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Interviews

Write climate for the right climate: using words to promote action


Deborah Lawrence, Ph.D., is a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the links between tropical deforestation and climate change. She leads a group of UVA students fighting for the right climate. Since February, @writeclimate has engaged more than 1,200 members of the UVA community in a conversation on climate change. On pieces of paper, they each wrote a piece of our shared climate story — science, policy, emotion and commitment. The Regeneration Magazine spoke with her to learn more about the project and discuss the best practices for communicating climate science.  

Write climate for the right climate: using words to promote action

Interview: Davis Burroughs, IV, Kaitlyn Depew and Mary Madison Andrews 
Photos: Davis Burroughs, IV, Kaitlyn Depew and Deborah Lawrence 

Why did you start Write Climate? 

Deborah Lawrence: The reason is to create climate awareness, climate commitment and community. We're trying to use art to do something about climate change, and hoping to do it in a new way 'cause as a scientist, I'm pretty sure we have plenty of science that tells us what to do, but I am also surprised that evidence alone does not motivate people. We're looking for a way to motivate people to commit. 

Facts are not the best way to- 

They don't help, right? You know that as a journalist, but I didn't know that as a scientist. My whole life is creating information and believing in information, so this is a way to say, maybe the information is not the only way to go. What we're trying to do is art to action, art to community and art to commitment. We are inviting people to step into the climate story by writing it.

What is that climate story? Well, it starts hundreds of years ago with some science, but we think it progresses all the way through to today with a lot of excellent policy. We're focusing on the United States — that's where we live — and just trying to say here's the science. It's hundreds of years old. There's nothing controversial about that science, but here you go. You have a piece of that science, and you can write it. Or come 1955, you could start tracing our arc, in this country, of caring for the atmosphere and stabilizing climate. So we trace out the arc of that policy story. 

Who else is involved with this project? 

Thirty-seven students from UVA and me, and a bunch of allies ... This is what I love: I'm an environmental scientist, and you'd think, "Oh, it'll be 36 environmental scientists and one psychology major." It was four environmental science majors, and 33 others from four schools and 12 departments. So it was everybody. 

Around 80 or 90 percent of young people are convinced and worried, and ready.

What attracts participants to this project? 

People are concerned about climate change, everyone is, especially with this generation. Around 80 or 90 percent of young people are convinced and worried, and ready. 

Why is art an effective medium to deliver your message?

Because my whole idea is that I am interested in a legislative solution. Ultimately, we can't do anything without a price on carbon, or it will just take forever. The prices are all dropping in the right direction. It's like somebody's on our side because really it is happening without that price. But it would be so much faster with the price ... But how do you get that price?

You have to get to a state where the legislators are not afraid of getting kicked out of office for voting for that carbon price, which means that constituents all have to be saying, "Hey, we're so ready for this." And they may be saying it in a poll, but I want people to say it every day. I want them to say it in their actions, I want them to say it verbally, I want them to talk about it. I want them to be living this new normal which is: "Hey, climate awareness, this is what we do. We are all about climate because if we aren't, we're really headed into a future that we don't want." 

I want to create this new normal, and I think art is better than data at hooking people in.

I want to create this new normal, and I think art is better than data at hooking people in. We try to hook people in on campus. When we were tabling, we could hook them in by saying, "Hey, you want to write climate for the right climate?" And they say, "What?" Then, we say, "Well, you know, we're doing this art project." So they say, "Sure, I'll write something," and then they write. We can hook them in there, by being out in public — that is pretty exhausting. 

Or we can bring them back when we have the art. We did that. We've had three shows ... And we could do that more ... At campus, we get hundreds of people going through the spaces, just looking at the art. They don't all stop, but they look. They're like, "Hmm, what is this?" 

Then, every once in a while when my fellow professors don't complain, I blast this video, which is a bunch of students saying why they're involved and what they're doing and what are we trying to accomplish. So people do stop and stare at the video. They don't want to read my blurb, but they will stare at videos. 

So more exposure. I just want people to come in ... everyone can write. We're not actually asking them to make the art. 

What we discovered this year was it's really fun to do individual projects, but we thought it'd be more fun to do one giant piece of art. So come back next year, and we're going to have a giant piece of art — we don't know where.

What can you do about climate change sign

What's your strategy or philosophy behind keeping people engaged beyond the initial visits to this space? 

