Turning the Tide on Climate Change Communication

To close out our series on “Slargon” we focus on the importance of plain language in climate change communication.

Experts say that communication is key to a healthy relationship. Psychologists talk about communication in marriage and managers talk about communication in business. Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator, analyst, and author with the non-profit Climate Communication, knows communication is key to spreading information about climate science. Susan was the Senior Science Writer on all three National Climate Assessments, authoritative reports written in plain language to better inform policymakers and the public about climate change and its effects on our nation. She has also written for a climate change documentary on HBO. Her ability to write and present information shows that you have to be more than a good scientist – you have to be an effective communicator. It is our pleasure to speak with her about communication in climate change.

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Susan Hassol presents climate change communication strategies at Virgina Tech.

How did you first get involved in climate change communications?

My work in the energy arena and at the Aspen Global Change Institute brought me to believe that climate change was the greatest challenge and opportunity facing humanity today. At the same time, I realized that I seem to have the ability to translate science into language that lay people will understand and care about. So I figured the best use of that talent was to apply it to the most important issue of our time. I’ve now been doing this for more than 25 years. Among other things, I’ve been the writer on all three U.S. National Climate Assessments, testified before Congress, written an HBO documentary, been on national television and radio, provided communication training and support for numerous climate scientists, and spoken to many influential groups. More on my efforts can be found at my website, climatecommunication.org

What do you think is the most pressing issue with communicating climate change today?

One of the most pressing issues is overcoming the ideological divide that causes some people to resist the actions needed to reduce emissions and limit climate change. A big part of this problem is that special interests that benefit from the status quo actively support a disinformation campaign that seeks to cast doubt on the science, just as they did in the tobacco wars when it became clear that smoking was a cause of cancer. Another pressing issue is to communicate the urgency with which we must tackle climate change if we are to avoid catastrophic effects. We need to cut emissions as much as we can, as fast as we can. Fortunately, the technologies needed to do this exist and have a wide array of benefits for our health, security, and economy. We just need to put effective policies in place to scale these technologies up even more rapidly than is occurring now.

You also wrote a documentary for HBO about climate change called “Too Hot Not to Handle” in 2006. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

What was really important to me in writing that documentary was to focus on the impacts we’re experiencing now in our own backyards, and to devote half the film to solutions that Americans are pursuing now. Both of these things help bring the issue home for people. I also wanted to put the faces and voices of my scientist colleagues in front of our viewers so they could hear about climate change right from the horse’s mouth. There was no narrator, no disembodied voice of the network heard so often in documentaries.

How do you help scientists improve how they communicate with the public?

I’ve given many talks and workshops for scientists to help them become more conscious of the problems with how they communicate and to learn the techniques of doing it more effectively. This ranges from connecting on values and establishing trust, to avoiding jargon and words that mean different things to the public, to establishing more of a dialog and less of a lecture. I’ve taught them to anticipate the public’s misconceptions, and how they can make themselves more human and accessible and less intimidating. I’ve also worked one-on-one with many scientists to help them refine their writing and speaking, such as when they’re preparing to give Congressional testimony. I’ve used videotapes of the good, the bad, and the ugly in science communication to help them see what works and what doesn’t. And I give them lots of opportunities to practice and receive feedback. I’ve seen great improvement and a lot more interest among scientists in learning how to communicate well.

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Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right) 2012. Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface.

You have worked on major projects that have been in the spotlight for years. How do you see the tide turning when it comes to communicating about climate change?

I think we’ve laid the groundwork by clearly showing that climate is changing, that humans are causing it, that scientists agree on the basic science and cause, and that the effects are apparent now and will grow much worse unless we change our emissions trajectory. What I see turning the tide is that the solutions are available now and make great sense economically. A much greater focus of communication should be on speeding the transition from the dirty energy system of the past to a clean, renewable energy future.

What can climate change communicators do to improve their message and increase public understanding?

