The Story Behind the Stories

Long days at my favorite coffee shop, Condesa Coffee

About the Author

Hello there! Thank you so much for stopping by. I’m Emily Sun Li, an Emory University alumna studying Creative Writing/English and Environmental Sciences. “Climate Change Is in the Air” is my undergraduate honors thesis project, inspired by my experience in science journalism and communicationsfrom interning for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, to writing for various university sustainability office publications, to covering the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakesh, Morocco.

A Little Background

Nowadays, communicating climate science is a tricky thing. Science writing and journalism certainly didn’t used to be so complicated. In fact, it was rather straightforward: scientists conducted their research and published peer-reviewed studies. Journalists and news media organizations broke down this new information and presented it in an engaging way, while helping to explain the broader impacts. For the most part, the general public absorbed and accepted these findings and interpretations without question.

This, of course, is no longer the case. Contentious scientific issues, like climate change, have become increasingly emotionally charged. Over time, they’ve riven the public and have lead to unprecedented skepticism of both science and scientists, even in the face of overwhelming research evidence. As an interdisciplinary issue necessarily fraught with some elements of uncertainty, with some very real consequences that have the potential to rearrange society as we know it, climate change has become “center stage in this new dynamic between science and the public,” according to Emory University senior lecturer Sheila Tefft, who directed the university’s Journalism Department from 2000 to 2009.

Not only is climate change becoming more and more of a partisan issue, it’s also being misinterpreted by people across the board. Some of this, to be sure, is climate change’s fault (which is actually our fault, so really I guess everything is our fault). But we couldn’t have designed a more severe threat to our existence as we know it if we wanted to: a problem with enormous consequences over the long term, but little that is immediately visible on a personal level. A global concern with far-reaching, and sometimes subtle, effects across all fields and sectors. An issue without an apparent antagonist, because we all share in that responsibility together.

And no matter who’s to blame, public opinion polls show that there’s some serious miscommunication between scientists and citizens. You’ve probably already heard the figure that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century extremely likely due to human activities. And yet, according to most recent data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 49 percent of Americans in 2016 think that most scientists believe in global warming. Based on this same data, 58 percent of participants thought that global warming will harm people in the U.S., but only 40 percent believed that climate change would harm them personally.

There are a lot of theories out there about why public opinion just isn’t matching up with the science. But it’s pretty inarguable that it’s (literally) the job of journalists and communicators to serve as an effective middle man between the two divides, in order for politicians to pay attention to the problem and for any sustainable solutions to develop. More and more people are certainly reporting increasingly often on climate change, but from the data, it’s not clear how much good that’s doing. What is crystal clear is that as public perception of scientific issues begins to shift, the old paradigm for reporting on climate science needs to as well. The question I needed to answer before I got started with my own project was, how?

How, Indeed?

Before I could even brainstorm what I wanted my project to focus on besides climate change, an impossibly large topic, I did a lot of research on what the best way to talk about climate change with the public is. I pored over opinion polls. I read academic journal articles in sociology and psychology. And I especially looked for blogs, articles, and studies from communications specialists who were in the same boat as I am, and who were trying and testing new techniques to get their messages across to a skeptical audience. 

After all, even though climate change is unprecedented in a variety of ways, miscommunication between the public, the media, scientists, and lobbyists isn’t new. Settlers heading to colonize the dry west believed that “the rain followed the plow.” Even though ancient Grecian Dioscorides knew by 200 BC that “lead makes the mind give way,” it didn’t stop the National Lead Society from embarking on a successful child-aimed advertising campaign to encourage children to decorate their rooms with lead paint in the 1920s. Tobacco companies lauded the health benefits of cigarettes for decades. It made me feel better to know that in some ways, I’m following the footsteps of the journalists before me.

Here are nine major points that I found for communicating with the public, particularly young adults that poised to become leaders in their fields, based on my readings and research. I’ve also included a separate list of the most helpful references that inspired this list at the bottom of the this section! 

(1) The science is not enough—Journalists are increasingly realizing that presenting scientific evidence is not enough to convince or change people’s minds on climate change anymore. In other words, the facts are not sufficient. This is known as the “knowledge-action gap” or the “awareness-action gap.” That being said, it can moderately help to increase public awareness and concern when it’s presented in a way that’s easily digestible, visually and emotionally engaging, and accessible rather than condescending. Also, raising awareness of scientific consensus can be helpful. Don’t focus on fighting climate skepticism.

(2) Stay aware of audience values—People have different values, sometimes to the point that they are polarizing. And whether a journalist is explicit about it or not, every article or message carries with it the values that an author imbues into it. It’s important to be aware of this, so that communicators can frame their messages in a way that is more consistent with the values of their viewers. This way, people are more likely to absorb and engage with the issues discussed.

