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Experts urged to better translate climate science so people can understand it

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Global warming can sometimes feel too big, too serious or too distant. But some experts believe the way we talk about the changing climate can change attitudes. Here's NPR's Paige Waterhouse.

PAIGE WATERHOUSE, BYLINE: Susan Joy Hassol is a self-proclaimed climate communicator.

SUSAN JOY HASSOL: Some people say I'm like a simultaneous translator. Science in English out. I translate lots of complex things into things that are relatively simple.

WATERHOUSE: Hassol heads the nonprofit Climate Communication. She says the project's research and programs make climate news accessible for everyone from kids to lawmakers. After more than three decades of working in this field, Hassol has observed a general lack of public concern when it comes to global warming.

HASSOL: For most people, it's not really touching them.

WATERHOUSE: Ed Maibach directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Twice a year, the center partners with researchers at Yale to survey a representative group of Americans. They've been tracking public awareness on climate issues since 2008. Their findings indicate that the majority of Americans are aware of climate change, they just don't see it as an urgent issue.

ED MAIBACH: When we started these surveys, the majority of people saw climate change as a future problem. Now, the single largest group, the alarmed, they see it as a clear and present problem. But they are about three out of 10 Americans, which means that seven out of 10 Americans still either see climate change primarily as a future problem, or about two out of 10 dispute whether or not it's happening.

WATERHOUSE: Hassol has observed that the way we talk about climate change directly impacts public response.

HASSOL: It's hard to communicate urgency 'cause they're not thinking at the planetary level. They're thinking at the level of their family and their community.

WATERHOUSE: She believes the key is to relate big climate issues to how they're directly affecting individual communities.

HASSOL: That's what everybody wants, right? Clean air, clean water, protecting my community is better than save the planet. Protecting and conserving for our children and for future generations.

WATERHOUSE: But in order to really get through to people, Maibach says experts and journalists need to effectively translate the facts.

MAIBACH: Together, they really can work to help Americans better understand the realities of climate change and focus more clearly on decisions that we need to start making now in order to reduce the risk of harm from climate change.

WATERHOUSE: Maibach sees it as the greatest public health threat facing humanity but says he's determined to do something about climate change because it's not too late. Paige Waterhouse, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACABRE PLAZA'S "TILL THE WHEELS FALL OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paige Waterhouse