When it comes to an issue as complex as climate change, academics, researchers, and scientists have been careful to avoid the "alarmist" label. There exists the belief that speaking more urgently about the severity of the issue won't increase public interest. As Northeastern professor Matthew Nisbet puts it, "In some ways, if scientists do choose to be more urgent, more vocal, and potentially more political, there is a possibility of the message backfiring and undercutting public faith in the actual science."
Instead, scientists and academics are offering refreshing, practical ways to communicate and raise awareness about climate change. In order to get the general public more interested in climate change, it is better to focus on a broad array of solutions that cannot be pigeonholed into a political agenda, such as clean energy innovations; more equitable, sustainable economies; and high tech farming practices.
Additionally, Northeastern professor Brian Helmuth urges a local approach to making climate change progress. Helmuth and Nisbet both agree that the local level is where real change needs to start: "instead of one-way communication by engaging the public through the press, scientists [need to] invest in local forums and initiatives where relevant groups come together to discuss a problem and consider solutions,”said Nisbet. “The public needs to have an active role in the decision-making and solution process.”
These observations and suggestions are important to keep in mind as universities and colleges work to build awareness of climate change. With their extensive contacts, scientific and sociological resources, and student bodies that are increasingly dedicated to the climate change cause, college campuses are uniquely poised to build coalitions, form local partnerships, and drive solutions.
A decade ago, whenever the topic of climate change would come up, Northeastern’s Brian Helmuth would focus solely on the scientific facts while deliberately ignoring the potential long-term societal implications.
It’s the way that Helmuth, whose research centers on climate change’s impact on coastal ecosystems, was trained. But, he recalled, “It was so dry. No one would ever listen and it didn’t enact any change.”
Now—as those previously hush-hush impacts of climate change become more and more obvious—Helmuth has adopted a different tone.
“Since my kids are going to inherit this planet, I decided that I have to talk about the implications and not just the scientific facts,” said Helmuth, a professor of environmental science and public policy with joint appointments in the College of Science and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “I am careful that if I say something is true, I make sure it can be backed up by science. But I’m not afraid now to also say ‘Here is what is going to happen if we don’t act on that information.’”