Bridging the Gap: Teaching Informal Climate Change Communication
JANEL HANRAHAN is an assistant professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Department, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont.
Fundamental climate change science has been understood for many years, yet on the political stage the debate has continued. In fact, only about 19% of the American electorate identified climate change as a top issue when considering how to vote in the 2016 presidential election (Roser-Renouf et al. 2016). This is not surprising considering that many Americans (as many as 47%) do not believe in human-caused climate change (Scruggs and Benegal, 2012; Leiserowitz et al. 2014), even though the vast majority of climate scientists (97%) agree that it is happening (Oreskes, 2004; Doran and Zimmerman, 2009; Anderegg et al. 2010; Cook et al. 2013). This is particularly alarming not only because the impacts of climate change may be catastrophic for life on our planet if left unmitigated (Hansen et al. 2013), but because climate scientists make up only a small fraction of our country's population, and large-scale mitigation is unlikely unless nonscientists also make this a priority. This understanding gap must therefore be closed by improving lines of communication between these groups.
On a regular basis, I work closely with students who are working toward B.S. degrees in atmospheric science, some of whom will become tomorrow's broadcast meteorologists while others may pursue graduate degrees on track to becoming climatologists. Regardless of career pathway, it is crucial that these young scientists understand that they play a vital role in transforming the public perception of climate change science and that it is up to them to instill a sense of urgency for action. A crucial first step toward this goal thus involves a substantial shift in the way that science is taught in the classroom. Academic work toward a college degree in the sciences has traditionally included a solid foundation in scientific content and the completion of several technical papers and presentations. The latter, while focusing on science communication, is aimed at other scientists instead of the general public. While communication within the scientific community is crucial for the advancement of scientific understanding, communication with nonscientists is crucial for climate change action. Unfortunately, the skills necessary for effective communication with these two groups are starkly different. As educators, we must acknowledge that the task of communicating climate change science to the general public can be daunting. Due to widespread coverage in the media, particularly social media which lacks sufficient quality control, nonscientists are often willing to challenge the scientific consensus (Lewandowsky et al. 2013). This is particularly important when considering that 62% of U.S. adults rely on social media for at least some of their news (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). Further, while climate change is a fact-based science, the beliefs of the general public are often driven by political ideology (McCright and Dunlap, 2011). I have personally found myself falling down the rabbit hole of climate change debates on social media and comment threads, getting bombarded with convoluted and factually inconsistent arguments. In my experience, non-technical communication of the science with the general public is considerably more challenging than technical communication with other scientists.
As an educator of climate change science, I now consider the development of informal communication skills an essential learning objective in my classes. Just as we expect young scientists to practice technical communication skills, we must also now provide them with opportunities to practice effective communication in less constrained environments, such as social media.
Many Americans (as many as 47%) do not believe in human-caused climate change, even though the vast majority of climate scientists (97%) agree that it is happening. ... This understanding gap must be closed by improving lines of communication.
Here, I provide an example of a new project that was recently implemented in my introductory climatology class at Lyndon State College. Young scientists in my course, Survey of Climate and Statistics, recently completed a semester project titled, Creative Climate Change Piece. As the name suggests, students were encouraged to explore new and creative ways of communicating important climate change topics. Students worked in self-identified groups to create digital shareable informational pieces that clearly explain ideas behind the science to nonscientists. Content ideas were informed by personal misconceptions or questions, a sudden moment of clarity during lecture or while reading the text (an "aha moment"), or skeptical arguments posed by a friend or family member. The final product was shared on social media and on a department climate change website. Furthermore, each group shared their final piece with the class during a formal presentation. To ensure variety of content, the project was loosely defined with assessment criteria keyed in on scientific accuracy and originality of presentation.
The student project ideas have been impressive. Some examples include:
- Student Celia Fisher produced a time lapse video of her work in creating a climate- themed painting (featured above), which includes ongoing text commentary about the science.
- A group of students engaged in an experiment in which they created a new social media account for the purpose of sharing climate science information. This was done with the intent of gathering information from the general public about common misconceptions and skeptical arguments.
- Student Ben Iles created a new world in the video game Minecraft. In this world, he built various structures including a factory, a farm, and a forest. He then created a short video that moved through his world with text commentary of climate change facts.
- Another group created a video of a student running a marathon, equating this distance with the longest ice core records. Over a period of 800,000 years (26.2 miles), the student changed clothing and accessories to reflect temperatures during glacial and interglacial periods, leading up to the last 100 years (17 feet) of exceptionally rapid increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperatures.
For the largest impact, I encourage other climate change educators to implement similar activities and to share the resulting products widely via social media. I further invite you to find our LSC Climate Change Communication (CCC) group on Facebook, which serves as a central location for sharing such content and for the exchange of scientific information and educational tools and our website. Our website is at: http://meteorology.lyndonstate.edu/education/climate-change-communication/.
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