April 30, 2012 | By Holly Robertson
In preparing for our interview with Raghu Murtugudde, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park, I suffered a moment of apprehension. After all, the focus of my research does not often have me poking around in the physical sciences literature.
As Ryan Marsh and I began the interview, however, any worry over communication boundary quickly receded.
Murtugudde is not only a climate modeler who looks at how climate change affects local systems, but he also regularly tackles the challenge of communicating this information to policy makers and the public.
Making his work accessible to those not in the physical sciences, or in fact science at all, became one of the themes of our conversation. But firstly, Murtugudde had this to say about fitting his work on modeling into the broader environmental movement:
Building sustainability and climate resilience begins at the local level. If each piece of the planet is resilient and sustainable, then the planet as a whole is resilient and sustainable.
Sustainability is a target, and as we gain new information from advances in research, so too must our tools advance to help navigate us toward it.
If sustainability issues are almost all local, how does one reconcile the fact that most decision making power is centralized? The role of government is important, says Murtugudde, but top-down mandates never work, as people do not respond well to being told what to do. The government can incentivize certain actions, however, so that there is a choice and so people will feel compelled to care and work together for their planet.
It is increasingly more difficult to ignore climate change issues; weather patterns are changing and people notice. What people do not comprehend yet are the solutions.
Thus, the environmental movement has to be about “What are the solutions?” If you keep telling people something is wrong, but do not say what can be done about it, the environmental movement loses its momentum.
The responsibility for science is to offer solutions, but at the same time not advocate.
As Murtugudde puts it: “We have to be panderers of truth, not arbiters of truth.”
A key component of this comes back to communication. How do scientists communicate about the issues and the solutions effectively? To do this, the first step is to recognize the mental model, both the audience's and yours.
The human mind perceives risk in a certain way. Everybody has an emotional elephant and a rational rider. Recognizing this is the first step. In order to understand a person’s mental model and what has influenced their perception, the second step must be to listen.
Even though we as scientists feel that we have important information to convey, we must realize that 90 percent of decisions made in the world are made without input from science. The value of scientific input can be very small, even if you are building a nuclear plant, says Murtugudde.
Activism can play an important role to raise awareness of the issues and influence decision making. To be effective, activists need to be sure that they are making informed decisions about issues people care about.
In the end, the conversation with Murtugudde was not about the hard science behind his models. It was about the “soft” side of his work, the communication and the understanding of social systems. According to him, these are the most critical aspects of advancing toward global sustainability and resilience.
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