This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in March 2014.
This Sunday, Years of Living Dangerously will premiere on the cable network Showtime. Cinematic stars like James Cameron (director, Titanic, Avatar), Jerry Weintraub (producer, Ocean’s 11/12/13) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (actor, Terminator 1/2/3) take on the challenge of raising public awareness about the causes and impacts of climate change and global warming.
From wildfires in California and illegal logging for palm oil plantations in Indonesia to the Syrian civil war — Pulitzer Prize winning journalists like Tom Friedman and Hollywood stars like Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Don Cheadle play the main characters in this real-life drama about human-made climate change. They take the audience around the world to places where causes and impacts of rising temperatures, declining rainfall, receding glaciers, and shifting ecosystems become visible. “This is exciting television”, says co-producer Joel Bach (60 Minutes), ”featuring some of the biggest stars on the planet doing something they've never done before.”
But it’s not just bold pictures and big drama. To explain what is going on behind the scenes, the “correspondents” (this is what Ford & Co. are called in the series) meet renowned climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, Michael E. Mann, and James Hansen or forest entomologist like Diane Six, talk to government officials, interview people in Syria where drought and famine pushed a volatile political situation over the edge into civil war, join activists in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and speak with jobless factory workers in Plainview, Texas, who are leaving the town in masses because of a three-year agricultural drought that led to the closing of a giant meatpacking plant, laying off more than 2,000 people at once.
Actors, activists, and scientists walk the audience through each episode, revealing piece by piece this complex interconnection of climate, ecosystems and society, getting viewers thinking what he or she can do to act. How are everyday shopping decisions connected to illegal logging in Indonesia? How are forest fires in California leading to bark beetles migrating from the US far into Canada, devastating entire landscapes? Narrated by the actors themselves, the viewer learns about the science, while breathtaking images of pale-grey Montana forests and lake-covered polar ice masses go along with close-up, news-like interviews with people in civil-war-beaten Syria.
Telling Stories, reaching people
“This is 100 percent a people’s story” says co-producer James Cameron. Years of Living Dangerously is not a documentary about climate change, it’s a documentary about people who do something about climate change, co-producer David Gelber (producer, 60 Minutes) points out. Because “these personal stories of people today will become everyone’s stories in the coming decades.”
The series does not try to move the “die hard” skeptics, but hopes to get those thinking and moving who are “sort of in the middle” called the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, and the doubtful, according to the Six Americas study done by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which the producers used to study their target audience. The series will interview both democrats and republicans, climate action supporters as well as deniers. “We do not want to be perceived as the liberal-democratic drum beater.” Showcasing celebrities like Ian Somerholder (“The Vampire Diaries”, “Lost”) the series hopes to reach people at both ends of the political spectrum who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in climate issues.
More than TV
Much like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) had its online counterpart www.climatecrisis.net, “Years of Living Dangerously” will not happen solely on TV, says Heidi Cullen of Climate Central, one of the series’ science advisors. Called the Years Project, series and website will highlight environmental movements and organizations like Conservation International which is active in Indonesia, or the Climate Corps, a graduate student program of the Environmental Defense Fund to help businesses, cities and universities reduce their carbon footprint while also reducing costs. As part of the series, the producers announced an action campaign to raise the level of public engagement. In collaboration with Vulcan, a Seattle-based company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the series wants to reach out to public leaders, from journalists through religious leaders and teachers to the public and private sector “to try and get people engaged and take a position on climate change”.
First successes seem already to be coming. In Indonesia, the producers claim, their investigations have already proven successful. “Shining a light on things that people may not have known before is one direct way that we are trying to make a difference.” More ways to will be published on the program’s website.
Years of Living Dangerously is certainly the boldest step so far towards raising a much needed public awareness for the eminent risks of climate change. The coming eight weeks and the months and years after that will show if the Years Project can accomplish what many have failed to achieve before.
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in March 2014.
Years of Living Dangerously, a big-budget, 9-episode Showtime TV documentary by Showtime, tries to communicate the seriousness of climate change through personal stories and first-hand experiences of people across the globe. To make sure they get the science right, the producers collaborate with a panel of distinguished experts. We interviewed one of them: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Dr. Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor at Texas Tech with over 100 peer-reviewed publications. While having served as a reviewer for the 2007 IPCC report and lead author for the 2013 US National Climate Assessment, Dr. Hayhoe is a book author and renowned public speaker on topics of climate change. Her work as climate evangelist has been featured in the PBS documentary series “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers“.
