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Scientists really aren't the best champions of climate science

Why aren’t facts enough to get us to act on global warming?

When scientists struggle to communicate with the public, they often respond by doubling down: more data, more charts, more lines of evidence. But sometimes you don’t need more science; you just need three minutes with the pope in a parking lot.

Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been publishing on climate change for more than 40 years, dating back to the early 1970s when he discovered the greenhouse effect of CFCs. But his finest moment in scientific communication was not in a prestigious journal or a global climate conference.

In 2014, at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Ramanathan learned that he was going to have a brief audience with Pope Francis. He quickly crafted a statement, tried to memorize it in Spanish (which he doesn’t speak), and headed to what he assumed would be a formal meeting in some ornate receiving room inside the basilica. Instead, as he was walking through the parking lot, he saw a familiar, pope-shaped man climb out of a Fiat and walk toward him.

“I completely panicked — it was a panic attack,” said Ramanathan of the moment he realized it was Pope Francis.

The Spanish words evaporated from his brain.

“I said, ‘Heck with it, I’m going to tell him in English,’” said Ramanathan.

Instead of getting into carbon dioxide emissions, sea level rise, and all the intricate details of climate science, he dove straight into the moral crisis that climate change presents.

“Most of the pollution is coming from the wealthiest 1 billion people, and the poorest 3 billion are going to suffer the consequences,” he told Pope Francis.

The pope not only listened but wanted to know what he could do to help.

“Since I was not prepared, I went to my heart to tell him, and I think without any exaggeration, those three minutes were my best scientific moments in my life. I could have blown this,” said Ramanathan.

Pope Francis included Ramanathan’s message in an address several days later, started tweeting about climate change, and in 2015 issued a 184-page encyclical focused on the environment and climate change. The pope has an audience of more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world — an audience that trusts what he says.

The repeated failures of the scientific community to get the world to act on climate change are often chalked up to framing problems: If only the data were presented in a way that people understood, people would feel a sense of urgency and demand action. But reframing the argument isn’t a magic fix: Regardless of the topic, people actively seek out ways to reinforce what they already believe. The message matters, but it’s often the messenger that matters more.

This fact isn’t lost on Van Jones. Widely known as a CNN political commentator, Jones is also a founder of Green for All, a nonprofit that focuses on solutions for the people most directly affected by pollution and the effects of climate change.

“Low-income communities, communities of color — we get hit first and worst for everything bad with regard to the environment. We've got the cancer clusters, the asthma. We've got the incinerators right next to our playgrounds,” said Jones.

To his mind, it’s not just one pope or one Van Jones that’s needed — it’s going to take a chorus of voices to broaden the coalition to the point that there’s an effective climate movement in the US.

“You've got to have 20, 30, 40 million African Americans on your side. You've got to have 50 million Latinos on your side. And they're not going to come in the same way that the other folks came in. They're going to come in with a different set of agendas, a different way of talking about it, a different set of needs and priorities,” said Jones.

Watch the video above with Ram Ramanathan, Van Jones, a founder of the Tea Party movement, and others using trusted voices to bring more communities into the climate change fight.

Find out more ways that scientists and activists are finding new venues for talking about real climate change solutions at climate.universityofcalifornia.edu.

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