Tag Archives: 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?

Hey, look! It’s “Earth Hour”.

Still unforgivably stupid.

Videobreak: Brian Skerry reveals ocean’s glory – and horror

Climate communication and public health

OR: In (partial) defense of Matt Nisbet

I’m not going to rehash old complaints, but suffice it to say that I’ve had my disagreements with Matthew Nisbet in the past.

In the Atlantic [via], David Ropeik zeroes in on some recent polling data on climate change that may explain why the general public isn’t more involved in demanding action:

Those categories in italics (my emphasis) identify how few people worry that climate change will affect them—about one person in ten. Nearly five times as many people in the United States are more worried that climate change will affect polar bears and plants than are worried about themselves. Small wonder, then, that the study found more support for generic ways of dealing with climate change, like funding renewable energy research, and less support for ideas that suggest concrete personal costs, like increasing the gasoline tax by 25 cents.

Setting aside the issue of whether or not voters do support slight increases in energy costs for cleaner energy (I’m pretty sure they do), there’s certainly something to this. I caught part of a recent forum (hosted by American University) on NPR that has some bearing on this issue. The full video can be seen on Nisbet’s blog. Nisbet made the point that people are generally very concerned with environmental issues that are framed in terms not of far off catastrophe but of immediate public health. No matter what your opinion of his past “framing” arguments may be, Nisbet may be on to something here.

There seems to be an enormous amount of low hanging fruit to be picked in terms of public persuasion, should more emphasis be put on both the public health consequences of climate change and perhaps even more importantly on the health benefits of using clean energy. Prestigious medical journals like The Lancet (e.g. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions) and JAMA (e.g. Expansion of Renewable Energy Industries and Implications for Occupational Health) and governmental organizations like the CDC and WHO have been and continue to highlight this important aspect of the climate issue.

Sea level rise and dangers to charismatic megafauna are not themselves trivial issues, and should certainly not be ignored when discussing the threat of climate change. And it’s true that the public is not always as swayed by evidence-based medicine as it could be. That said, I think that a health-based climate communication campaign has a lot of potential, and I’m interested to see if Nisbet or any one else follows up on this.

[UPDATE: John Mashey, in the comments:

I wish the following would get more play, especially since it slices the problem in the US both by sector and by region: http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts