Wanted: Climate change communication that is surprising, delightful, beautiful, or witty. Over-the-top appeals to fear or guilt need not apply.

Let’s say you take your dog to the veterinarian, where you learn that you need to give “Spot” a pill once a day for two weeks. At home, the trusty canine refuses to swallow the pill — it probably tastes bad, after all.

Like many dog owners, you’re likely to stick the pill into something more appealing, such as a wedge from that snack-time hotdog. With the pill safely inside the frank, Spot likely will scarf it down, no questions asked.

Might climate communicators adopt a similar technique? Can they present climate news in a more palatable package that will help people absorb, rather than repel, it?

The ‘Pill’ Of Climate

Like swallowing a pill, digesting climate news can leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

There’s no denying what greenhouse emissions have already done to the atmosphere and to the oceans, after all, and it’s not pretty.

Acidic seawater is wiping out wild oyster beds in the Pacific Northwest. With melting sea ice and permafrost, some coastal Alaskan villages are scrambling to relocate inland. As Arctic ice retreats, methane is pouring into the atmosphere.

As respected science writer Michelle Nijhuis put it in a recent blog post, “There’s a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat.” (See related posting.)

Still, Nijhuis writes, environmental communicators may too often employ the “Lorax narrative,” a reference to the Dr. Seuss book, in which a greedy industrialist usurps Earth’s resources and an environmental catastrophe ensues while the rest of us happily shop away.

One potential consequence of such a storytelling approach is that it may well provoke strong negative emotions and counterproductive behaviors. As researcher and consultant Susanne Moser described in the book Creating a Climate for Change, just learning about the facts of climate change can cause “anger, defiance, a desire to blame someone, powerlessness, despair, a sense of exhaustion or annoyance at having to hear the litany one more time.” That’s particularly true when a message about climate change includes an appeal to fear or guilt.

This advertisement, for example, mixes guilt and fear.

Climate information can also be difficult to swallow if the audience perceives it as boring or inaccessible. Understanding the science requires specialized knowledge, and the details of policy proposals — from the UNFCCC process to cap-and-trade — can seem arcane.

A ‘Hotdog’ For Climate News?

If climate news is a “pill,” then a “hotdog” may represent a more appealing — but still factual — way of providing that information. Ideally, such a “hotdog” breaks past an audience’s pre-conceived ideas. Instead of offering people a familiar litany, it surprises or even delights them.

So what does a “hotdog” actually look like? One good example is “The Fracking Song,” a music video produced by New York University students for ProPublica. The song explains hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drilling for natural gas, in just two and a half minutes. It’s surprising, witty, beautiful, and catchy.

It’s also good journalism. The song offers a reasoned look at the issue while succinctly explaining the history of fracking. It is, of course, no substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting on the issue that ProPublica and some other “new media” can provide. But the song can draw readers into that reporting — it’s garnered more than 200,000 views on YouTube.

Another potential approach to communicating with an audience about climate change involves humor, epitomized in this clip from “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart explains that presidents have promised better energy policies since the Nixon era, to little avail.

Other good examples of “hotdogs” on the topic of climate change? They’re out there, for sure, so why not share them?

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Richard Koci Hernandez, an assistant professor of journalism at Berkeley, who suggested the idea of the hot-dog approach to students working on a specialized journalism project this past summer.)

Topics: Climate Science