Talk to people about values we all share. No one wants more killer heat waves, floods, and insect-borne diseases. We don’t want to leave our kids with a problem they can’t solve. Talk about impacts that are close to home; the polar bear is not the best symbol of climate change when people are feeling its effects in their own backyards. And place the greatest emphasis on solutions. Everyone wants a clean, healthy, prosperous future. Renewable energy is increasing rapidly in many places, but it’s not happening fast enough. We need policies in place that speed this transition because we have just enough time to avoid the worst if we do as much as we can as fast as we can.

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Map from climatecommunication.org illustrating the impacts from climate change to human health.

Do you have any referrals for more information, or any other ideas you can share?

Our website climatecommunication.org has a wealth of information, so I’d point people there as a good place to start. For example, our Resources section links to videos, articles, other websites, and more. Our narrated animations provide a quick way to learn about the science and share the information with others.

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‘CAP’ping Carbon Emissions with Climate Action Plans

In our latest post in our series about slargon, we discuss how slang and jargon affect policymaking and legal action on a local level. 

In July, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer presented the latest draft Climate Action Plan (CAP) for the City of San Diego. The plan analyzed the City’s energy resources, transportation options, and conservation efforts, and recommended targets for reducing carbon emissions in the future. The CAP has been commended as proactive by local environmental groups.

Nicole Capretz is the lead author and advocate of San Diego’s CAP. She is also the founder of the Climate Action Campaign, a non-profit firm that consults in climate change policymaking. Nicole comes from a legal background of environmental policy and has spent her career fighting miscommunication about climate change on a legislative level. In authoring the San Diego CAP, she understood how important it was to use clear, concise language to make policy transparent and proactive. We spoke to Nicole about her work drafting the CAP and the importance of specific language in policy documents.

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How did you get involved in climate change policy in San Diego?

I have been working on environmental policy in San Diego for 15 years and it became clear about 5 years ago that the most urgent issue was stopping climate change and figuring out a way to transition away from dirty fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.

What are some recent projects you have been working on to support climate change policy in the region?

As a driver and lead author of the City of San Diego’s legally binding 100% clean energy Climate Action Plan, I am still deeply committed to ensuring that plan is passed and implemented. I have also formed a new organization, the Climate Action Campaign, to help other cities and the County of San Diego develop similarly meaningful climate plans. I believe that San Diego has the potential to lead and develop models for climate solutions that can be scaled and replicated in the state, nation and even worldwide in other large regional areas.

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As the Executive Director of the Climate Action Campaign, how have you seen language in communications shift the perception of anthropogenic climate change?

I have seen a shift move from proving that climate science and climate change are real to now focusing on figuring out how we are going to accelerate the shift to clean energy and the actions we need to take to protect public health and our quality of life from the ravages of a much more hotter and drier region.

You were one of the primary authors of the City of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan. Tell us a little bit about the process of developing that document.

I was Chair of the City’s citizen task force for developing the Climate Plan for 3 years prior to joining the Mayor’s office, and we could not get the political support to move a meaningful plan forward. So, the process stagnated and the plan sat on the shelf. Once I was given the opportunity to be the Environmental Policy Advisor for Todd Gloria during his time in the mayor’s office, I was able to take control of the process and leverage the resources and political will to draft the plan in 6 months.   It was an expedited process that required working long hours in the nights and weekends, but City staff and our consultants pulled it off because we knew it was one of the most important planning documents the City has ever developed.

Mission Valley flooding.

In developing the City of San Diego’s CAP, did you run into challenges?

Yes, there were a lot of internal debates about whether to make the plan legally binding, meaning, are the targets enforceable or are they just aspirational. There was also a lot of internal wrangling over the ambitious bike, walk and public transit goals and the 100% clean energy target by 2035.   There were a lot of internal and external meetings with stakeholders, but at the end of the day, it was (former interim Mayor) Todd Gloria’s decision. I am proud to say that he stood behind one of the most ambitious climate plans in the country. I will always give him credit for taking such a bold stand when he could have chosen an alternative path. That is the kind of leadership it will take to protect our future for the next generation.

How much did slang and jargon play a role in your use of the language in the CAP?