Why is it so difficult to communicate the seriousness of climate change and the scientific consensus to people outside of science? What are your experiences?
Many of us believe that climate change threatens things we hold dear: our personal liberties, our ideology, our job security, and even our faith. When we are that worried and even afraid of losing something so important to us, trying to convince us just using facts is fruitless. The information will just go in one ear and out the other.
This problem is compounded by the fact that, until just recently, most people living in the United States (except for those in Alaska!) were not seeing any actual impacts of climate change with their own eyes.
So the problem has been perceived as a distant, far-off threat, while the solutions are perceived as an imminent, real-time threat. That’s a tough hurdle to overcome.
How do you deal with climate skeptics?
With people who have genuine questions and concerns, it’s important to spend time understanding where they are coming from and what they are concerned about. These concerns are real, and they’re important. By demonstrating how climate change — and climate solutions — are not incompatible with conservative, or faith-based, values we can often overcome many of the objections to the reality of the problem.
On the other hand, about 15% of the U.S. falls into “category #6” of the Six Americas of Global Warming, a category called “Dismissive". For many of the people in this category, there is really no way to talk to them that would ever make a difference. Even if God (or Rush Limbaugh?) appeared right in front of them with flaming tablets of stone saying “Climate Change is Real and Dangerous” that wouldn’t change their minds.
As scientists, we often fall into the trap of focusing on people in the Dismissive category because they are the most obviously and often the most vocally opposed to what we have to say. However, we have to remember that they represent only a small segment of the population and — most likely — one that we cannot hope to change.
Years of Living Dangerously is not so much about climate change as about storytelling, about people who are affected by and people who do something about climate change. Producer Joel Bach said this personal component makes for a far more compelling story than just "something about climate change”. Do you think there is a message in here for climate scientists who want to engage with the public?
Yes, I think there definitely is. Why do we care about climate change? Let’s be honest: the Earth will survive. We care about it because of people and the environment in which we live. Our society is built on the assumption that climate is relatively stable. We build our cities within a few feet of sea level; we have entire neighborhoods with almost no air conditioning because it didn’t used to get hot enough to need it; we have all kinds of infrastructure that assumes a given risk of flood, freeze, drought, or heat. Today, that assumption is no longer valid. And because climate is no longer stationary, that means our infrastructure and human society in general is no longer perfectly adapted to its local environment. The more climate changes, the worse the problem becomes. And this problem is already affecting real people in the places where we live today. It’s no longer about the polar bear - it’s about us.
One way for scientists to learn to communicate and perhaps to use a more figurative language can be to read fiction literature. Another way might be to take a course in English or in communication. What is your personal secret recipe to make sure people “get" your message? What were your biggest helpers in becoming a more successful public speaker and writer?
There are many different ways for us to improve our communication skills. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend several media training workshops early in my career that helped me to distill my information down into manageable, digestible messages. A lot of it was also trial and error: asking people whose opinions I valued to give me their honest opinion of my slides, my presentation, and my messages. (Have to leave the ego at the door for that one!) A third important step was to spend a lot of time understanding who I was talking to. Our communication can only be effective if it meets existing needs; and how will we know what those needs are unless we spend time talking to people about them? And the fourth is just to get out and do it. There’s nothing like feeling as if your presentation was a complete flop to motivate you to get it together for the next time!
Years of Living Dangerously Website (http://yearsoflivingdangerously.com/)
Years of Living Dangerously - Episode 1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brvhCnYvxQQ)
Global Warming’s Six Americas (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2012) (http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/article/Six-Americas-March-2012)
Cultural Theory and Individual Perceptions of Environmental Risks (Linda Steg & Inge Sievers, 2000) (http://eab.sagepub.com/content/32/2/250.short)
Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States (Aaron McCright & Riley Dunlap, 2011) (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095937801100104X)
New York Times article on “Cool Dudes” (2011) (http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/10/05/05climatewire-why-conservative-white-males-are-more-likely-11613.html?pagewanted=all)
5 Tips on Communicating Climate Science (AGU, 2013) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT0iTmTTpF4)
The Debunking Handbook (John Cook & Stephan Lewandowsky, (2012) (http://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf)
The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism (John Cook, 2010) (www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Guide_to_Skepticism.pdf)
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in November 2013.
