The science around the climate crisis is no longer disputable. So now the question is, what is the role each of us can play in talking about the climate with our friends, and help bring more people into this movement? How can we debunk the myths and uplift the facts? How do we balance urgency with optimism? In this episode, we’ll speak to researcher John Cook and activist Jon Leland to unpack how we can better communicate about the climate—with skeptics and believers alike.
John Cook | Monash University Climate Change Communication Research Hub | Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
Jon Leland | Kickstarter | Head of Sustainability
Robbie Goldfarb | Meta | Critical Information Products
Sarah Sasaki Tsien | Meta | Sustainability
SOPHIA LI: You’re listening to Climate Talks, a podcast in collaboration with Meta.
The climate crisis is the most pressing issue facing every one and every industry. And on this show, we make talking about the climate a conversation that everyone is invited to.
Together, we can create a healthier relationship with nature, which, you know, includes us.
I’m Sophia Li. I’m a journalist, a film director, and a climate optimist. My life’s work is to make talking about the climate more accessible, more digestible, and more human. I’ll be your guide as we reframe the way we talk about the climate, and understand the best courses of action to take together. Let’s do this.
SOPHIA LI: I see sustainability as a relationship. A lifelong commitment. If we are going to change our ways and prepare all of us for the impact of the climate crisis, it’s going to take real change from each of us.
So what’s holding us back from collective action? Why can’t we all seem to get on the same page? The science around the climate crisis is no longer disputable, we’ve known this data for decades—so why are some people still fighting the obvious, rather than collaborating to prevent a climate catastrophe?
But beyond the data, we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change in our own lives. We asked some of our listeners in the United States: “What proof do you have that climate change is already happening?”
Person 1: This year, I’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail here on the west coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. During that experience, firsthand witnessing various fires –
Person 2: Not just the fires, but also the snowpack was pretty much nonexistent. We didn’t have to use any snow equipment. This year in particular felt like we were living through the – the consequences of climate change.
Person 3: I work as a researcher for a human rights organization. And recently I did research on how climate-induced heatwave in British Columbia impacted the lives of older people and people with disabilities. And you realize how it’s affecting all of us, but it’s affecting especially people who are already living in marginalized situations, and it’s putting them at higher risk.
Person 4: My dad as a farmer has been affected by climate change. They’ve had lots of issues with water supply because of the droughts in the last decade or so. He’s seen weather patterns change. A lot more heat, a lot less rain. Things that have impacted the crops he can grow and how well they – they grow.
Person 5: Half my family lives in Israel, which is a very arid country, and it seems like every summer I go back to visit it’s more oppressively hotter.
Person 6: One thing that I remember from growing up is that the lakes were really full. And now when I go back, they’re drying up or they’re littered with trash.
Person 7: We’re seeing the flowers bloom much earlier than they used to, and we’re seeing a lot less snow and ice.
SOPHIA LI: We’re already seeing the effects of the climate crisis in the US, from droughts and fires, to early spring blooms. For many Americans though, the ability to still deny the climate crisis comes from a place of tremendous privilege.
Knowledge is power, this science is liberation—especially when it comes to combating climate change. How can we uplift the facts, bust the myths, and form a united front against the climate crisis? How can we reach out to others and invite them to join us on this journey towards a more sustainable future? How do we promote discovery of the truth, and make that truth as digestible and irrefutable as possible?
Each week on Climate Talks, we’re taking on sustainability from a different angle: from carbon emissions to water restoration. In this episode, we’re talking about climate science, and the best ways to communicate and share that knowledge.
We’ll hear from Jon Leland and John Cook, two people who have devoted themselves to finding new, effective ways to communicate about the climate crisis. Together, we’ll work to equip ourselves with better ways to speak about the climate, whether we’re talking to climate change skeptics or trying to just inspire action amongst our family and friends.
But first. Our partners at Meta are committed to providing users with access to authoritative climate information from the world’s leading science sources. Let’s hear how they’re approaching this work.
