While the meaning of the world around us lies with the tangibles, we often need intangibles to provide the sensory evidence that gives our brains the complete picture. For example, if you had only read about the deep sea, your brain might have some vague concept of what that might be like, but no clear image of the deep-sea environment. If you were able to see tangible evidence like video images of the deep sea, images of the mysterious creatures that live there, perhaps listen to sounds from the deep or touch some very cold water from the depths–then you would have a much more complete image of the deep sea. Moreover, the deep sea might take on some meaning as you connected it to other experiences that held meaning for you.
Adding Meaning Interpreting climate change or energy suffers similar challenges, as these topics seem remote from our day-to-day experience and tangible evidence is difficult to demonstrate for most people. Instead of presenting the tangible evidence of a phenomenon and then connecting the related intangible concepts, values and beliefs, we may have to follow a reverse sequence. Many people have heard the term climate change and they may grasp the concept to some degree, but it may hold little meaning for them. Our goal is to make climate change and energy more immediate and tangible, and relate it to the lives of the audience for them to understand its complexity and their role in change, without making the situation threatening.
Climate Change Tangibles Knowing that climate change is a complex global phenomenon, with many scientific concepts that are intangible to most audiences, it's helpful to use examples of carbon dioxide tangibles including exhaust, breath, and output from smoke stacks. Energy tangibles include the sun generating light and heat, both forms of energy. Your body is an electric generator of sorts that converts chemical energy in the food you eat into warmth and electricity that powers your nerves. We can relate our use of the chemical energy in oil, gas and coal to generate tangible heat and electricity, but burning these fossil fuels releases a growing amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is changing the energy patterns in our atmosphere (intangible). Changing how we make and use energy is the number one way to reduce the cause of our changing climate.
Other examples of global warming tangibles that most people have experienced directly or indirectly through the media or reports from people they know include:
- Sea level rise seems slow and gradual, so what's another inch or two? Hurricane Sandy brought a powerful storm surge that exceeded the 13-foot tidal surge the subway system was designed to withstand. With predicted coastal subsidence and sea-level rise, future storm surges could be even higher.
- Climate change may make ordinary weather events more extreme. The most recent example is the 2014 extreme drought in California, which started with a lack of snow and rain in winter 2012 and 2013. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases are adding more heat energy to our atmosphere, which changes global convection currents and shifts the high- and low-pressure systems that determine our weather. Over time, changes in weather patterns lead to extreme events, such as droughts, and reflect a changing climate.
- Ocean acidification is the real "sleeper" of climate change yet has increased rapidly in coastal areas, having economic impacts. In the eastern Pacific, the Whisky Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, Oregon is no longer able to successfully spawn oysters due to the change in water chemistry (lower pH). They have to import oyster spat from other areas, or move. In Alaska, the favorite food of commercially important salmon is small, thin-shelled sea snails (known as pteropods) that are losing the ability to create their protective thin shells as the water acidifies.
By using tangible examples, you can make the intangibles of any topic more immediate and relate it to the lives of the audience.