I think we did our best to avoid both. Let me know if you think differently. Ha. We obviously worked hard to make the plan accessible to a broad audience so we conveyed the scope and scale of the problem and the matching scope and scale of solutions necessary to protect kids’ futures.

What role do you think language – specifically, slang and jargon that is often used in the media – plays in climate change communication?

I think the language choices of media outlets and how they frame the issue of climate change – especially in the headlines and subheaders – has a huge influence on their core audience. Also, are they posting stories that always include the climate denial position, despite 97% of the scientific community in agreement it is one of the most significant stories in human history, or are they focused on highlighting the enormity of the crisis and our need for urgent solutions? I guess it depends on the political slant of the media outlet, but framing is everything. Two opposing examples would be Fox News and the Guardian newspaper. Fox News is clearly committed to creating doubt about the existence of climate change to support the continued burning of coal, oil and gas to meet our energy needs (Drill, baby, Drill!), while the Guardian has made a commitment to discuss climate change every day in 2015 so as to push decision-makers to take bold action to transition away from dirty energy.  

Solar panels contibute energy to the City of San Diego Wastewater Otay Water Treatment Center

How did you translate statistical targets for reducing carbon emissions into habits and activities people could practice on a daily basis?

I think you focus the discussion on how the solutions to reducing our carbon footprint, such as creating a functioning public transportation system with world-class bike and pedestrian infrastructure and powering our lives with homegrown clean energy resources and zero waste, creates a cleaner, healthier city with a better quality of life. It also positions San Diego to be a world-class city in the 21st century that will continue to attract and retain the best and brightest minds and innovators of the next generation to want to live and raise their family in San Diego.

What is your latest climate change policy project?

We still have to pass the City’s Climate Action Plan, which is pivotal since it is the flagship plan for the region. We are also working with other cities such as La Mesa, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, as well as the County, on ensuring they are developing and implementing climate solutions that position them to be a climate leader powered by 100% clean energy.

Do you have any referrals for more information, or any other ideas you can share?

The San Diego Foundation has a wealth of resources and data about climate planning in the region, including communication ideas and polling about how San Diegan’s view the issue of climate change.

We also have this incredible pool of talent and brain power at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Scripps Institute pioneered climate science, and it is the famed Keeling Curve developed by Charles Keeling in the 1960’s that first measured the troubling rise of carbon dioxide in the air and continues to be the standard bearer for climate monitoring. Other Scripps scientists such as Richard Sommerville, who was a lead author on the seminal IPCC reports for the United Nations, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who advised the Pope on climate science, are influencing climate policy on an international scale. That is stunning and they are based in San Diego! We need to have better communication and collaboration among the scientists and the decision-makers, so we can continue to stay at the forefront of combatting this crisis and leading the way to a clean energy future.

Nicole Capretz and City of San Diego Mayor Faulconer unveil the draft Climate Action Plan in September 2014

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Climate Disruption: The New Global Warming

Time for another installment in our ongoing “Slargon” series!

The contest about whether human-made climate change is happening is over. Climate change won. Now the contest is whether we can adapt, reduce, and clean-up fast enough. With that contest comes a new era of legal battles over what individuals and companies are responsible for adapting to. It is these legal battles where specific use of terminology makes all the difference in how a policy is enacted.

Tim Duane, a professor of law and a consultant to the renewable energy industry, spoke to us about the importance of language and avoiding slargon in creating sound policy for the future. Slang or jargon can muddle technical policy and create loopholes in laws, a key tactic for climate science deniers in legislative positions. Even small differences in terminology – “may” instead of “shall” – can water down regulations and stymie enforcement efforts. We are happy to have him share his perspective with us.

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Tim Duane, Environmental Attorney and Consultant

Please tell us a little bit about your background in law and how you came to specialize in environmental law and energy policy.