ROBBIE GOLDFARB: Hi, my name’s Robbie. I’m a product manager at Facebook. Naturally, when we think about myths and misinformation, the focus is about stopping the bad. How do we prevent bad actors or people who may be misinformed from sharing such information on the platform. And there’s no question that that is prerequisite. That is P0. That’s extremely important work.
But I think there’s this other angle, too, which is about how do we create an environment and an ecosystem where the norm is talking about more positive and helpful types of conversation. And we’ve seen this in the data is, you know, a concept called mimicry, which is just this idea that when one thing exists, more of that tends to exist. So in other words, it’s almost a form of social norming, by establishing this is how we talk, these are the types of things we say, that tends to perpetuate.
So the Climate Science Center is sort of a one stop shop on Facebook to find combinations of authoritative information and engaging content on the topic. So that’ll include things like content from approved organizations and partners. But also a number of other things, like we’ve developed a Myth Busters unit, which goes through some common myths and provides information on that. Similarly, we have everyday actions you can take that help people understand what are the things they can be doing in their own life to help combat climate change and some of its effects.
The Climate Science Center is publicly available. You can access it on your Facebook app just by going into the bookmarks bar and click on Climate Science Center. And I encourage you all to check it out.
SARAH SASAKI TSIEN: Hi, I’m Sarah and I work on climate and sustainability at Facebook. The Climate Conversation Map helps researchers and nonprofit organizations study and better understand how climate conversations ebb and flow over time and region of the world. And right now, it is really the best geospatial dataset of its kind.
You can better understand at the country level what countries are most interested and talking about climate. You can find out at what times of the year and what events are happening when conversations spike. So it’s been a really interesting way for our external partners across the world to get more specific understanding of what drives conversations on platforms like Facebook and when that triggers.
SOPHIA LI: Thank you to Sarah Sasaki Tsien and Robbie Goldfarb from Meta.
Something I hear a lot in the climate space is, “But I don’t understand the climate crisis.” And I respond, “That’s OK.”
Not everyone is a climate scientist. And there’s so many things out there in the world, like the internet or electricity. And we don’t understand exactly how it works, but we know how to use it. And that’s the same thing with the climate crisis. We may not understand every component of it, but we can still use what we know to continue to power our lives to live the best way that we can.
I think oftentimes we’re led to believe that it’s climate skeptics versus climate believers. It’s this battle between the two. But actually, it’s not so binary.
Yale and George Mason conducted a study earlier this year that found about 10 percent of the American population are climate deniers, or they dismiss climate. The study also found that less than 50% of Americans think their friends and family will hold them responsible to take real action in climate change.
So it’s not necessarily about changing the minds of climate skeptics. It’s about bringing those who already believe in the climate crisis into the movement even further. Like Robbie said, we need to create an environment where having conversations about the climate is the norm—so we can encourage and support each other to renew and uphold our commitments to living sustainable lives, and also invite others to join us in that commitment.
So today on the show, I’m excited to welcome John Cook and Jon Leland to talk about the best ways we can communicate—with believers and skeptics and everyone in between—about the urgent realities of the climate crisis.
John Cook is a psychologist, an author, and a research fellow with the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub. His research focuses on understanding and countering misinformation about climate change, with an emphasis on using critical thinking to build resilience.
Jon Leland is an environmental activist whose work focuses on drawing attention to the widespread impacts of climate change. He’s also Kickstarter’s Head of Sustainability and VP of Insights.
SOPHIA LI: Alright, hi John and Jon.
JON LELAND: Hi.
JOHN COOK: Hi.
SOPHIA LI: Can you please introduce yourselves and tell me your climate story?
JON LELAND: My name is Jon Leland. I grew up in Washington, DC, and back in 2011 or 12, I started doing policy consulting for the Palau mission in the United Nations. So Palau is a very small island nation in the Pacific. I actually wound up going to the United Nations Security Council Conference on Climate Change, their first one ever back in 2012 and saw the president of Nauru get up and speak and talk about losing his country. That country is going to be underwater probably within the next 50 years, and it will just disappear from the face of the Earth. And he was heartbroken and on the verge of tears. That really woke me up to the stakes involved in how present the issue is, which back then seemed a lot more remote and far off to me and I think a lot of other people than it does now.
