This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in August 2015.
Wildlife habitats and wildlife migration are big issues when it comes to effects of climate change. While the planet continues to warm - 2014 was the warmest year on record according to NOAA – warm seasons become longer and cold seasons become shorter in many parts of the US. This allows some species to expand their geographic ranges while other species may experience unsuitable climatic conditions or have to cope with new predators and competitors for food. New research at New Mexico State University (NMSU) highlights how climate change affects ecosystems and species migration in the region, information that can be used to inform decision-making on the state level.
Virginia Seamster finished her Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences in 2010 at the University of Virginia. During her post-doc at NMSU she was part of a team of 6 researchers studying 20 terrestrial vertebrate species, which include mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. "Average annual temperatures are projected to increase across New Mexico and the rest of the south central region that we're focusing on for this project," Seamster says. The team used climate projections for the years 2050 and 2070 from models that were also used in the latest IPCC report. These projections were used as inputs for so-called species niche models, which can estimate a species’ range based on known occurrences of the species. In a reverse engineering kind of approach this allows the researchers to estimate how the distribution of suitable climatic conditions for certain species may change as the regional climate changes.
Virginia Seamster’s post-doc research was funded by the South Central Climate Science Center. The center is one of eight climate science centers (CSC) in the US and conducts applied research in the south-central US with the goal of supporting climate-related decision making in the region. The CSCs conduct a lot of outreach and education in their respective regions, but also fund and conduct scientific research. "This type of project could influence future revisions to New Mexico's State Wildlife Action Plan and work being done by wildlife managers in the state, including biologists at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish,” Seamster explains. "The study is designed to provide information to land managers and decision makers to assist in their respective efforts," says Ken Boykin, ecologist at NMSU and lead investigator of the project.
Virginia Seamster has recently transitioned from her wildlife-related post-doc position to a job at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. There she is involved with reviewing and helping to select research and other projects focused on non-game wildlife that the department funds annually through its Share with Wildlife Program. She also helps to maintain the Biota Information System of New Mexico, which provides information on the biology and ecology of thousands of species found in New Mexico. Finally, the Ecological and Environmental Planning Division that Seamster is now a part of is leading the process for revising New Mexico’s State Wildlife Action Plan.
Publications about this research are forthcoming.
Wildlife habitats and wildlife migration are big issues when it comes to effects of climate change. While the planet continues to warm - 2014 was the warmest year on record according to NOAA – warm seasons become longer and cold seasons become shorter in many parts of the US. This allows some species to expand their geographic ranges while other species may experience unsuitable climatic conditions or have to cope with new predators and competitors for food.
Virginia Seamster finished her Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences in 2010 at the University of Virginia. During her post-doc at New Mexico State University she was part of a team of 6 researchers studying 20 terrestrial vertebrate species, which include mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. "Average annual temperatures are projected to increase across New Mexico and the rest of the south central region that we're focusing on for this project," Seamster says. The team used climate projections for the years 2050 and 2070 from models that were also used in the latest IPCC report. These projections were used as inputs for so-called species niche models, which can estimate a species’ range based on known occurrences of the species. In a reverse engineering kind of approach this allows the researchers to estimate how the distribution of suitable climatic conditions for certain species may change as the regional climate changes.
Virginia Seamster’s post-doc research was funded by the South Central Climate Science Center. The center is one of eight climate science centers in the US and conducts applied research in the south-central US with the goal of supporting climate-related decision making in the region. "This type of project could influence future revisions to New Mexico's State Wildlife Action Plan and work being done by wildlife managers in the state, including biologists at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish,” Seamster explains. "The study is designed to provide information to land managers and decision makers to assist in their respective efforts," says Ken Boykin, ecologist at NMSU and lead investigator of the project.
Virginia Seamster has recently transitioned from her wildlife-related post-doc position to a job at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. There she is involved with reviewing and helping to select research and other projects focused on non-game wildlife that the department funds annually though its Share with Wildlife Program. She also helps to maintain the Biota Information System of New Mexico, which provides information on the biology and ecology of thousands of species found in New Mexico. Finally, the Ecological and Environmental Planning Division that Seamster is now a part of is leading the process for revising New Mexico’s State Wildlife Action Plan.