Global temperature increases have been stalled since 2000. Meanwhile, the extreme summer droughts of 2011 and 2012 left many US farmers in ruins. Most climate models failed to project these phenomena correctly. US researchers now took a new attempt on finding a solution.
The hiatus in global warming since the year 2000 gives climate skeptics and climate deniers tail wind for making the case against human-caused global warming. At the same time, the extreme summer droughts of 2011 and 2012 left many US farmers in ruins. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates, more than 40 % of all US farms and almost 60 % of all US crop land were affected by severe or extreme drought, causing a record-breaking $17.3 billion in crop losses, according to the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP).
Most climate models failed to predict this hiatus in global temperature rise that occurred from 2000 to 2012, despite increasing CO2 levels. Instead of a flat temperature curve, models projected an unaltered increase. Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA, now present a new attempt to model this recent hiatus – with success. Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie used the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Climate Model 2.1 (GFDL CM2.1), but in addition to prescribing radiative forcing, they also used recorded instead of modeled sea surface temperatures from the eastern tropical Pacific. This resulted in a remarkably accurate projection of the past temperatures, especially after 2000. Their model “reproduces the annual-mean global temperature remarkably well with correlation coefficient r = 0.97 for 1970–2012. Their findings suggest the current hiatus is based on a “La Niña-like decadal cooling”, natural climate variability. Their model configuration also projected the current hiatus and a number of seasonal and regional anomalies, such as the recent prolonged drought across the US. Although similar conditions can occur again, the authors say, the long-term warming trend is “very likely” to continue.
Their results are published online at nature.com (subscription required for full view).
Edit (July 10, 2015):
Researchers found the extra heat content has been stored in the oceans. Veronica Nieves, Josh Willis, and Bill Patzert, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) found that most of the additional heat content is stored in depth between 100 and 300 meters (300 – 1,000 ft). Their results are published in yesterday’s issue of Science Magazine (subscription required for full text).
Open Access summary: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=86184&src=twitter-iotd
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in July 2013.
This is a web forum created so people can engage in discussions on all things climate and to learn from each other. So while we’ve been promoted and supported by pretty much every one of the eight regional Climate Science Centers in the US, let’s put up a topic that we all should be concerned about: Communication. And Food.
A couple months ago I came across a TED talk in which a middle-aged American man presented his idea of a physically healthy community. He lived in South L.A. and was complaining about obesity and the omnipresence of fast food, and promoted growing healthy food, like fruits and vegetables. Now, before you’re bored and click on the link in hope to find something more exciting (you will!), bear with me for a moment.
I find it difficult to engage people in a discussion if the issue in question is one that everyone had heard a million times, in particular if it’s one we all have our shortcomings with, like health, education … or climate change. Maybe one way to engage people in an issue like this is (1) to talk about the solution rather than the problem, and (2) speak their language.
The Solution is the solution
Pointing fingers at the people in front of you might reduce your own level of frustration, but it’s not what your message should be about (and if they’re not in front of you but rather absent, you should avoid doing this even more). Instead, you might respectfully tell a story about someone else with the same issues and how they solved this problem (and you may make up a story). Finding the cause to a problem is important, but finding the solution to the problem is a more immediate goal. By the way, the story-telling part here is, I think, one reason why it can be valuable for scientists to get out of the ivory tower and see what is happening in the real world.
Speak their language
This can be tricky for scientists, but it’s worth it. A good start to do that is asking what people already know. This way you might have something to build upon. Then, avoid jargon or at least explain your scientific lingo (which will make you avoid it, I’m sure). Use simple words and metaphors, use gestures to form relationships and to describe things, avoid run-on sentences, and don’t be too serious about yourself and your work (jokes are welcome). Try this text editor (http://splasho.com/upgoer5/?i), inspired by XKCDs “Up Goer Five” comic (http://xkcd.com/1133/), to describe a random problem using only the thousand most common English words. It might be a little over the top, but it might give you a first impression, and it’s great fun.
