How to Connect Extreme Weather to Climate Change? Use Social Math

“No longer is global warming an abstract concept, affecting faraway species, distant lands or generations far in the future. Instead, climate change becomes personal.

Its hand can be seen in the corn crop of a Maryland farmer ruined when soaring temperatures shut down pollination or the $13 billion in damage in Nashville, with the Grand Ole Opry flooded and sodden homes reeking of rot.”

– Scientific American, June 2011

Americans now recognize that extreme weather patterns are the new norm. The latest report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that:

  •    “82 percent of Americans report that they personally  experienced one or more types of extreme weather or a natural disaster in the past year;
  •  35 percent of all Americans report that they were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these extreme weather events in the past year; and
  • Over the past several years, Americans say the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse – rather than better – by a margin of over 2 to 1 (52% vs. 22%).”

How can climate advocates link extreme weather changes back to climate change? Rather than simply report stats about the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (as scientists are prone to do), advocates can use the strategy of social math to better communicate the scale and impact of these trends.

Social math involves making numerical information more meaningful for the public. We do this by:

1- using values to help the public understand why this information is important,

2- making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts, and

2- enabling the public to understand the broader impact of the information and consider appropriate solutions.

Let’s look at an example to understand how social math works. Consider the following unframed statement:

“In 2011, Americans experienced a record-breaking 14 weather and climate disasters that each caused $1 billion or more in damages, in total costing approximately $53 billion.”

This statement includes abstract figures that make it difficult to understand the scale of economic impact. How much is $53 billion? Compared to what? What is the value of this information? Why should the public care?

One way we can improve this statement is to compare the amount of money spent on repairing weather-related damages to the amount of money spent on clean energy solutions. Clean energy projects, which include investments in renewable energy, are known to reduce the carbon emitted in the atmosphere. This translates into less weather and climate disruptions from carbon’s “heat-trapping blanket effect.

When looked at from this perspective, we can invoke the “pay now or pay later value” to encourage citizens to support funding for clean energy projects as part of our country’s goal to be prosperous in the future. Instead of spending money to repair costly extreme weather-related damages in the future, we can invest our country’s money in solutions today that are more cost-effective in the long run.

Using the “pay now or pay later” value and social math, let’s reframe this statement to draw a relationship between money spent on clean energy solutions and money spent on weather-related damages. Here’s a potential reframe:

In 2011, Americans experienced record-breaking weather and climate disasters that cost our country approximately $53 billion. That is more than eight times what our government spent on financing clean energy projects in the same year. We can either pay now or pay later to address climate change. It is our duty to responsibly manage our country’s financial resources wisely. An important way we can do this is by investing in clean energy projects today that can benefit us all in the future.”

What other unframed stats have you come across in regards to extreme weather and climate change? Leave your examples below in the comments section with your ideas on how best to reframe them with values and social math.






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