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in June 2015.
The Early Career Climate Forum (ECCF) was started about two and a half years ago, in December 2012. After a small group of students and post-docs attended a great early career training hosted by the Northwest Climate Science Center.The ECCF was a means to stay connected, to expand our network, and to share research ideas and experiences in graduate school or in our professional careers. Soon we learned that there was an actual need for an online forum like ECCF and won support from USGS and the Climate Science Center (CSC) network. With all the support came no shortage of pressure to succeed, though. It seemed everyone was waiting for our great vision to become reality. We had plenty of ideas, but no clue what to start with.
So we asked our readers, followers, and subscribers: “What do you want?” and “Who are you, anyway?” We conducted a survey to find out what they wanted to see on the ECCF. The answers included just about everything, from advertising job openings and upcoming conferences, to hosting webinars and actual workshops. We ranked the survey responses based on consensus among survey responders and what we thought we could realistically achieve. The new ECCF website, the discussion forum, and listserv reflect this ongoing process. We are now one of eight priorities identified by the National Education and Training Work Group for the CSCs. In January 2015, we received funding to support the development of the revamped ECCF website, manage content and additional initiatives, and in May 2015 we teamed up with the Northwest Knowledge Network who hosts our new website.
Most of us found the ECCF because we knew someone who knew someone. We learned to build an organization, coordinate efforts, set agendas, and determine priorities. Building a platform like ECCF from scratch was a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience for all of us. It’s been a lot of work, and we are looking forward to many more discussions and projects.
Are you interested in getting involved with ECCF? If you want to become part of the Early Career Climate Forum, please email us at email@example.com and tell us about your background, what you do, where you work, and the ways you would like to contribute to ECCF. We look forward to hearing from you!
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This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in November 2014.
AGU comes in December, AMS in January, AAG in April – the next big conference is always around the corner – and so might your poster presentation. Here are a few tips for a killer poster that will rock the place.
Figure this. Your poster is not a whole journal article printed on a large piece of paper. Avoid large pieces of text and use figures, tables, charts, diagrams, and captions – sort of a journal article but without the text. Use these visuals as aids when you’re explaining your research to someone. Also, check that colors go well together (pie charts, flow charts, bar graphs, illustrations, schema). They might look good on screen, but may be hard to read on print.
Less is more. Don’t try to fit every aspect of your research onto the poster. Don’t state every little detail of you research, but focus on the main stuff, one major finding. Keep text short, maybe as bullet-pointed lists. Give people insights into your research hooks to ask follow-up questions.
Proportions. Make sure your poster size meets the conference requirements and is not bigger than your allowed space. Test that your figures etc. look good from four or five feet away, that they’re not too small and not too big. Make a test print if necessary. Normal text should be in font sizes between 36 to 44 points, titles about twice that.
Fonts. Don’t give your poster fancy fonts to stand out. It’s about the content, not (just) the looks. The rule of thumb is 2 to 3 different fonts, not more. Pick a serif font (e.g., Cambria, Georgia, Garamond, Times) for normal text and a sans-serif font (Arial, Helvetica, Impact, Gill Sans, Futura) for poster title, axes titles, captions etc. Serif fonts are better for flow text because their small “feet” form an imaginary line, making it easier for your eyes to follow the line of text. Sans serifs (sans is French for “without”) meanwhile are best for titles, subtitles, captions, and other shorter pieces of text.
Bring business cards. This is a no-brainer, right? People might want to stay in contact with you, so business cards are a must-have. Also, sometimes posters can be left hanging after the poster sessions ended (and without you there). For those cases bring a little pouch (seek your inner Bastelkönig to make one) for your business cards and pin them next to your poster. Alternatively, put your contact info on the poster, or create a QR code with your contact details. QR codes are free to make online (links below), and there are plenty of free reader apps for smartphones.
Say something. “What are you working on?” “What’s your research about?” If you hear this, your poster caught someone’s attention. Well done! Now you need a short yet compelling elevator speech. Give yourself 30 seconds to tell the beef of your research, but tell it in a way an 8-year-old child would understand it. Keep it simple and free of jargon or weird acronyms. Advanced level: Ask the person about his or her background and tailor your speech on the fly. A marine biologist might need a different explanation than a volcanologist.