I first became involved in the renewable energy industry in the late 1970s when I was an undergrad at Stanford University. I worked with solar energy developers, municipalities, and then joined the alternative energy section at PG&E when I finished my master’s degree in Civil Engineering. Ultimately, I started a consulting business, worked with the largest renewable energy companies in the world, completed my Ph.D. at Stanford and joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley to teach environmental planning and policy. Engineering, economics, and ecology are all central to dealing with modern energy and environmental problems—but we also need to address legal institutions to implement effective policy. So I completed my J.D. at Boalt Hall after I got tenure at Berkeley and I now split my time between the University of California, Santa Cruz (where I’m Professor of Environmental Studies) and the University of San Diego School of Law (where I am a Visiting Professor). I am also a licensed attorney and consultant who advises both private and public clients on policy and projects.

How has communicating environmental law changed your understanding of climate change?

I first wrote about climate change in 1990, so this is not a new issue for me. But climate change and environmental law are still just getting to know each other—and that means there is both tremendous uncertainty about the field and enormous opportunity to influence its future. That makes it an exciting topic to teach and to advise clients and policy-makers on. Our language has evolved, though, from “global warming” to “climate change.” Neither of those terms begins to capture the range of probable impacts from greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, though; instead, “climate disruption” is a much better term. “Abnormal is the new normal,” as we have seen with California’s drought and fire regimes—so we need to shift how our society handles a much higher level of risk and uncertainty. Legal regimes, though, are built to provide stability.

How do you think the legal industry can improve communications about climate change so policymakers and the public can have a better understanding?

The shift from “climate change” to “climate disruption” makes uncertainty and instability more important in how we think about how to manage risk. Both the broader public and my clients want to reduce risk and uncertainty, so we need to innovate with new legal tools to hedge that risk. Financial markets have created such tools, for example, and there are ways for both farmers and airlines to hedge their risk of volatile commodity prices or jet fuel prices. We need to develop similar legal mechanisms for water users and energy consumers and wildlife conservation. Building in adaptability—together with science-based and market-based information on both what is happening to the environment physically and how those changes are affecting social and economic value—is our biggest challenge as a society. And California water management is at the forefront of translating the abstract problem of climate change into real-world legal conflicts. We need to move beyond the current “zero-sum” framing of the water crisis in California: the entire system needs to be modified to reallocate both risk and reward to improve water management. That will require some fundamental changes to many of our legal institutions around water.

What are some examples of a particular word changing policy or legislation?

Much of modern climate and environmental law is “statutory,” meaning it is based on statutes adopted by a legislature that reflects a political compromise over the specific words to deploy. I teach my students to go through the text of a statute—or a regulation, adopted by an agency to implement the statute—with a highlighter to make note of key words like “shall” or “may.” Often, that one word choice will determine whether or not an agency can be compelled by a court to do something. “Shall” makes it clear to the court that the agency needs to do something; “may” gives the agency enormous discretion in how the agency implements the legislature’s intentions. So I would say that the “shall/may” difference is the key to substantive policy in most legislation.

United States President Barack Obama addresses the Climate Summit, at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

United States President Barack Obama addresses the Climate Summit at United Nations headquarters, September 23, 2014. (AP Photo)

What communication strategies work best to deliver information about climate change? How have you seen particular words used to downplay climate change or reduce accountability?

I was the keynote speaker in 2004 for the Western Climate Science Symposium, which had over 100 top scientists working on climate change research. I was basically asked to address the question of why their science didn’t seem to be influencing policy. I read through many of the terrifying science papers they had published and found that the science just wasn’t being presented in a narrative that was accessible to most people. Saying that “median snow storage in the Sierra Nevada across the 14 model scenarios was reduced by 48.2% with a standard deviation of 5.7% by the year 2078” was too complicated and abstract for most people. I translated that study and another one into a more compelling image: “By the time my grandchildren are my age, we’ll have half the snowpack and twice the fire in the Sierra Nevada.” This is an image we can imagine—we’ve seen grandchildren, snow, and fire and have a sense of how those three things go together to describe a future that is not from Star Wars or Star Trek. Today, we have already seen that projection from the models realized on the ground—in the snowpack and fires that are burning right now. So that future is even easier to visualize now.

What words are you hearing most often? What words are fading out?