Getting a message across is not an easy thing, and these are only a few short thoughts on how it might be easier. But the next time you’re struggling to get your message across, this might help you.
Making an impact requires two parts. You need to understand the issue yourself (preferably better than your audience), and you need to give them at least a general idea of the issue. You might run across people who are somewhat fed up with climate change or healthy diets. It’s rare, but it can happen. So spice up your consumer advice to balance out the boredom of the actual topic. I know from my own experience, for scientists seeing their work from a less serious and more general standpoint can be tricky. But it is all so often essential. Now you may click on the video link above for a really cool example.
Another point is to know what language to use, as this interview of Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who is being interviewed by Bill Maher, shows. On one side you have the well-articulated diplomat (Leiserowitz), on the other side the big-mouth sledge hammer (Maher). Both are on the same side in terms of reducing carbon emissions to reduce global warming, and I’m not saying Leiserowitz is doing something wrong, but I bet the people watching the show like Maher more than Leiserowitz. So while Bill Maher would almost certainly get kicked out of any serious stake-holder meeting, he’d probably be loads more entertaining on your Saturday afternoon barbeque.
The bottom line is this: it’s not just important that we as (future) scientists know what’s right or wrong. To be relevant, to actually make a change in the way we and all people do things, we have to know who we’re talking to. Because only then do we get the message across in a way people understand the facts and feel the need to act.
A chat about ice cores and oil business
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in March 2013.
A couple of evenings ago I had an interesting discussion with a friend of my roommate. Let’s call him Pete. Pete and I had never met before, so we started with the usual introduction, and continued with the usual “Oh, where are you from?” after he noticed my accent. This was succeeded by “And what do you do here?,” which is usually followed by “How did you end up in Oklahoma?” This time though, we didn’t make it to the last question.
“So you do climate research?" he asked. "Do you believe in global warming?” I noticed a slightly provocative touch. I nodded my head and said “Sure. You don’t?” He shook his head: “Not in global warming, but in climate variability.” I was surprised. You don’t hear ‘climate variability’ all too often from people outside the field. I wasn’t sure yet what he was aiming at and asked for more. “Well, I don’t think it’s getting warmer overall. The climate’s always been changing, there were always warm and cold periods like now. How do you know it’s never been as warm as now?”
Good point actually. Offhand I did my best to break down how tree ring analysis, pollen analysis and ice core sampling worked, but Pete remained unconvinced. “Do you really believe in these ice core things? I mean how do you know what those concentrations really mean?”
This was going to be tough. The last time someone tested me about age dating was a professor three and a half years ago in an oral exam. “Scientists know about the effects of certain gases from today’s measurements. They might only be a hundred years long, but that’s enough to learn how ice core samples respond to changes in the atmosphere.” I wasn’t entirely sure about any of this. But it made sense to me, so I was hoping for the best. Thankfully he acknowledged my overwhelming, all-encompassing knowledge and shifted topics.
Some scientists, Pete said, were saying global warming isn’t real and the fuzz about greenhouse gases is just for scientists to get more funding and for the government to stress the oil companies. I had read these “findings”, too, but I didn’t expect people to believe this to a degree that they are actively defending it. But here I was, first time for everything. “So, assumed 10,000 scientists agree that the earth is warming and we’re the ones to blame, and 60 scientists (which is actually a realistic ratio) argue they’re wrong. Why do you trust the 60 and not the 10,000?” – “I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be a perfect argument for working against the oil and gas industry?” I didn’t have any more facts to that, so I countered with a question of my own. “Why would a government, whose wealth is so much based on oil, want to get rid of a major profit supplier? That’s like cutting off the branch on which you sit.” Maybe he had just noticed the gap in his argumentation, or maybe my wisdom was still irritating him.
He shifted topics again…
Our discussion went on, with me mostly responding and him mostly changing directions every time his lines of argument reached a dead end. We touched on renewable energy and fuel-efficient cars, fracking and American oil independence, the great American military (that was his view), the great American economy (that, too), Greece, the sequester, football, red wine, chili, heartburn and smoking-caused cancer. And I noticed his arguments were getting weaker and less logical.