JOHN COOK: My name is John Cook. I’ve been working with Facebook on writing evidence based fact checks and publishing them on the Climate Science Center.
My climate story began getting into arguments about climate change with my father in law. He was and still is a climate denier. We were having a family get together, and he was throwing out all these arguments on why climate change was a hoax and not real. And like any son in law who is motivated to win an argument, I started building a database of all the possible arguments that might come up at the next family get together and what the science said about each one of them.
At some point I realized other people have family members who promote a lot of misinformation about climate change. So I started this website, SkepticalScience.com, and a couple of years into that, I got an email from a cognitive scientist, Stephan Lewandowsky, who sent me research on how to debunk effectively versus how to debunk badly. And I was doing it badly. I was doing all the things that you shouldn’t do. And that led to me doing a Ph.D. in cognitive science and researching how to counter climate misinformation and communicate climate change better.
JON LELAND: Does he believe in climate change now?
JOHN COOK: What I’ve learned is that people whose beliefs aren’t formed by evidence are very difficult to persuade with evidence. So the bad news is no, he doesn’t accept climate change now. The good news is I’ve had similar conversations with my own dad, who was also a climate denier way back when, and he eventually did change his mind.
SOPHIA LI: Jon Leland, tell us about how you first got started in climate communications.
JON LELAND: You know, the first project that I did was ‘This Place Will Be Water’, which is a project where people can look up where in their communities will be underwater due to climate change. And then they put these biodegradable stickers up showing just like what will be transformed as a result of climate change.
Most people believe in climate change but don’t want to think about it. It is overwhelming and terrifying. And so what most people do most of the time is just put it out of their minds.
So ‘This Place Will Be Water’ is a project where one it gives people something to do if they are feeling that kind of anxiety and wanting to start to participate in the discourse. And I think putting these messages in places where people aren’t expecting them and localizing it to their communities can change the way that they receive those messages.
SOPHIA LI: Yeah, I like that you brought up that actually, the majority of people are not climate deniers. About 10 percent of the American population are climate deniers, or they dismiss climate. The majority of us believe in it, but we’re just not willed into the action. We’re still not willed into the mobilization yet.
JON LELAND: I think we use those climate deniers as a little bit of scapegoats.
SOPHIA LI: Yes!
JON LELAND: We point to them and say, well, they’re the problem.
SOPHIA LI: I don’t have to do anything!
JON LELAND: You’re right. The problem is all of us that actually believe in climate change, and we need to get our act together to push for systemic change.
SOPHIA LI: John Cook, would love to hear your perspective on the most effective ways that you’re communicating about the reality of the climate crisis.
JOHN COOK: This is a bit of a simplification, but I see three kind of main audiences amongst the public. There are the dismissives, that 10 percent that you referenced, I think the latest data showed it more like eight percent. It’s slowly shrinking. Then there’s the fifty eight percent of the US public who are concerned or alarmed about climate change. And then the other 30 odd percent who are kind of more disengaged or cautious. Changing the dismissives’ minds, if you have limited resources, I don’t think that’s the best use of your time.
So it’s the other two groups that are important. Amongst the 58 percent who are concerned or alarmed, most of those people don’t talk about climate change with their friends or family or their social networks. And so it’s like Jon said, it’s about activating the people who are already on board with the science but are inactive.
What I focus on is just getting people having climate conversations, trying to break that climate silence, because that is one key part of building that social momentum towards real change. But the other group, the disengaged group, are vulnerable to misinformation from the dismissives. And so it’s also about inoculating the disengaged and then moving them into the concerned and alarmed group.
SOPHIA LI: How do you balance the alarmist doom and gloom scenario with the hopeful optimism in this space?