(3) Tell a story—Everybody loves a good story. And people not only like stories, they engage with and remember them. After all, we’re highly social creatures, and we relate to other people. As Nels Nelson, a Boston planner, writes, “After all, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, not a five-point plan.” For communications specialists, storytelling is a powerful tool that leads with values and builds credibility. Going forward, it’s vital to communicate climate change and science through the use highly personal stories and narratives, with characters and conflicts. The stories must be real and relatable, and avoid trivializing the issue.

(4) Use a positive message—People respond to and engage with hope and victory, not fear and guilt-based messaged based on alarmism. If somebody feels helpless, they’re like to simply shut down and not respond. This is a tactic that many communicators first adopted when talking about climate change, and it’s a habit that’s easy to fall into because it can seem so accurate at time (i.e. if we don’t do something now, there’s going to be worldwide catastrophe). Even if that’s the way it is, from a public engagement angle, it’s simply not productive. What’s the point of taking public transit, one might think, if the world is doomed anyway?

8201690315_d9f96e08d7_o.jpg
Positivity is productive. And what's more positive than tackling climate change through community gardening with kids? (Photo credit: d-olwen-dee/CC BY 2.0)

(5) Focus on bridging emotional distance—Climate change is perceived as abstract and otherworldly; even if people see it as an issue, they tend not to think of it as their issue. Journalists and communicators can work to combat this  attitude by focusing on local, close-to-home issues that people care about, concepts that familiar and relevant to most people (i.e. public health), and the bigger picture. They should stay away from vague terminology like “climate risks” or “ambitious policy”—anything that makes people feel like this problem doesn’t belong to them as much as it belongs to any of us.

(6) Stress the urgent nature of climate change—We can’t just talk about what might happen two hundreds years into the future; in order for people to care, which is the end goal of every journalist, it’s vital to hone in on the “here and now” aspect. Communicators need to move climate change from a future problem to present day concern, which luckily for us, it absolutely is. To do so, journalists should only sparingly use language about “future generations” and “our children and grandchildren.”

(7) Communicate from a friendly source—There’s a weird paradox going on where people expect the government to lead on climate change and the media to tell them about it, but also don’t trust either of them. And while they do trust scientists, scientists aren’t usually the ones explaining their science to the public; they’re usually out there doing more science. One of the most effective sources for disseminating climate science is actually a peer. People trust peer-to-peer interaction and communication, because it seems normal and natural and low-stakes.

(8) Focus specifically on the issue—It’s important for journalists to always consider the bigger picture, not just one policy or one extreme weather event. What kind of effects is climate change having on local communities as a whole? You have to do that for climate change. One of the main problems in communicating climate change and science is that even if people understand that climate change is happening and people are causing it, they don’t think that anything terrible will happen as a result. Communicators should focus on highlighting those end results. And while doing so, stay away from jargon and inaccessible language.

 My Project

After gathering all this information, it was time to hone on (1) a specific research topic on climate change to look into, and (2) an effective medium to share it through. Ultimately, I decided to focus on how climate change affects public health, which researchers have identified to be one of the most potentially powerful and effective strategies for inspiring change and countering climate skepticism, while bridging differences through a unified goal of climate action and mitigation. I was drawn to the topic because I learned that health often transcends political differences and sociocultural divides, since everybody values their health. It also helps to bridge the emotional distance that many communicators talk about, because human health is something that is very close to each and every one of us. It’s something that everybody can relate to and care about. In other words, I saw an opening.

More specifically, I decided to focus on public health in Atlanta, Georgia after reading about the importance of localization and personal relevance. Because I go to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the geographic limitation gave me the chance to take a lot of my own pictures and meet the people I wanted to interview in-person. I wanted one of the main foci of the project to help unpack climate science in a way that the average person can understand and engage with. But I knew that the science alone wasn’t enough. It was therefore also important for me that I share the stories of people in Atlanta who have been affected by some facet of climate change, in order to make the project more relatable, bridge more emotional distance, and utilize the power of storytelling as a communications tool. And finally, I wanted to discuss solutions, in order to avoid losing my audience in the hopelessness of doom-and-gloom scenarios.

At first, I wanted to focus on five public health sectors—extreme weather events, air quality, water quality, vector-borne disease, food security, and mental health. Obviously, based on the title of the website, I ended up only picking one. And thank goodness for that, considering that “just one public health sector” somehow turned into the equivalent of more than 115 pages of a traditional academic paper. That being said, I’m interested in returning back to these other sectors in the future. I think each one is as important as the last, but ultimately I realized I needed to set a priority for my content in order to ensure I was giving it the attention and quality that the topic deserved.

