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Alan Alda: Climate Change Activists Have to Convince People on 'Equal Footing'

WASHINGTON – Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda of the television series M*A*S*H said it is “very hard” to make a connection between climate change and extreme weather events.

Alda, who played Capt. Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, is currently running the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He was asked at a recent D.C. event to identify ways that scientists could better communicate the effects of climate change to the American public.

Alda suggested that scientists make sure to “establish common ground between you and the person you are talking to” about climate change or related issues. Alda mentioned that scientists could explain how insects moving north to an area “they haven’t been before” has an effect on the soil and public health in certain towns and cities.

“People want those conditions to be livable the way they always have been. To share that interest with them, by not necessarily driving home the point of climate change, you can achieve the theory or the idea that seems to work in many cases,” he said at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute annual meeting during a presentation about improving the communication of science to the public. “You can achieve good effects in fighting back climate change without having to name it in every case.”

Alda noted that scientists on the public payroll in the state of Florida were instructed not to use the terms climate change or global warming in official reports. In 2015, it was reported that officials in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had to use the term “nuisance flooding” instead of global warming.

“They have to call it inconvenient flooding, which is sad and ironic and kind of tragic when they had recently not just inconvenient flooding, they had really serious problems that some people think may be associated, because of the severity, with climate change – although I think it’s still very hard to make the connection between climate and the weather and an individual weather problem,” he said, referring to Hurricane Irma.

Former Vice President Al Gore, star of the Inconvenient Truth documentaries, has said that climate change is connected to hurricanes, wildfires and other weather events.

“All over the West we’re seeing these fires get much, much worse,” Gore said in October. “The underlying cause is the heat.”

Gore also predicted that climate change would cause more hurricanes like Harvey, which hit Texas.

"We have to realize how big this thing is," Gore said. "We have got to change."

Alda told the audience that it’s not easy for the public to understand an expert speaking to them about complex topics that involve making changes to their lives.

“It’s very difficult for members of the public to hear somebody from on high communicate the notion, ‘I know something and you don’t know it. Now I’m going to tell you not only what I know but how you should live, what you should spend your money on, your tax money, how you should change your personal lives,’” said Alda, author of If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? “We have to get more of an equal footing with people or they’re not going to listen to us. You know, as many people would say, it’s very hard to convince somebody of something if their paycheck depends on not believing it. So you’ve got to make that connection as much as you can.”