straightforward”.
  • Use analogies. Instead of talking about gigatons of annual meltwater from Greenland, try saying that it is like the water use of LA for a year.
  • Talk about hope and urgency in climate discussions. Hope and worry motivate action; fear and despair do not.
  • Emphasize that we still have a choice. Do you want just a few more days per year like the currently hottest day … or a month more?
Susan during the filming of her HBO special "Too Hot Not To Handle".
Susan during the filming of her HBO special “Too Hot Not To Handle”.

Sometimes, community inertia on communication is so strong that it can difficult to break through. Susan was invited to speak at a National Academy meeting on the recent reduced rate of global warming — you know where I’m going with this — and emphasized that “hiatus” was a misleading term, both scientifically and for communication. But the message didn’t take: “…everybody shook their head and agreed with me and then they kept on calling it the hiatus”. The point, perhaps, being that it is probably worthwhile for the community to discuss and define terminology before it’s too late.

In the end, in spite of the many ways that the messaging of climate science can go haywire, and the many challenges that climate change will bring, Susan left me with one of the more optimistic viewpoints I’ve heard on Forecast. Renewables are growing rapidly and appeal to almost everyone, even if you don’t believe in climate change; China is backing off coal; mitigation provides clearly better outcomes if implemented soon and aggressively.

Not only that, but Susan also went to the same high school on Long Island as Steve Schneider!*

* The original notes said that Susan was in school with Steven Schneider. In fact they attended the same school, but at different times.

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