Electronic posters. It’s not very common, but every so often poster sessions use electronic posters (they’ll tell you ahead of times). This means you’ll have a big-screen TV to present on. This might sound odd but it’s actually great news for you. Use the screen to present a short (2 to 3 minutes) powerpoint presentation instead of just showing a static “poster”. Find out about the screen size, which ratio (4:3, 16:10, 16:9) and resolution (full-HD, HD) and format your slides accordingly to use the space in the best way possible. Bring monitor cable adapters and save your presentation in PDF format or the slides as JPEG files (Powerpoint and Keynote both let you do this), in case you have to use a computer provided by the conference host. Don’t assume your powerpoint slides will look the same on another computer.
More advice on poster design:
http://betterposters.blogspot.com (weekly critique of a sample poster)
Colin Purrington: Designing Conference Posters
Discussions on Poster’s Graphic Design Elements
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in September 2014.
The policy arena is not a place many scientists are familiar with and even fewer are trained to work in. To help scientists learn how the political process works, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) runs the AMS Policy Program. It is divided into the Summer Policy Colloquium, a ten-day workshop every summer in Washington, D.C., and the Congressional Science Fellowship Program, a one-year paid appointment to work as science advisor for a member of congress, also in Washington.
The application deadline for both programs approaching fast, so we talked to Dr. Bill Hooke about the Summer Policy Colloquium and the Science Fellowship Program. He is an atmospheric scientist, author, avid blogger, current associate executive director of the AMS, and he directed the AMS Policy Program from 2000 to 2013.
Who should apply for the Summer Policy Colloquium?
Not everyone should apply. But if you’re planning on being a leader, a department chair, a dean, or a business manager, you will quickly realize how important it is to understand how national policy works and affects your company, your university, or your agency.
What can people take away from the colloquium?
One thing they can learn is how the federal budget for science works. Where does the research money for a university come from? Why do some departments get more than others? How do you increase those budgets? What poses risks to those budgets? Every scientist should know the answers to these questions, but very few actually do. Also, it is an affirming experience. It happens that scientists who are interested in the political process sometimes feel that their universities don’t appreciate them. When they come to the colloquium and meet other scientists with similar interests, it is affirming. It verifies that leadership in science is a reasonable career and aspirational goal.
What do applicants need to bring to the table?
We look for people with an interest or background in policy-making, or worked in journalism or blogging, anything that dealt with politics or societal impacts, something a little broader than just their science itself. But you also have to be a good scientist. If you’re not a good scientist, you’re not going to be a good leader of scientists. But on the other hand, just being a good scientist doesn’t make you a good leader of scientists, too. You have to be a little broader than your science itself to be respected among the policy-makers in your own university or company.
Is the Science Fellowship Program the next step up from the Summer Policy Colloquium?
The colloquium is like a 10-day policy boot camp. The Science Fellowship Program is more of a time commitment. It’s like having a Post-Doc. You get an in-depth understanding of the policy process as a participant of the process rather than a spectator.
Is the Summer Policy Colloquium a necessary first step for the Science Fellowship Program?
No, it is not a necessary first step. We’ve had people do the Science Fellowship Program who haven’t done the Summer Policy Colloquium. Neither is the colloquium a necessary step to take on a leadership position. There are many more leadership programs out there.
Are jobs in politics the main reason why people do the Science Fellowship Program?
Of the people who become congressional science fellows, about a third of them stay on Capitol Hill, a third stay in Washington in jobs related to politics, and a third return to the university environment. So, only about two third of all participants actually stay in politics-related jobs in D.C.
To learn more about or to apply for the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium or the AMS Congressional Science Fellowship Program, visit http://www2.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/policy/summer-policy-colloquium/ and http://www2.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/policy/congressional-science-fellowship/.
This year's Policy Colloquium will take place from May 31 to June 9, 2015. Applications will open soon. The Science Fellowship Program will start on September 1, 2015. Applications for this close on March 15, 2015.
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/