USC professors seek to change the conversation on climate change

The specter of more frequent and unprecedented natural disasters hangs behind climate change. More wildfires and warmer temperatures make going outside a tough choice. Tsunami heights are expected to reach levels never seen before. Many of the predictive models that forecast our drinking water supplies, drive our supply chains, and inform other features of the modern world depend on predictable phenomena to plan against.

Recipients of the 2022 Faculty Innovation Awards from the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies take action to explain the threat and risks posed by climate change in ways that inform and inspire action rather than delve cultural divides.

To get the most out of climate change research, experts need to share this knowledge with the public in clear and meaningful ways.

Jessica DutonUSC Wrigley Institute
for environmental studies

For example, economists Matthew Kahn and Rob Metcalfe use state-of-the-art digital tools to accurately convey potential long-term environmental risks to homebuyers. Gale Sinatra, Wändi Bruine de Bruin and Norbert Schwarz, each expert in science communication, study how political affiliation can distort the understanding of climate terms.

“To get the most out of climate change research, experts need to share that knowledge with the public in clear and meaningful ways,” says Jessica Dutton, associate director for research and engagement at the USC Wrigley Institute. “These projects are redefining the way climate information feeds into public dialogues and informs societal choices.”

Climate risk tool gives homebuyers the information they need to make informed choices

Buying a home is the most complicated and expensive decision many American adults have ever made. Today’s rapidly changing climate adds a new dimension to this calculation: even after you find your dream home, a natural disaster could wipe out your investment.

Matthew Kahn is senior professor of economics at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. (Photo/Courtesy of UCLA)

The ability to accurately measure and quickly disseminate climate data can be a useful tool for potential buyers, says Kahn, senior professor of economics at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Kahn and co-investigator Metcalfe, an associate professor of economics at USC Dornsife, partnered with Redfin and the First Street Foundation to incorporate historical and current weather data to assign properties a risk score of flood or forest fire.

“When people are looking for a house, they’ve always looked at whether it’s in a good school district, is it in a safe neighborhood, is it a walkable neighborhood?” Kahn says. “More and more buyers, in my opinion, or will do their due diligence in terms of environmental risks: is the house in a fire zone, is there a risk of flooding?”

In joint research with Daryl Fairweather of Redfin and Sebastian Olascoaga of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kahn and Metcalfe study the effect of this data on buying trends. The study uses data from an experiment run by Redfin in 2020 where it tested the effect of included flood risk data for a random sample of over 17 million users. Researchers found that flood risk data changed the behavior of Redfin users. Users in the test group traded size for security, with many choosing smaller homes or fewer bedrooms to live in a lower-risk property.

“Increased access to high-quality, home-specific information on emerging climate risks,” says Kahn, “means that capitalism increases our ability to adapt to climate change. Buyers are less likely to regret their purchase, and sellers can take steps to offset Mother Nature’s blows so they can still sell their asset at a high price.

Messages matter, especially with climate change

How do you deal with a crisis if you can’t agree on what to call it? The challenge of communicating complex scientific information motivated the work of Sinatra, Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education and Psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education. For 15 years, Sinatra has studied science education with the goal of “understanding the cognitive and motivational processes that lead to successful science learning.”

Gale Sinatra

Gale Sinatrea is the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education and Psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

A person’s motivations and emotions play an important role in their receptivity to climate-related messages. For example, the term “climate crisis” may elicit a different emotional response than “climate justice,” “climate change,” or “global warming,” according to Sinatra. “The terminology used by communicators and policy makers is really important to people – different terms evoke different emotions,” she says.

“The goal is to tap into emotions in a positive way – in other words, not to upset or anger people, but rather to elicit emotions that build concern and engagement with the subject. Then we can increase their motivations to pay attention to messages about climate change and perhaps take action in their own lives to mitigate its effects by adopting more sustainable practices.

Sinatra says most people don’t understand the science and terms behind climate change, but that’s not their fault: “The questions we face — why is the climate changing and what is the science behind it? – require familiarity with complex information that is not well taught in K-12 education.

Sinatra’s project will use the Understanding America study and dataset, which is a large, demographically representative sample of 6,000 people across the United States.

“We want to figure out what terminologies to use to educate people in the most productive way to take action,” she says. “We can determine which terms resonate with people of different political affiliations.”

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