Now I had my topic ironed out: the effects of climate change on air pollution, quality, and health-related issues in Atlanta, Georgia. But as I began to do my research, I started to realize that even though I was focusing on air quality specifically, there was still a nearly infinitely comprehensive amount of information I could look into. One resource that I relied on to help me focus my project even further is a document published by the United States Global Change Research Program in 2016 titled, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” I decided to focus on the three key findings they outline in their air quality impacts section: (1) exacerbated ground-level ozone health impacts, from weather conditions being increasingly conducive to ambient ozone formation and leading to rising respiratory health conditions; (2) increased health impacts from wildfires and their emissions, specifically particulate matter (PM); and (3) worsened allergy and asthma conditions due to increasing levels of airborne allergens and other respiratory or biological irritants.

And so, “Climate Change Is in the Air” was born.

Technically

I still had to figure out how I wanted to share my project with the world, however. Clearly, I decided to go with a website, inspired by long-form multimedia journalism pieces like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” and The Chicago Tribunes’ Saving Grace.” Especially when focusing on such a large and complex project, adopting a single-page format for a long-form piece lends itself to a sense of continuation and fluidity for the reader. I also combined this idea with my favorite aspect of traditional websites: the clarity that comes with a nested, well-organized primary menu. In this way, I was able to create a hybrid of a website inspired by two different digital design elements that I think is the best of both worlds: fluid and accessible, while still maintaining a sense of coherency and structure.

This is the type of viewer experience I was only able to create because of the digital format of the project. In today’s digitalized world, creating a website is one of the most effective ways to reach the widest possible audience. And because I was especially interested in reaching young adults and millennials—inarguably the most plugged-in generation ever—it made sense to create a digital resource to share my work on. I was also attracted to the potential for multimedia engagement and interaction that a website offers, especially as they are becoming increasingly accessible in turn to the average user. Studies show that visual aides are extremely effective in getting a message across, and digital interfaces are bringing that to the next level.

Because I’ve had some experience with WordPress and found it an effective and accessible platform, I decided to go with it for the purposes of website development and design for this project. I hosted the domain http://climatechangeisintheair.com through InMotion Hosting, although any other hosting option would have worked equally well. The first step that WordPress encourages you to take is to pick a theme, which essentially sets up the basic structural design elements of the site. From there, you can customize on your own, add pages, change menus, and otherwise edit the default settings and take more or less full control of the site. While WordPress offers a great variety of free themes, I decided to purchase one that was especially geared toward journalism. The theme that this site is on, Myth, was developed by WordPress designer MeanThemes. I particularly liked how visually-centric the settings were, and the consistently and constantly available options for a viewer to share the content through their social media platforms. 

In addition, another major selling point of the theme is that it was designed to be compatible with Aesop Story Engine (ASE), a WordPress plugin that describes itself as “a collection of thirteen unique components wrapped in a plugin that can be used to present rich, interactive stories or articles in any WordPress theme.” Plugins are codes that act as built-in toolkit for a website design platform like WordPress, which allows users who download them to use a specific setting the plugin has designed but WordPress does not include by default. In the case of Aesop Story Engine, which is a free plugin, the code vastly simplified and streamlined the process multimedia storytelling process and developing an engaging long-form journalistic style. Among its features, the plugin allows the writer to easily insert elegant images, videos, audio clips, and chapter headings, among other options. Plus, did I mention it’s free? It’s a really handy little tool that I’d highly recommend.

Aesop Story Engine also creates their own complementary WordPress themes that are very attractive, but they’re also expensive (usually about $100). I’m guessing that’s how they make enough money to work on and upgrade the plugin itself. Whether or not you’re comfortable paying for a WordPress theme, however, there are definitely other options for using an Aesop Story Engine-compatible themes. Two great paid ones are Literatum, another visually-focused, elegant theme with a clean design for $35, and Lore, another MeanThemes’ product that is very similar to Myth, for $49.

For free options, there’s Longform, which features a stunning gridlock of stories on the homepage, and Cover, a minimalist content-driven blogging theme. I like all of these because they have built-in compatibility with Aesop Story Engine, but if there’s another theme that catches your eye, you can always download Snowball. Clearly inspired by NYT’s Snowfall, Snowball is an ASE-like plugin that describes itself as “a block-based editor for authoring modern, immersive longform web articles.” It’s a bit simpler, and there aren’t as many features as ASE, but it’s more compatible across WordPress themes (and includes an image comparison slider, which is really neat!)

