WVU climate change conference: Be nice to skeptics; switch from coal to gas to reduce emissions

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown native and national TV science personality Emily Calandrelli offered a room full of climate change policy advocates two pieces of advice on how to win over skeptics: Be nice, and bait the hook to suit the fish.

Be nice because if you’re perceived as attacking, you remove the other person’s ability to consider the topic critically, she said.

A view of the crowd of 200-plus attending the conference.

Baiting the hook suitably, she said, means talk about what your audience cares about, not what you think it cares about. Focus on their values and choose the right messenger.

Calandrelli was keynote speaker for West Virginia University’s College of Law 2018 National Energy Conference, held Saturday at the law school.

The day’s topic was climate change issues. The morning’s sessions were devoted to communication. The afternoon’s discussions turned to methane emissions, carbon capture incentives and carbon taxation, and solar power.

Calandrelli earned a bachelor’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering at WVU and a master’s degree in astronautics and aeronautics, along with technology and policy, from MIT. She host’s FOX’s Xploration Outer Space and is a science correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World.

She focused on the challenges of communicating climate change, citing the example of a presentation she once gave in West Virginia. Discussions on the benefit of vaccinations and the nearsightedness of flat-earth proponents when swimmingly well, she said.

Then she changed topics and said, “’Isn’t it so frustrating that we still have to deal with people who believe that human-caused climate change isn’t happening?’ It was at that point that the tension in the audience became palpable.”

She wasn’t taking into account, she said, West Virginia’s love of coal and a view of any attack on coal as a personal attack.

She also didn’t take into account that people may believe evidence on one topic but not another. “Humans are not logical. We are however emotional. We are prideful. We are self-preserving.

All of these things affect which science facts we accept. … We don’t like to accept facts and evidence that don’t perfectly align with our worldview.”

This inhibits persuasion through mere facts, she said.

Choosing the right messenger is critical for persuading people to your point of view, she said. For example, a conservative might put more stock in hearing the message for a fellow conservative, such as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is quoted saying, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”

Calandrelli closed her talk by asking, “What’s your goal: to be right or to change the other person’s mind?” Being right is merely confrontational and alienating. “We need people to fight for west Virginia and know that we’re worth more than coal. We’re worth so much more than coal.”

Methane emissions

The afternoon sessions opened with a panel talk on methane emissions – a key topic in this tri-state Marcellus/Utica shale gas play.

Ken Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science at Penn State, told the audience that atmospheric methane concentrations have more than doubled in the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution hit full swing. And methane makes up about 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, he said, but methane leakage from production facilities could negate that benefit. And both are fossil fuels, so in the long term, neither solves the global warming problem.

Zach Barkely, a researcher awith Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, said unconventional – horizontally fracked – gas produced in the Marcellus has the lowest methane emission rates in the nation, probably tied to the high volumes per well.

Meanwhile, he said, low producing conventional vertical wells – which are far more abundant – are inefficient, provide little energy and produce more than double the methane emissions of unconventional wells.

Echoing Davis, he said West Virginia has twice the greenhouse footprint of locally produced gas.

“Natural gas can be a short-term gain to the environment,” he said. “You can make the switchover quickly and you would see short-term gains in terms of your greenhouse budget. However, it cannot be a long-term solution. Efforts must always be made to come up with a road map toward a carbon-free energy future if you’re going to achieve the goal of essentially eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

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