Something that I have learned, because I'm a scientist and a scholar, through study, is that people do want to act right away. They want to know exactly what they can do ... Whenever we display, we also put: what you can do about climate change. You can see easy tips, including if you have money and if you don't have money. I always like to give them a list of these easy action items. 

What are the instructions that you put out when you ask people to write something out? 

We actually had a little setup during the show where you could write climate, and we'd say, "Look, do you want to write about science? Do you want to write about policy?" And we would give them some options. In the class, our work was to read the stuff and try to find the good language. What do we like? What are the good words? So we found the good words, either in policy statements — for example, President Nixon opening up the EPA or Barack Obama signing the Paris Agreement — or in quotes from scientists talking about the greenhouse effect. So we'd say, "You can write science or write policy.”

Two weeks in, tabling away, the students came back and said, "You know what, people don't really want to write about science or policy." And I said, "What do they want to write?" They said, "They just want to write about why they are worried." And I said, "OK, well you can write what you're worried about if you then follow it up and say what are you doing about it.”

If you just let people get all scared and depressed and say, "I'm worried about the penguins," or, "I want to go to the beach," or, "I'm afraid for future generations," that's demoralizing. 

Because again, what I had learned was if you just let people get all scared and depressed and say, "I'm worried about the penguins," or, "I want to go to the beach," or, "I'm afraid for future generations," that's demoralizing. 

We called it, "Why do I want the right climate?" Then, "What am I doing to make the right climate?" So we gave them new prompts, and they would do both. And if some people didn't know what the right climate was or what they did, we helped them. We were like, "Well, do you sometimes walk to school instead of taking the bus?" And they were like, "Yeah." We're like, "Great, you do that. Go ahead." Or, "Do you sometimes choose chicken instead of beef?" "Yeah, sometimes." And some of them already knew what they did. They would write, "I compost." So it was very funny.

In the end, I'd say about 65 percent of the paper was why I care and what I am doing, and 35 percent was my original project, which was science and policy. 

And you wanted to know what the inspiration was? 

Yeah. 

Last summer, there was an artist in New York, Morgan O’Hara, who decided she needed to get in touch with the Constitution because she was upset about things that were going on in the world. So she took the Constitution, a bunch of copies, and old notebooks, and pens and paper into a New York Public Library, and she sat there and started writing. I thought I want to do that with the Paris Agreement. I want people to commit to the Paris Agreement. 

So I thought, I'm going to do this. We're going to write climate. 

So I started writing the Paris Agreement, and 90 minutes in, I had written seven pages in very small lettering. And I was at article seven of 29 articles. I thought, hmm, this may be not the thing. This is maybe not what's going to happen for 18- to 22-year-olds. 

I had some students say, "No, we're going to do it later. We're going to do it in The Rotunda ... We're going to do the whole Paris Agreement ... Don't worry. Your project is not dead!" But I did learn that my project had to evolve because of who I was working with, which was great, and what I thought people wanted to do. 

The Regeneration Co-Founder Davis Burroughs and climate scientist Deborah Lawrence

What kind of scientist are you? 

I'm an environmental scientist. I study climate change. 

In your education, did you feel that you were taught how to effectively communicate climate change science? 

I definitely did not get any training to do that. But I went to school a long time ago. Nowadays, we do train our scientists to do that. 

When did you go to school? 

I went to school from '92 to '98 at Duke, in the botany department. Totally straight up science program. 

So you were in school for the Kyoto Protocol? 

Yeah. But I was tuned out. I studied tropical deforestation, and I felt like all of my colleagues were studying carbon dioxide. And I said you know what, that is a later problem. I'm talking about deforestation right now, biodiversity loss. I don't know why you people are not studying land use change, 'cause climate change is so far down the road. Well now it's 30 years later, and it's down the road ... I am still studying deforestation. But now instead of looking down at what happens to the soil and the plants, I'm looking up and saying, How does this change our atmosphere? And what does that mean for climate? How does that affect humanity? 

You said earlier you wanted to put a price on carbon. Can you talk more specifically about what policy solution you would prescribe if you had a magic wand? 

I would be happy with any version. There are versions out there that say, let's put a fee on it, and then give it all back. And I say you know what? That's fine with me. Then there are people who say, "Well, let's take a piece of that and invest it in clean energy. Let's take a piece of that and give it to people who may be disproportionately burdened by that fee." Or, "Let's take a piece of that and pay off the deficit." Those are all different options that would be fine with me, too. 