JOHN COOK: I think that those two messages, the – the problem and the solution need to be coupled together. If we only communicate these kind of hopeful, positive messages, then the climate action doesn’t have that urgency that the science requires. But if we only communicate the doom and gloom, then that can paralyze people.
JON LELAND: It’s really easy for people to go to sort of inaction and despair and anxiety. And there’s a lot of eco-anxiety. And so the question is, well, what’s that story you’re telling about why the future can be better? And not just that the future can be better, but that you can meaningfully participate in making that future better. That is one of the biggest questions I’ve been asking within the climate space, and it’s a really difficult question to answer.
SOPHIA LI: What are the pathways of agency that you found that is the most impactful?
JON LELAND: We do need to put pressure on corporations and politicians. The more that individuals list this as their number one priority in voting and make that clear in every form, who they donate to, what they say, how they talk about politics that is really important.
Finding ways to empower people to talk about this within their own networks and communities is really important. Things that don’t work as well is something like, honestly, you’ll get something like a climate strike where it’s one day of action – that doesn’t really seem to move the needle.
We have a short attention span and the moments in our culture where we’ve seen the relationship of society at a broader level in climate shift in a meaningful way has been moments where climate has been at the forefront of like the social psyche for three weeks, four weeks at a time. Some sort of big report drops, there’s wildfires in California, a giant hurricane slams into Louisiana and all of a sudden, every night. Every news report, every front page of every newspaper is talking about different aspects of climate and how it’s all piling up. And that’s when you get people to shift from this sort of, like, avoidant place into an active place and a motivated place.
SOPHIA LI: Both of you guys are not visual artists as your day job. Jon Leland, you work at Kickstarter and John Cook, you’re in academia, but you both really consider the aesthetic presentation when communicating about the climate. So how important is it to have the visual part as part of this communication?
JOHN COOK: Before I was a scientist, I was a cartoonist. I’ve been experimenting, like running scientific experiments, testing the impact of using cartoons to engage people about climate change and using cartoons to inoculate people against misinformation. What I’ve found is there’s all these benefits – unique benefits that come out of using visual humor. People spend more time looking at it. It grabs their attention more. They’re more likely to share it. I mean, people have always been visual. That’s just how our brains are hard wired.
JON LELAND: It’s also just way more fun. You know, working on climate doesn’t need to be a difficult slog. Working on these projects, it’s sort of finding where you see opportunity to engage the public. What would be fun to make? What skills do I bring to the table and finding ways to play with it almost, makes it a lot less heavy because it is a heavy topic otherwise. You need a balance.
SOPHIA LI: So I wanted to ask you two where do you get your news on climate change? Who do you trust to tell the truth about the climate?
JOHN COOK: Because I follow a lot of scientists on social media. I tend to get it from the horse’s mouth. So scientists like Michael Mann and Katherine Hayhoe, is a great way to get all the latest news and research from an authoritative source.
JON LELAND: I prefer email newsletters. So Bill McKibben, the Heated newsletter by Emily Atkin. Bloomberg Green is a good publication around that from a more traditional news source.
SOPHIA LI: If we’re having a conversation with not a climate denier, but more someone in the middle, what are some ways we can have them start mobilizing instead of just being in the eco anxiety or apathy phase?
JON LELAND: I think a lot of people are looking for, like, what’s the thing I am supposed to do for climate? And a lot of it’s just like find a thing to start doing that feels – that feels interesting or good for you. And that can be connecting with a local climate organization, whether that’s like 350.org, Sunrise Movement or River Keepers.
There’s also, I think, an avenue of action and agency that’s a bit overlooked and very powerful, which is our role as employees within companies. Kickstarter did not have any sustainability or environmental practice or group, and I just anointed myself the head of sustainability and spun up our efforts there. And it’s like, great. I get to help make dramatic shifts now on a platform that has a huge impact on companies, billion dollar plus companies that spin up out of Kickstarter.We are carbon neutral. We’ve reduced our carbon footprint to about as low as we can manage it at this point as an organization.
Those are things I just decided to start doing at work. And so if there is a group to plug into at your workplace, then start plugging into it. If there isn’t, consider trying to propose one.
