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Advocates for action on climate change should take a page from the LGBT movement’s book, Joseph Romm told an audience of hundreds at Northern Arizona University Wednesday night.

In a span of 10 years the movement to promote marriage equality turned the issue from one that no politician wanted to touch to one that a majority of Americans now support, said Romm, founding editor of the blog Climate Progress and the university’s keynote Earth Day speaker.

What it took was talking about gay marriage publicly when other people didn't want to, Romm said.  

"They brought up an uncomfortable subject because it mattered," he said. 

The same strategy needs to be taken with climate change, an issue half of Americans say they never talk about, Romm said.

“It requires the people who care to do something uncomfortable,” said Romm, who Rolling Stone called "America’s fiercest climate-change blogger" and is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

Romm came to his own realization about the urgency of climate change when his brother’s home got wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Afterwards, his brother asked Romm for advice about whether he should rebuild.

After talking to climate scientists and reading the literature he realized two things, Romm said.

“One is that the situation is considerably more dire than I thought and second is that scientists were doing a really lousy job of communicating that fact.”

With a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Romm knows how scientists are, and aren’t, trained to communicate. He said he spent years unlearning the communication style he was taught at MIT because it's ineffective in getting a point across to regular people.

It isn't just a matter of talking about the science of climate change. It's how we talk about it, Romm said.

“The facts and logic are not going to do it,” Romm said. The whole idea of depersonalizing and dehumanizing a message “is literally the opposite of what you want to be doing,” he said.

The vast majority of people are persuaded not by facts, but by emotion, he said.

Forms of speech like alliteration, metaphor, rhyme and repetition can also lend power to the message, but most people have stopped or forgotten how to use them, Romm said. We need to take a cue from Shakespeare, Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan, he said.

There are ways that higher education can play a role in addressing the communication challenge Romm is talking about, said Bruce Hungate, director of NAU’s Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, which sponsored Romm’s talk.

“I think it would be great if scientists were required to take classes in communication, language, theater — something that gets them out of the box and thinking about how people understand and communicate,” Hungate said. Communicating science to a lay audience used to be viewed as something beneath scientific training and something that somebody else should do. But now that mentality is changing, he said.

“We recognize it's beneath no one to communicate clearly,” Hungate said.

Media matters

Romm knows well that the media play a powerful role in determining how or if Americans will turn their attention to climate change. Right now the numbers don't paint a pretty picture. Media coverage of the issue has cratered since 2007, Romm said, and environmental stories make up just 1 percent of all news headlines, according to the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage. Without media coverage the issue fails to be one Americans think they have to worry about, Romm said.

But a confluence of factors, including the likelihood that 2015 will be the hottest year on record, extreme weather driven by warmer temperatures and the coming of the 2016 elections, could all shift the focus, Romm said.

“I know that (Hillary Clinton) and her husband understand the existential nature of (climate change). If she realizes that it is a winning political issue, which all of the studies show, then she will make it so,” he said.

In the end though, all great social movements win or lose on the moral argument, Romm said.

“On issues like this, that are going to cost money, you have to have something that trumps money,” he said, “and what trumps money is the immorality of what we are doing to our children, our grandchildren and all future generations.”

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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