Like I mentioned, the multimedia component of a digital platform like WordPress was a factor that made the idea of a digital website so appealing to me. As such, it’s a major focus of the project. Not only do I incorporate a variety of visual aides, from photographs, to comics, to graphs and charts, but I also made it a point to include audio and video clips in order to further draw the viewer into the world and lives of people I’m writing about. An immersive experience, after all, is the most relatable experience. Aesop Story Engine makes this very easy, but WordPress also offers great built-in tools for uploading and captioning images, customizing appearances, etc. And for what WordPress can’t do, there are always more plugins to help you keep things the way you like. I’ve included some of my favorites below! WordPress plugins allow you to customize nearly every aspect of your website, from creating drop-cap letters for your titles, to disabling comments, to accessing a wider variety of fonts.

And while WordPress and its army of plugins makes including a variety of multimedia content extraordinarily easy, as a journalist it’s important from a ethical standpoint to always give credit where it’s due. Almost all of what I was able to add in terms of images and videos is thanks to Creative Commons, an honestly amazing organization that makes copyright law accessible for anyone with an Internet connection. Basically, they create simple, easy-to-use copyright licenses so anyone can share anything with the rest of the world.

To use a Creative Commons image, video, or any other medium, you just have to follow the instructions on the license. For example, for a CC BY 2.0 license (you probably noticed this at the bottom of nearly all of my images), I just have to give appropriate credit, link back to the license, and indicate if changes were made. Because I never made any changes, I just credited the author and license information. It’s a bit of extra work to uphold the ethical standards of Creative Commons, but it’s absolutely worth it. Plus, sometimes you’ll hit a freebie with a “public domain” image or video (hint: all government media is!), which doesn’t have any rules for citation at all.

"We unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of development, growth and productivity." Creative Commons

Spread the Word

If you’re interested in this project, which I’m going to take a stab and guess you are, at least a little bit, since you bothered to scroll to the very bottom of the “About” tab, I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you’d like to take “Climate Change Is in the Air” to your own city, or there’s someone you think I should speak with. Maybe you’d like to adopt a different public health issue to focus on, like food security, or maybe you’re embarking on a similar kind of communications quest and you’d like to talk to someone who (mostly) made it out in one piece. Maybe you’ve noticed that I made a mistake and you’d like to correct me!

No matter what your reason, I’d highly encourage you to send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you, and thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed putting it together!

References

  • Carmichael, J. T., Brulle, R. J., & Huxster, J. K. (2017). The great divide: understanding the role of media and other drivers of the partisan divide in public concern over climate change in the USA, 2001–2014. Climatic Change,141(4), 599-612. doi:10.1007/s10584-017-1908-1
  • Cimons, M. (2016, December 13). Have we been talking about climate change all wrong? ThinkProgress. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from https://thinkprogress.org/conservative-nostalgia-action-26749903c352
  • Climate Chat. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2017, from https://climateadvocacylab.org/tools/climate-chat
  • Corner, A., Roberts, O., & Pellisier, A. (n.d.). How do young people engage with climate change? Towards more effective communication with 18-25 year olds(Rep.). Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Climate Outreach & Information Network website: http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/COIN_Young%20Voices.pdf
  • Cross, K., Gunster, S., Piotrowski, M., & Daub, S. (2015, September). News Media and Climate Politics: Civic Engagement and Political Efficacy in a Climate of Reluctant Cynicism(Rep.). Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives website: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC%20Office/2015/09/CCPA-BC-News_Media_Climate_Politics.pdf
  • Linden, S. V., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change. Perspectives on Psychological Science,10(6), 758-763. doi:10.1177/1745691615598516
  • Mccomas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling Stories About Global Climate Change. Communication Research,26(1), 30-57. doi:10.1177/009365099026001003
  • Pandika, M. (2017, March 17). The Science of Climate Change Skepticism. Ozy. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from http://www.ozy.com/acumen/the-science-of-climate-change-skepticism/76084?utm_source=dd&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03172017&variable=563cb6c969c1d2fc0a09e42d1f0bbf2d
  • Popovich, N., Schwartz, J., & Schlossberg, T. (2017, March 21). How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps. The New York Times. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/21/climate/how-americans-think-about-climate-change-in-six-maps.html?_r=0
  • Roser-Renouf, C. (2010, January). Communicating Climate Change(E. Maibach, Ed.) [Scholarly project]. In Climate Access. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/Roser-Renouf_Communicating%20climate%20change.pdf
  • Sheppard, S. R. (2012). Visualizing Climate Change: A Guide to Visual Communication of Climate Change and Developing Local Solutions. Albingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Before you go…

Want to learn more? Have an idea for taking this project to your own city? Let's stay in touch!

* indicates required