SOPHIA LI: So my last question for you two, is what gives you hope?
JOHN COOK: It’s easy to be discouraged when you look at the lack of climate action, often at the federal government level or at international negotiations. But what gives me hope is seeing just—there’s so much action happening at other levels. So whether it’s within businesses. Also, local government levels and just individuals. Like I’m a huge Greta Thunberg fan. I think that what she’s doing is really important for building awareness and momentum and that has sparked so many climate conversations. Seeing that kind of passion and momentum gives me hope.
JON LELAND: Everything with climate is an exponential curve. And that’s true in a lot of very bad ways. But I think that’s also true in terms of innovation and participation in this crisis. And that gives me hope. You know, there is so much interesting good work to be done that is going to require all of us to participate in it. Facing a challenge this interesting and complex together as like the totality of humanity coming together to save the planet? That, to me, is just actually very exciting and positive and sounds very fun to me as – as challenging as it’s going to be in practice.
SOPHIA LI: Thank you two so much for joining this week’s episode and for giving all of us hope in communicating about the climate.
JOHN COOK: Thanks very much, Sophia.
JON LELAND: Thank you so much.
SOPHIA LI: That was John Cook and Jon Leland.
For more information, check out John Cook’s website dedicated to climate science & rebutting climate misinformation: that’s SkepticalScience.com.
To join Jon Leland’s campaign, This Place Will be Water, and make climate change more visible in your community, go to this place will be water.org.
And be sure to check out the show notes, for recommendations from John Cook and Jon Leland about where they find their climate news.
SOPHIA LI: So every week on the show I close each episode with a prompt, a kind of call to action, inviting you, our listeners, into the conversation.
I often say processing the climate crisis is like processing grief. There are seven stages. The first one is denial. I was there, too. We deny that it’s happening because it’s just too overwhelming. It’s too sad. And at the end of the day, we want to reach a level of acceptance.
So the call to action for this episode is to ask yourself, which stage are you in? Are you sad? Are you angry? Wherever you are, it’s OK. Processing the climate crisis is a lifelong process and a journey.
SOPHIA LI: Next week on Climate Talks…
SARAH LAZAROVIC: Every little bit of emissions that we keep from going up into the atmosphere is lives saved in other parts of the world, is species that will not go extinct, is crops that will – will grow and feed people. So everything we do now really matters.
SOPHIA LI: We’re clearing the air—literally and figuratively! We’ll be talking about greenhouse gas emissions. What are they, what role do they play in climate change, and what can we do about them? Join us next time to find out.
See you next week!
SOPHIA LI: You’re listening to Climate Talks, a podcast in collaboration with Meta. Many thanks to our guests this week, John Cook and Jon Leland.
You can find our podcast on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or whenever you listen. If you like what you hear, please rate the show and share it with family and friends. We want everyone to get in on the conversation, and we hope that each episode inspires you to continue that conversation IRL with the people in your life.
This show is produced by work by work: Scott Newman, Jemma Brown, Emily Shaw, Kathleen Ottinger, and me, Sophia Li. The show is mixed by Sam Bair.
Extra gratitude to Marlo Tablante and Amanda Gardiner at Meta. To find out more about Meta’s Sustainability initiatives, visit sustainability.fb.com.
I’m always talking about the climate on Instagram and Twitter. You can find me at @sophfei. That’s my handle! Thank you so much for listening, and thank you for being a part of the conversation.
Skeptical Science is a website developed by John Cook devoted to climate science & rebutting climate misinformation.
Join in Jon Leland’s campaign, This Place Will Be Water.
John Cook is using cartoons to educate people on climate change with his project, Cranky Uncle.
Jon Leland recommends getting involved in local chapters of organizations like 350, the Sunrise Movement, and River Keepers.
The 2021 report, Climate Change in the American Mind, referenced by Sophia and John Cook, found that only 15% of Americans think that global warming is not happening (and only 9% are “very or extremely” sure it is not happening.) The survey was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The report is available in full online.
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