We talk to a USD scientist who is leading the effort to educate the public about San Diego's climate issues.
April 3, 2012 1:19 p.m.
Michel Boudrias, marine scientist, USD
Related Story: USD Scientist Getting The Word Out On Global Warming
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Tuesday, April 3rd. Our top story on Midday Edition, is it the message or the messenger that has so many people so confused about the signs of climate change? A new initiative headed by the university of San Diego is trying to find out what community leaders actually understand about climate change and then find a way to frame the science in a way non-scientists can relate to. Here to tell us more about the project is my guest, USD marine scientist Michelle Boudrias.
BOUDRIAS: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: What can you tell us about what San Diegans actually know about climate change?
BOUDRIAS: We did interviews of key influential leader, and a public opinion survey. San Diegans as a whole were more concerned with climate change and were more sure about the fact that it was happening than the national average. In particular, they were connected to some of the local regional issues affected by climate change
CAVANAUGH: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about climate change?
BOUDRIAS: There seems to be a politicization of the science. So people are not sure that they understand the science or are trying to fight the details of the science rather than the objective information that is being presented clearly. If you talk to people who think what it was like in San Diego ten years ago or 15 years ago. We're trying to impact the science in an objective way. That these things are happening, it is happening in San Diego, and you need to have an objective perspective on it, rather than choosing a side on this discussion.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you think it has been so difficult for scientists to explain the way they've developed the science of climate change? Is it us or them?
BOUDRIAS: It's a bit of both. I'm a trained scientist. I've been working at USD for many years. Much of the training is not done to necessarily transmit it to the public, but rather to transmit it to your colleagues and audience. More and more now the scientists are working in explaining things in a much more general term. At USD, we develop a lot more of the techniques to be able to speak to a non-science audience. I think part of it is the audience as well. There's a lack of understanding of the process of science. There's this preparation that we're looking for absolute answer, rather than understanding how science is done, how models are done. So I think it's a bit of both that we need the scientist to connect better with the audience, and trying to understand what scientists trial do and how we get to the answers we get.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about this new project. The national science foundation has given a grant to this project, headed by the university of San Diego to explore a new approach to educating San Diegans, and hopefully other people as well across the country if this works out well, about our climate concerns. Tell us about how this works.
BOUDRIAS: The initiative was started a couple of years ago, when they realized that there was a lot of effort spent to do climate science itself in education, but there's still a gap in the literacy around the country in all levels. This is expanding it to what they call K through grade, and talk about it all levels, and in our case, including it with community leaders and leaders themselves.
CAVANAUGH: People long out of school.
>> Long out of school, or who are not listening about new advances in science. It's made cheer that we need multidisciplinary approaches. This is a complex issue. So not only having scientists on the team, we have people from USD, people from the Scripps institution of oceanography, USD, both the climate scientists and environmentalists like myself, we have the San Diego foundation involved, cal state San Marcos, so it's really social psychologists involved, community leaders, people who are good with adaptation and mitigation like the energy policy initiative center at USD, and climate scientists. So the approach is to take multiple perspectives. And we even have some people to help us with our communication strategies. The so who are the best marriages for this?
CAVANAUGH: You talked about identifying community leaders and finding how much they know about climate change and how to send that message to other people, how do you identify who these influential leaders are in our community? Is it basically just politicians or are there other people involved?
BOUDRIAS: Some of our team members looked at the who's who across everything you can think of in San Diego, faith-based communities, Latino communities, business communities, elected officials. So we define our concept of key influentials, or community leaders across the board from business to school districts and the public health sector. Once we started looking at these who people were, we developed a list of people we wanted to interview. And we can't disclose who they are. But we interviewed 38 very prominent people, these are people that San Diegans would recognize in -- across the discipline, and asked them what do you know about climate change? How they respond to it from a perspective of their values and their core identity, and also asked them what they thought they could do and what they are doing as far as their own personal behavior related to climate change.
CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting way to go about it. What is the goal of that effort?
BOUDRIAS: When we looked at the possibilities for this project, when we first got this started, there are a lot of really good efforts for K through 12, and some good efforts in the college level, but there seemed to be this gap in people who can make decisions now, in the next five or ten years are making decisions that are going to affect their communities. So we need to find out who should be the best messenger, someone like me who can teach climate science, or the community leader themselves who is working with the community? So should it be the key influential that speaks or a portal for us to come in and set up an example for the community?
CAVANAUGH: Could you give us any examples of how the message about global warming might change if it was handled this way?
BOUDRIAS: Well, let me give you an example. One of the things we're trying to do in our first phase of our project is to try some early implementation. And so part of our grant is funded on creating a series of videos. And the idea is to have the same message, so the message will be talking about the impacts of water, which is one of the biggest issues for climate change in San Diego, use one message but use three different messengers. So if this message came to you from an initial person or a scientist or from your grand father, how would you respond to the same message? Would you think about acting different ways? Would you learn more from one messenger versus the other? So this is an early implementation to test out the messenger. We're also going to try to work on different ma'ams as well. But the first phase is to see if three different messengers are saying the same thing, how do people respond?
CAVANAUGH: The message you're trying out in these videos has to do with San Diego and water as it relates to climate change. What are the other things that San Diegans really need to get up to speed on about how climate change might affect our climate here in San Diego?
