Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Random Samples with Susan Joy Hassol

Susan Joy Hassol.

Susan Joy Hassol is the director of Climate Communication and has spent her career devoted to advancing public understanding of climate change science and solutions. For over 30 years she’s helped scientists communicate more effectively and provided clear information to policymakers and journalists. She’s written and edited high-level reports including the first three U.S. National Climate Assessments, testified before the U.S. Senate, written an HBO documentary, and she speaks and publishes widely. Hassol is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union (AGU). In 2021, Hassol received the AGU Ambassador Award for her tireless efforts to improve the quality of climate change communication, and in 2023 she received NCSE’s Friend of the Planet award.

Paul Oh: As a newly minted NCSE Friend of the Planet, you reminded us during the award ceremony that “words matter” when it comes to climate action — and inaction. Can you explain why?

Susan Joy Hassol: Words matter because they affect how we think, feel, and act. They can trigger gut reactions based on deeply held ideology. For example, words like “regulate,” “control,” and “tax” can cause some conservatives to reject the reality of climate change because they are averse to what they perceive to be the solutions. Words can also trigger psychological responses; phrases like “we’re to blame” and “it’s our fault” make some people recoil and reject the science of human-caused climate change because it makes them feel guilty. Terms like “cause” and “responsibility” can be more effective.

Many scientific terms can make the climate crisis seem abstract and distant, while other words make it feel up-close and personal. Words like “inevitable” can make us feel hopeless, which doesn’t inspire action. Perceptions can be influenced by word choice. For example, “natural” commonly refers to things occurring in nature, not influenced by humans. So “natural disasters” is not a good choice for the extreme weather events we’re experiencing that are greatly exacerbated by climate disruption. And people associate the term “natural gas” with “clean” while they associate “methane” with pollution, although natural gas is almost entirely methane.

PO: You have a long history engaging in climate communication. What motivated you to get started in this work?

SJH: I’ve always had a knack for digesting large amounts of complex information and boiling it down and expressing it in ways that are clear, concise, and compelling. About four decades ago, when I was embarking on my career, the issue of human-caused climate change was just beginning to rear its head. It quickly became clear to me that it would be the critical challenge of our time, and I wanted to use my talent to help humanity tackle this great challenge.

I started out working with climate scientists to help them communicate in ways the public and policymakers could under- stand. I pointed out that many terms scientists use mean completely different things to the public, so I suggested better alternatives. I’ve also worked with journalists to help them report effectively on climate change as an issue for every beat (not just a science or environmental story). Along the way it became clear that the challenge of communicating on climate is about much more than explaining the science more effectively. It’s about making it personal, connecting with people on values, finding common ground, and appealing to their priorities.

PO: What are the critical messages you’re trying to convey about climate change?

SJH: The critical messages are on the themes of choice, urgency, agency, and love.

Climate change, caused primarily by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is already having devastating impacts on communities around the globe, including ours. We face a choice between a future with a little more warming that we can adapt to and live with, and one with a lot more warming that becomes a global catastrophe. The future is in our hands.

There is an urgency to climate action. Every day we delay, we’re committing to greater climate disruption and associated impacts. Every action counts because every fraction of a degree counts. We have to act now. Later is too late.

We have the tools we need to tackle the climate challenge. The technologies are abundant and affordable; we know what policies work. We’re not starting from scratch; we’re already on our way. We just need to do more, faster.

The climate crisis is putting our children’s future at risk. It’s our responsibility to leave a world that’s safe and livable for future generations. We have to save what we love for who we love.

PO: How do you help the public get past climate denialism or just plain climate apathy?

SJH: This is very much audience-dependent. For the 10% or so of Americans who outright dismiss the reality of human-caused climate change, I have learned that banging my head on a locked front door just gives me a headache. For those people, I find a side door, like focusing on the many advantages of clean energy: it saves us money and gives us cleaner air and water, it gives us greater energy independence and security, and allows us to compete with other countries who are currently winning the clean energy race.

For those who are apathetic, show them how climate change is affecting things they value, whether that’s fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, birding, their health, or having clean water and good food. Talk about it in ways that are personal, local, and immediate, not far away or projected for decades from now. Let them know that it’s not too late to avoid the worst impacts, if we act now.

PO: What are some of your proudest achievements as a science communicator?

SJH: When I first started out in this field, it was very unusual to see climate change in the headlines or hear people talking about it. I worked with my scientist colleagues to help change that. For example, when we produced the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, I worked with hundreds of scientists from eight countries over four years to communicate the science in a way that would sing. We integrated storytelling and other techniques of good communication right from the start. We included beautiful photographs and designed graphics for non-scientists. When we released the report in 2004 at the National Press Club, climate change was the top story on the network news and on the front page of the papers. It was paradigm-shifting.

I’m also gratified to see many scientists I’ve worked with become such excellent climate science communicators. I’ve led workshops — too many to count — to help scientists learn to speak without jargon, to use metaphors, to become better storytellers, and to talk about solutions as well as the problem. In addition to their primary roles as top scientists, I’ve helped them to also excel at a very different role than they trained for when they got their PhDs. It’s such a pleasure to hear them saying the most important thing there is to say in the most effective way there is to say it.

Paul Oh
Short Bio

Paul Oh is Director of Communications at NCSE.