The price signal is so important. You can also do cap and trade. Really, I don't care. I just don't care. I think what we need is a price, and I would take any price. Because of political divisions, if there's a solution that would breach that divide, I would take it. And I'd let anyone get the credit, as long we establish a carbon price. I don't care. It's so important.

I was talking to a Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee staff member just last night, and we were talking about the carbon tax. He asked me my opinion on that, and I literally said the same thing — whatever works by this point. 

Yeah. I mean, I was so happy they were going to do cap and trade in 2009. I would've been so happy with that ... But since then, there hasn't been, at least in the Senate, a single Republican that is really willing to even talk about climate change as an issue ... so disheartening. 

But it's coming back, slowly.

For students or people coming to this exhibit, what solutions do you find tend to be the most well-received? 

I do not start with, "We need to elect a new Congress." I just don't. I start with what they can do, because I think it empowers them, and I want them to feel like they can start now. You can start tomorrow, and every emission that doesn't go in the air is a win. I always start with personal choices, and I know this is quite hot. My good friend Mike Mann is saying that the meat discussion is misplaced, and gets us misplaced and gets us away from the important things. I really love him and he is my friend, and I will say this to him, that what he's missing is that people may want to focus on the important policy issues, but they also need to feel effective and empowered, and like they have a role to play themselves. 

So I start with a change from meat to chicken once a week. That's a huge win. You just reduced your impact by 14 percent for your food. It's huge! So I like to start with what.

Two things: I love evidence, so the evidence would suggest you actually have to commit for a specific period, which is about 60 days. And if you could sustain it for 60 days, it often becomes a habit that sticks in your life. 

Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that gets lost in the debate between individual action versus corporate action versus governmental action is that corporations and the government are made up of individuals. So if you can get those individuals to bring change into their own lives, then hopefully they can start incorporating change within their businesses and within their governments.

That’s something I learned from Hermione Taylor, who we also spoke to for Issue No. 4. On the other hand, it's very easy to make the initial commitment to do something, like eating less red meat as a simple example. But it's also very easy to slip back into old habits. So what would you say to anyone looking to not just create a change, a behavioral change of some sort, but actually sustain that change? 

Two things: I love evidence, so the evidence would suggest you actually have to commit for a specific period, which is about 60 days. And if you could sustain it for 60 days, it often becomes a habit that sticks in your life. 

So I would say don't ask them to do it forever, ask them to do it for 60 days. The second thing I would say is to try to do it with a friend. Have some accountability. There are great websites out there that help you do it and get someone pinging you and saying, "How's it going?" That's helpful. Or a real friend is probably even better. 

Have you ever heard of Hermione’s organization, Do Nation? 

Actually, we were in touch early on — I used her site to get 50 people to reduce their emissions for my 50th birthday. I must have been one of her early adopters, 'cause I turned 50 a couple years ago. 

You're definitely on the same wavelength. I know that's one of her strategies is trying to get friends and family involved with those choices. At the same time, though, one of the first things you said was you firmly believe that we need a major policy solution to the problem, but we've spent 90 percent of this conversation so far talking more about individual change. 

So how do we do that? 

Good question.

Well, I don't leave the policy part off the table. And in fact, just this morning, as I was walking my dog, I was thinking maybe Write Climate needs to have one political goal every year, and one article and some other goal, like expanding to another campus or community. You can't give up on the political action. 

I also get people asking me, "How do you balance a desire for justice with a desire for environmental safety and security?" My feeling is that without a secure planet, we don't have any chance for justice. 

So personally, I spend my time on the environment. It doesn't mean I spend all my time there. If justice is partly voting, they marry up pretty well. So people do wonder about how they're supposed to invest their time, and I think that's a personal decision. 

What do you think are some of the most effective strategies as an individual, aside from voting, 'cause that's an easy one? 

Yeah. Well, not as easy as you think, right? 

Well, it's an easy answer. 

Yes, this is true. ‘Tis an easy thing to say. 

Being involved with the movement myself, more on the activism level back in high school and college, and being involved with many protests, and submitting public comments, and door to door canvassing — what I found was just failure after failure. You look at what just happened in Michigan with the Nestle water extraction debacle, where 80,000 public comments were submitted in opposition to the plan, versus 75 in favor, and whatever environmental panel they had still signed the permit 'cause they don't actually have to consider public opinion. 

So I'm wondering if you have any ideas for maybe newer, more effective forms of activism that you can take as an individual to hopefully have a bigger effect on change? 

With activism, you could eat as much red meat as you want and show up to a protest, and not save a single emission. So I say go ahead and do something on your own. 