After about an hour Pete had to leave, and I hoped I raised some suspicion within him that would eventually lead to a little more critical thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be smarty-pants. I’ve been in Pete’s position a few times before, but instead of learning something I felt miserable and angry after being torn to pieces by some wisenheimer. Scientists shouldn’t be wisenheimers. If someone gives you a glimpse into his or her mindset we should greatly appreciate that, no matter how distorted it appears to us. Because it shows (1) that person wants to learn from you, and (2) sees in you a trustworthy person. And if you’re in climate research, isn’t that something to be thankful for?
 Schulte, Klaus-Martin (2009): Scientific Consensus on Climate Change? In: Energy and Environment 19, p. 281-286. Abstract available at: http://multi-science.metapress.com/content/d588k23724201502/
[This blog post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in December 2012.]
How do you get 80 land managers, conservationists, tribal representatives and researchers from various backgrounds and most diverse areas to an agreement? Or should you?
Well, let’s find out …
The South Central Climate Science Center (SC-CSC), funded by the Department of the Interior in early 2012, deals with the diverse part of the south-central United States and Mexico, stretching from the coastal wetlands along the gulf coast of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to the agricultural lands of the Southern Great Plains to the deserts of New Mexico and northern Mexico.
So when it came to nailing down research priorities for the upcoming USGS proposal solicitation in January 2013, the challenge was finding common ground amongst this – quite literally – wide range of research areas. For this reason, at the end of November the SC-CSC held a two-day climate science workshop in Fort Worth, Texas, to bring together those various areas of expertise. The 80 or so participants spanned not only research areas like economics, social sciences, meteorology and ecology but also state and federal land management and conservation organizations as well as representing two tribal nations in Oklahoma. These participants were organized into three major discussion groups, depending on their areas of interest: regional physical climate variability and trends, ecosystems and landscapes, and human dimensions.
“We felt it was important to initially introduce people by discipline and identify common ground that way”, says Aparna Bamzai, Technical Coordinator at the SC-CSC main office at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma, and principle organizer of the event. Before the workshop, many of the participants may have known each other through research publications, but probably had not actually met each other.
Dr. Paul Risser, an internationally renowned ecologist at OU, and Dr. Keith Owens, Professor and Head of the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, moderated the “ecosystems and landscapes” breakout session on both days. The job of the two moderators, however, started long before the actual workshop, with many phone calls to be made and emails to be exchanged. “My role was to identify and recruit members for the session who would lead the discussion on specified topics”, Dr. Risser explains, “and to prepare introductory material for the session.” During the sessions, his job was to “keep the discussion on track and moving along at the right pace.” The goal, he points out, was to identify high-priority research studies. That also meant his diverse group had to develop a common language and methodology and find common ground in terms of temporal and spatial scales to work with.
In a final wrap-up, the moderators presented the results from each of their sessions and discussed some of the steps forward for the near future. By December 20th, about three weeks after the workshop ended, a written summary of the group results will be submitted to the workshop participants for review. The finalized written summary will be available to the public in early 2013.
So what’s next?
The role of the SC-CSC, says Dr. Renee McPherson, Director of Research at the SC-CSC, is to provide a forum for scientists to promote and discuss their research. “Ideally,” Aparna Bamzai explains, “we would track collaborations initiated during the workshop and help these teams develop and submit proposals both to the DOI/CSC [Dept. of the Interior / Climate Science Center] initiative and external requests for proposals.” In the future, Ms. Bamzai adds, these so-called breakout sessions could be organized by research focus. Then, a session on drought could attract an inter-disciplinary audience. And this may result in both visible and invisible progress such as more interconnection between different fields of research and more interdisciplinary research proposals. “We feel”, Ms. Bamzai says, “that these types of proposals will be more successful and as a result draw more research dollars to the region.”
“The goal is not research consensus”, Dr. McPherson sums up, “although that could be a possible result years from now continues.” “What we do encourage”, she continues, “is high-quality research, including projects that may illuminate differing opinions and methods.”
* Toni Klemm is a German Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Oklahoma, and works at the South Central Science Center. At the climate science workshop in Fort Worth, which this article is about, he served as a note-taker in the “landscapes and ecosystems” discussion group.