Tag Archives: science communication

Climate Change Communication – The Up Goer Five Edition

Image courtesy of Flickr user “njtrout_2000″, used under Creative Commons.

Reddit has a sub-reddit called Explain Like I’m Five, where people are attempt to explain often complex topics in simple, easy to understand language. The “like I’m five” part is often unsuccessful, but the idea is great.

Via Chris Rowan, people in the geosciences on Twitter have been talking about xkcd doing something similar, with the Up Goer Five. Basically, the challenge was to explain a spacecraft in relatively good detail in only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.

This is a site that lets you try the concept out. Here is my first attempt at an explanation of the climate and energy challenge:

What is Going On?
Our home is changing because of some things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power. One of the big changes is that we are warming up. What happens as we warm up is important! Some changes might be good: time for food growing may be longer. But lots of changes will be hard: where and how much or little rain we get, how hot and cold it gets, how much stuff is under water, how bad the air is to breathe, and a lot more things will all change. How we live, how we eat, and how we plan for things very much are tied to how things are around us. Big changes are hard to go through.

How Can We Know What Will Happen?
We can try to figure out what stuff might happen as we keep burning more and more stuff for power, and warm up. We can use computers to look forward. We can look at small changes from now and over the past couple hundred years, and think forward in time. We can even look way back into the very long ago past, at times when things warmed up or cooled down a lot, and learn from that!

Is It Too Late?
The important thing to know is this: what we do going forward matters very much to how things will change. Making very big changes to our home, or changing it less, is something we can decide. We need to think very carefully about how much we want to make our home change, and think about all of things that might happen as we change it. There is a lot we don’t know about what will change, and that makes it hard to plan for change. It may be safer to make little change, especially as we learn more about the bad stuff that happens with big changes.

What Can We Do?
There are a lot of new great things we can use for clean power that changes our home less. We can use the sun. We can use the wind. We can use water in many different ways. We can even use the same power the sun uses for its own power! All of these new ways of making clean power will keep our home more like it is now, and make it change a lot less than burning stuff for power. We can also use less stuff and power, and use the stuff and power we do use for doing more things. That will let us use less power to do the same stuff we do now.

How Do I Help?
What kind of home do you want? What kind of home do you want for your kids and their kids? Keep that in mind as you decide what to do. If you want to help, you can use less stuff and power, and tell people you want to use more of the things that use new clean power. You can also ask people who decide things to think about our home when they decide stuff, and to help us move to new ways of making clean power.


This is an interesting exercise, and it might help if your intent is to de-technobabble a talk, or use wording that is friendly to translation software. As a communications tool, though, I don’t think it’s all that great. What makes ideas and concepts meme-like depends somewhat on simplicity, sure. But all of the other things that make ideas sticky are hamstrung by this. It’s really hard to use imagery, analogy, expectation-confounding, and all of the tools that make memorable ideas with such a limited vocabulary.

What do you think?

Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.


  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

Outstanding science writing

Via Ed Yong (who is no slouch himself), an excellent piece by Carl Zimmer: The Human Lake. Go read it right now.

Videobreak: Brian Cox – Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy

And speaking of the duty the media has to communicate the scientific mainstream rather than “controversy”, here’s a bang on presentation to the Royal Television Society by Brian Cox:

[h/t BA]

Videobreak: More recent science-related interviews from the Colbert Report

[You know, he has a lot of science-related guests when you think about it.]

The ever-popular Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bob Park on unmanned space exploration.

Cosmologist Mark Devlin

Environmentalist Bill McKibben on the 350 Campaign

Cracks in the Slate

[LATE UPDATE: 8/14/08 - CJR responds to Rosenbaum, hitting him on many of the same points I did, notably:

And honestly, journalists have a responsibility to report that the vast majority of the scientific community supports the most fundamental conclusion of climate science — that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the primary cause of global warming. This should be noted if the question at hand is at simple that. Many well-trained scientists and science journalists agree that to do otherwise leads to “balance as bias.”


...Rosenbaum repeatedly accuses CJR of blindly defending “green” journalists and the new, “green religion” of environmentalism. He might note that the only time Russell used the word “green” outside of “greenhouse gas” in her piece was negatively, as in “greenwashing” and “green fatigue.” Go figure.


Journalism is not about quashing dissent, but nor is it about providing “equal time” to every Tom, Dick, and Contrary Theory simply because they exist.

The entire CJR response is here.]

Over at Dot Earth, Andy Revkin has a response to a Slate column by Ron Rosenbaum which Andy feels misrepresents not only what he does at Dot Earth, but the responsibility journalists have in reporting on science where there may be a perception of divided opinion. Andy can certainly stand up for himself (and does so exceedingly well), but the tone and phrasing of some of Rosenbaum’s comments led me over to Slate to read the column in full. Here are my thoughts:

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