Research would suggest that all of us can probably reduce our footprints by at least 25 percent without government action ... that's pretty huge.

I think that, again, research would suggest that all of us can probably reduce our footprints by at least 25 percent without government action. At least 25 percent. It's work, and you have to kind of put the pieces together, but that's pretty huge. If we did that, we would be actually on target to Paris, which is not a perfect target, either. 

So I would say do some personal action. But there's a role for those protesters, they really get a lot of publicity. My art exhibit did not get as much publicity.

Editor's note: On January 16, 2019, the DiCaprio Foundation (Leonardo DiCaprio) tweeted this story. Hopefully, Deborah's exhibit is getting a bit more publicity now. 

For sure. Everyone has a role to play, large or small. You've been involved in this movement on many different levels for a long time, so I'm sure you've witnessed the ebbs and flows of public opinion. Can you talk a little bit about that and what it's like to see people all of a sudden accept climate science, and then reject climate science? And now, we're somewhere maybe in between, I'm not sure. 

Well, first of all, it's fascinating to me to see my own evolution. In 2000, I was teaching an ecology class, and I teach about global change, and I would say, "Well, we think the planet is warming." In 1998, it looked pretty good, not everyone was willing to say, "I think the planet is warming." They could say, "Well, we're still within this kind of envelope of natural variability." 

Now, I do not ever say that ... I say, "We are totally warming." Eighteen more years, really the data is very solid. So my own evolution has been interesting. 

The evolution of public opinion is also interesting. I'll tell you a story about being in the State Department in 2009. I mean, I did not see this coming. I was in the Climate Office working on deforestation and the role of forests in climate, and part of this negotiating team that was going to head off to Copenhagen at the time. And that, what did they call it, Climategate? Was it Climategate with Mike Mann and the email? 

Yeah, yes. 

So that happened. I'm sitting at the bus stop, and this guy asks me, from Treasury, he says, "Oh, you're at State? What department?" I said, "I'm in the climate office." "Oh, what do you think about this?" And I said, "It changes nothing. The science is totally solid. This is nothing." 

Well, that was not true that it was nothing. That was a moment when scientists seriously lost credibility. I remember thinking, "I cannot believe I don't have credibility." I was used to feeling like scientists are this little class of people who are so special and that they have no personal interest, and they're just pure. Right? 

Yup. 

They’re just, "Nope, that's just the data." So I kind of was shocked [about Climategate] ... Still, we're not back from where we were in 2009. Climate scientists were not pariahs, and now climate scientists are actually the ones that are. There's a lot of scientists who still get that lovely treatment, medical, engineering, cellphone people. All good, except for climate scientists. That was a huge moment ... I really wasn't aware of how much manipulation of a story can just devastate belief and everything. [Climate science acceptance] was really on the rise at that point, and then I think we had a drop. So that was totally disheartening. 

University of Virginia Professor and Climate Scientist Deborah Lawrence

Well, not every movement is fighting against a decades-long propaganda campaign waged by the most powerful economic sector- 

Except for tobacco- 

Yes. 

... Which also kills us. I think with tobacco, though, I don't know, it was probably 20, 30 years from the initial onset of the medical community discovering that smoking was bad for you until the surgeon general's warning came out. So we use that as an example, maybe. We're at the point where- 

The Surgeon General might issue a statement saying, "Climate change is actually bad for you.”

What an interesting idea. And that's something Obama tried to do, was to frame climate change as a public health issue ... I'm not sure how well-received that was. 

The funny thing is ... this is where it's sort of the nitty-gritty about disease and vectors, and it is pretty scary to think about all the stuff that's coming our way. Weird new diseases, old diseases. Malaria, we haven't had malaria in this country in forever. So interesting to think about. It's completely going to be related to climate change. 

There is plenty of hope. We can do this. 

Now, that would be a scare tactic, though We don't do that. Don't do that. You're right [about it being a scare tactic] ... I do not like to be a big bad…I don’t like to do that. There is plenty of hope. We can do this. 

Polar Bear Climate Change Sculpture

Fear is a great motivator, though. 

[It's not.] I just did a huge study on heat stress in East Africa, and how many people are going to live where, and what's the temperature going to be, and how many days a year are they going to spend at a temperature that can make them sick. And it's shocking! And I wrote this whole paper, and then I read some great polling that said, "Do not ever scare people into action, 'cause it does not work." And I think, oh, well how do we do that if we don't tell people what it's going to be like? 

