What we need to help people understand is that the changes we need to make to address both of these enormous challenges — all of that stuff makes for a better world. This is not about sacrifice and deprivation. This is a story of human flourishing in a post-fossil fuel world. In a smarter, better, more connected world. It’s a more just and equitable world, a physically healthier world.

In this latest instalment of Distilled, host Will Sarni, CEO of Water Foundry, dives into a brand new guest’s background and career path to find out how their journey in the world of water began, before discussing climate change versus climate disruption, changing the media narrative, water as a climate change issues, and the opportunities for a better future.

Susan Joy Hassol, Author, TEDx Talker, and Director at ClimateCommunication.org, joined Will to talk through her journey in the world of water. Will began by asking Susan to discuss what led him to pursue a career in the water industry.

Watch the full video episode below or keep reading for the write-up.

Susan’s journey into the world of water

Susan’s professional journey began in the energy sector, where she initially recognized the profound consequences of society’s energy consumption and its role in climate change. She also understood the intricate connection between water and climate change. At that time, she noted that although climate change was gaining traction within the scientific community, it had not yet become the significant societal issue it is today.

At this time, it became evident to Susan that climate change would be the defining issue of our era. It was then that she committed to dedicate her life and career to breaking down the intricacies of climate change and conveying them clearly and compellingly. This moment marked the beginning of Susan’s endeavor to bridge the gap between climate and communication, setting the stage for her career.

To this day, Susan is fascinated by language – the way scientists talk to each other, to the public, to policymakers, and to journalists. She explores what’s clear, what’s still a mystery, and what’s often misconstrued around the topic of climate change. She’s also intrigued by how people’s ideologies influence the way they use language, and how that plays a significant role in the wider conversation surrounding climate change.

Susan on climate change versus climate disruption 

Will then went on to ask Susan about how we can challenge the narratives around climate change and bridge the gap between the scientific community and the “layperson” without a technical background. 

Susan said that the word “drought” and the term “climate change” are both great examples of generic terms used to describe wider concepts. She said that the situation we are currently living in is not just climate change, but one of climate disruption caused by humans, and that rather than experiencing droughts, we are currently experiencing aridification. 

Commenting that the layperson might not understand these terms, Will asked Susan if different words can be used for terms such as drought and aridification. Susan said that we should break down the words and explain exactly how humans are making the world more arid and how drought is expanding into places that haven’t traditionally been so dry. 

We are making things more arid and we can explain why a warmer atmosphere is going to absorb more moisture from the soils and it’s going to dry things out. We can explain how climate change is affecting atmospheric circulation carbons like the Hadley cell, which is — we’re not going to get into that with the layperson — but we can explain how we are expanding deserts, we’re expanding drought into places that have not been traditionally that dry. So we are redefining how we are making things drier.

She continued by mentioning that there are no simple language substitutions for these terms. However, she emphasized that once the concepts are explained, people will be able to use them in context.  

Susan on changing the media narrative on climate change

Expanding on this idea, Will asked Susan how we can support the media in adopting more tangible language instead of abstract concepts like climate change to make the subject more accessible to a broader audience.

Susan commented on how important the media is in conveying the findings of publications such as IPCC reports and national climate assessments to the public. That’s why, she said, she has spent the last five years working with her colleagues to train journalists and give them more background on climate change so that they can report on it in a more meaningful and helpful way. 

We’ve put it together in simple, plain language with a top-line message. So if they have room for one sentence in a story about a current heat wave, we give them that sense about how heat waves have changed because of climate change. And we give them all the literature, give them the background, the citations, and we give them some scientists that they can contact for quotes who we vetted as not only being top of their field in science but being able to communicate clearly with journalists.

She also produces “quick facts” on topics such as heavy downpours, flooding, and hurricanes for journalists who do not have the time to embark on deep dives into each subject or the knowledge to understand the scientific language. 

Susan on acknowledging that climate change is a water issue

Will then remarked that he believes that the climate community has been more effective in conveying its message to the general public compared to the water sector.

Susan responded by saying that there are huge overlaps between water, energy, and climate change, including mega-fracking projects, and that larger publications such as The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, and the L.A. Times (all of whom have a designated climate desk) are doing a good job on reporting these issues. 

She said the problem is the lack of widespread readership, which contributes to a lack of understanding that climate change is ultimately a water issue. She also said that we need to increase our resilience to the impacts that are already here and are on the way with investments in technology and water policies.

These things are real threats, serious, and they’re not in the future anymore. They have moved firmly into our present. But what we need to help people understand is that the changes we need to make to address both of these enormous challenges and others that you’ve mentioned, like the biodiversity crisis, all of that stuff makes for a better world.

Susan went on to say that this story is not one of sacrifice and deprivation, but one of human flourishing in a post-fossil fuel world that is ultimately smarter and more connected. 

Susan on constructive hope and the opportunities for a better future 

Will said that optimism around what is possible and the opportunities for the future are critical to achieving change in the future, especially when communicating with C-suites. 

But there is something to be worried about. And if you’re not worried about it, you are not paying attention and you don’t understand. So people need to be worried. But I don’t want to get them all the way to fear to where they lock up and they can’t act. And one of the things we’ve learned — and to me this is intuitive — is that anger is actually more powerful in many cases an emotion than anxiety.

Susan noted that while this approach may align well with the business sector, she finds herself having both constructive hope and doubt. On the hopeful side, she firmly believes in the feasibility of effective strategies, underpinned by the roles of policy and technology. However, her constructive doubt stems from uncertainties about the world’s ability to smartly and swiftly implement the necessary measures to counterbalance the power of the fossil fuel industry.

Interested in more Distilled content?

Hosted by Water Foundry CEO Will Sarni, Distilled is a video podcast series that features water leaders from around the world. Each one-on-one conversation explores the guest’s unique career path, discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the water industry, and considers what’s next for water. 

You’ll find more episodes here.

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