BOUDRIAS: There's two components. One thing is our group really decided to focus on these issue, to use holt and regional climate science, and local and regional climate impacts to discuss the message N. Some cases, people disconnect to climate change if they hear it's a global issue. It is, but there's a stronger connection if you do it from a local perspective. A survey in 2010 that was done by San Diego foundation as well as our survey done in 2011, water is clearly one of the big issues. Fires. We have had more intense wildfires. Sea level rise, people living near the beach, they are concerned about the beach, it affects their quality of life in San Diego. We're going to talk a bit about heat waves as well. That's really excellent cutting edge research going on looking at heat waves. These, issues that affect San Diegans directly. So this comes out in our surveys, that people want to know more about the obligation, the beaches, water and fire.
CAVANAUGH: And as this project moves along, and you interview influential leaders and you try to develop these new methods of communicating these ideas, how are you handling the political issues?
BOUDRIAS: That is the most difficult situation. What we have really tried to do and we are positioning ourselves as -- almost a mantra, I guess, is to be neutral and objective. To present the science in a neutral way, to present the adaptation and mitigation possibilities of what goes on, and to not try to advocate anything, to not really change people's behavior but to give them the information they need to make their own decisions. So it's really using the currency of science, which is facts and knowledge and see how they could be given to people and let them make some smart decisions. It's critical for us to not fall into the political debate and to remain in this neutral place.
CAVANAUGH: When you get to the point of allowing people to see how scientists have come to the conclusions they've come to by using the data they've used and explaining how the data is compiled and so forth, when you take several steps back and then March up to the conclusion, do you find that people's ideas about climate change actually do change?
BOUDRIAS: They do. It's interesting. When you present it in a way that shows let me show you what's been happening in the last ten or 20 years, especially when it's local data, and you point out these are data that have been collected pie people who live here and work here, people respond if it's presented in that way. The difficulties are projections. When people hear in 2,100 it's going to be this temperature or the sea level will be this high. And that's part of our goal, to explain how the models are done, created, and how you can come up with these possibilities. But if you present people with data that shows them what actually has happened -- we hope to update -- a lot of the information now stops in the year two thousand. We want to show them what's happened in the last 12 years.
CAVANAUGH: Part of this team that you talked about that are involved in this project are psychologists and public affairs experts. And with them involved, it almost sounds like you're trying to market the idea of climate change. Is that a fair assessment? Or am I getting something wrong?
BOUDRIAS: I don't think it's a fair assessment, I think it's one of the perceptions you might get.
BOUDRIAS: But what we're really trying to do are to be scientists about this. The social scientists are going to measure how these people are responding to these situations. The public affairs people are this to help us with creative ways of doing messaging. As a scientist, I'm not trained on how to create a phone apor do something that's more public speaking. So by having this team together, we're leaning on each other's expertise to present the science and quantify how people are responding which is why we have social psychologists with the questionnaires that would say how are you responding to the information you're getting? So we're staying very much away from marketing or advocacy and issuing very neutral in our presentation.
CAVANAUGH: I see. It's more of a tool for you to make sure what you're communicating is actually getting through to people.
BOUDRIAS: That's exactly right.
CAVANAUGH: Now it must be something -- I know that there's no real debate within the scientist community that climate change is real and that it's caused by man-made events. It must be difficult for scientists to come up against the pushback on that all the time. How do personally deal with it?
BOUDRIAS: It is a bit of a challenge. I was saying in some cases, we weren't presenting real numbers, and someone says I don't believe your number, it's a difficult situation when we're trying to be objective. First of all, I try to understand both sides. I have been reading material across all the disciplines, and I think it really helps to have a multidisciplinary team. On our team, there may be someone who doesn't quite respond to the science the same way. So it's been really good for us to try things out within our own team. I think we just have to remain calm and neutral and objective and present it as a series of facts and let people make smart decision when is they hear what's happening.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned in put last answer that you gave something about a phone app. How is high-technology being incorporated into this project?
BOUDRIAS: One of the things that the whole project is trying to do is find ways that we can get to different audiences, in some cases speaking in front of an audience for an hour is not the way to talk to people. Just giving them a lot more knowledge and ten more graphs is not going to affect how people respond. So there are some apps that will be coming out, or a climate tour, take you to a location and show you, talk to you about what happens.
CAVANAUGH: On your smart phone, right?
BOUDRIAS: You can go there on your own, and there will be a tour on the smart phone. Doing games for climate change.
CAVANAUGH: If this turns out to be a successful approach, and you can come back and say this is where San Diego was in 2011 and here's where they are now in terms of people understanding and responding to the science on climate change. Is this a model that could be used in other cities as well?
BOUDRIAS: It's almost as if you read our proposal, yes.
[ LAUGHTER ]
BOUDRIAS: That's exactly what we want to do. We want to be able to go to Alaska and say what are your climate issues, who are the key leaders in your region? Not only are we trying to come up with implementation strategies, but we're being deliberate in detailing our process so we can take our model and go to another area in the U.S. and say here's how you might try to approach connecting to your community leaders and your influential leaders, determining what your climate impacts are so that connection between the local climate impact community leaders and how people respond in your own area with your own set of conditions. And so that is actually one of the key components of this proposal from a planning perspective, and hopefully the next one, one of our big efforts in the last few years will be to replicate the model and bring it to other areas.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.
BOUDRIAS: My pleasure.