Yeah, I mean, I've read the same research. But then I think about when it comes to issues of national security ... fear of people from different backgrounds, in that case, it does tend- 

It does promote action. This is true. 

Then, I wonder if the scare tactics haven't been focused well enough. So things like, "Oh, disease is going to be everywhere." Well, that's really diffuse. So what I'm trying to do personally in my work is to say what is the lived experience going to be like? 'Cause I think one-degree warming, two degrees warming, really? Does any of us know what that means? It means nothing. It's a global average. So what does it mean for a summertime? What's the summer like in Charlottesville? For every time it rains, does it also flood? That's a big pain. You can't get to work. Someone might die. So I'm trying to think about the lived experience. And then the localized experience. 

Yeah. I'm a skier, so if I'm ever on the lift and someone brings up climate change and is in any way a doubter or a rejector of mainstream climate science, my response is, "Do you want to be able to ski in the future? Do you want to have your ski trips?" Or if you're on the beach ... you have beachfront property, "Would you like to continue having this?" I'm sure this happens to you frequently, if you hear someone with a misinformed opinion (to put it nicely) talking about climate change, and you're in the mood to engage them, what do you say to attempt to change their mind? 

I can start with what do we agree on, such as, "Do you know what the temperature record is? Would you like me to show it to you?" If we agree on that, and people say, "But it doesn't matter," then I can say something like, "Well, you understand that what we've seen is already as much change as we've ever seen as a human species. We've never seen anything bigger than this in terms of up or down. One degree, we've never seen it. So anything more than this is outside of our experience. And in the last few hundred years, when we became civilized, everything we did, agriculture, ports, infrastructure, cities ... We've never lived in such a climate." 

Globe Climate Change Art

So I try to make the case that it could really be quite different and not better. But say we don't even agree on the record, I don't know what to do with that. If people don't agree that the [temperature] record exists or that it's valid, I don't actually think you're supposed to talk to those people. Because I don't think they're going to hear me if they can't agree on the record. And I'm not saying you have to be in my sandbox before I'll talk to you, but it's very hard when people simply will not accept things like, do you believe in physics? Do you believe that CO2 holds heat? What about basic physics? 

There's certainly an argument to be made to just ignore those people and continue the conversation, and they'll catch on eventually. 

Well, I actually got invited to be on a panel of AM radio, and I called Mike Mann, 'cause he really is a friend. I said, "Mike, am I supposed to go on AM radio on a panel?" 

And he said, "No! That is a trap. Anytime there is two sides, that's a trap. Do not go on that. You don't have to." And I was like, "But aren't I supposed to try to reach those people?" He said, "You can't reach those people.” So I thought, that's too bad. 

In an email, you mentioned "subtle politics." Can you elaborate on what that means and why it's desirable? 

Well, because we're in such a sort of difficult time. “Difficult” is a mild word. “Terrible” comes to mind. We're just in such a polarized state that if we can have ... I think that doing things like riding your bike or walking or eating less beef or riding around in an electric vehicle is a statement. And it is saying, "This is who I am." And yet, it's not the same as having an argument. It's just saying, "This is what I value. This is who I am." My laundry is out on the line, and I don't think anyone else ... [Maybe] maybe one other neighbor does it. It's where they can all see it, and it's kind of on purpose. 'Cause it's like you know what? We all have laundry, and this is clean, and it's dried in the sun, and it smells so good, and it's free. So why wouldn't we all do that? 

Subtle politics is just trying to do something that you know is political, in that everything we do is political, and yet not have an argument, and not get stuck feeling like we have to get on sides. Really, you could say to anyone, "Do you think you could have meat one time less a week?" To my mind, that doesn't seem like giving up a lot. And in fact, it might be unleashing all sorts of things, like learning how to cook something else or exploring vegetables you never ate before. 

What’s next for Write Climate? 

... We're doing it again at UVA, Then we're going to go into the high schools
in Charlottesville, and we're going to try to galvanize people outside ... My goal is really not to just be in schools or places of education, but that's where I'm comfortable. 

But I would like to be at Kroger. I would like to be at the public library. I would like to be at a carwash. I'd like to just be out there, everywhere, with people. Because ultimately, we do have to touch more than just the people that are already probably thinking about it. So that's my goal. 

Flowers Climate Change Art #writeclimate

If you had just one message to give to our readers, in one minute or less, related to climate change, what would that message be? 

We can do this. We still have time. We have everything we need. We just need to act. 

Perfect. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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