Among scientists and policy-makers, “climate disruption” is taking hold—but it hasn’t been picked up yet by the media. I think there are good reasons that existing fossil-fuel producers would like to keep the discourse at the more soothing level of “climate change.” But the erratic and historically unprecedented changes we are experiencing make most people talk casually about how the weather is “weird” or “strange” compared to the past. So “climate disruption” may take hold—it really does mean you can have both hotter and colder conditions at the same time. A drought in the west is consistent with more intense winters as greater heat in the system drives greater moisture in the air and the jet stream shifts as regional differences play out.

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Cumulative water storage changes between 2002 and 2014. Decreasing water storage results in increased fires and less containment. Source: Capital Public Radio)

How has the language of energy policies shifted in regards to climate change over the last few decades? How about in the last few years?

Climate denial has taken a new form: previously, it was a claim that “the jury is still out” on whether climate has and is changing; now, it is the claim “I’m not a scientist” and that any changing climate is a natural phenomenon that can’t be traced to human activities (with a reprise of “the jury is still out” on that question). But the jury isn’t still out: it’s a nearly unanimous verdict among qualified scientists. Moreover, phrases like “clean coal” and “the war on coal” simply deflect attention from the actual factors driving the rapid collapse of the coal industry. Pushing for a shift to natural gas fails to account for the global warming potential of methane, which is emitted in the life cycle of producing natural gas (accounting for it makes “fracked” natural gas roughly as bad as coal for producing electricity on a life-cycle basis). An “all of the above” energy strategy may play well with key campaign contributors, but it obscures the need to make strategic investments to transform our entire economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We therefore need to focus more on the enormous technological and business opportunities we have through investments in energy efficiency, renewable sources of power, and alternative transportation fuels rather than continue to invest in obsolete energy sources that will simply delay a necessary transformation—while making climate disruption worse.

What research are you currently working on?

I’m very excited to be working on a project with a crack team of sophisticated, experienced modelers and researchers to develop a Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy for the US by 2050. The project is designed to reach out to American business leaders and those who want to make America a leader in the global transformation that needs to take place over the next decade or so to reach the scientific consensus on emissions reductions: reducing US greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 80%. This is both possible and profitable if we put the right policies in place. I’m also working on the many near-term challenges that my clients face in navigating both state and federal laws and policies—and the impact of climate disruption—on their businesses.

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You can hear a recent interview Tim Duane did with the Institute of the Americas about energy policy and climate change at https://www.iamericas.org/en/ioa-programs/energy1

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A Storied Future

Next up in our “Slargon” series – the intersection of slang and jargon – is storytelling. The story of climate change is more and more often told through a personal story to explain world-wide situations.

The social media of our time is helping these stories surface. We welcome Mrill Ingram, who has used her talents to break down jargon into clear, compelling narratives. Ingram received her PhD in Geography from the University of Arizona and has spent her career communicating scientific breakthroughs through journalism. She was Editor of the journal, “Ecological Restoration” for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and previously worked at Upworthy, both curating and creating environmental content for social media. In August, Mrill accepted a position as Web Editor for Progressive Magazine. We welcome her insights about the power of a clear story to get a technical point understood.

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Mrill Ingram

How did you first get involved in environmental communications?

I began writing about the environment working for Earthwatch magazine in the 1980s. The organization supported scientific field research, much of which focused on environmental issues. I learned how dynamic scientific and environmental issues can be — there’s always more questions and plenty of uncertainty and mystery. I thought a lot about what kinds of language would connect nonscientists in with a story that only scientists were telling.

With regard to climate change science, how important is language in forming a compelling narrative for combating climate change?

People as diverse as Republican political strategist Frank Luntz, and linguist and author George Lakoff have pointed out that language is foundational to our understanding of the world, and shapes what we think of as truth. That is, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it actually shapes what we are able to know and learn.

So, the short answer to your question is: Very Important.

But to elaborate, up until very recently, the narrative of climate change has been largely scientific: ice cores, tree rings, icebergs, hurricanes, and atmospheric gases have been major characters. It’s also been politically really dry – Naomi Klein describes the political discussions about climate change as “bloodless.” We hear words like “emissions” and “treaties” and “carbon trading,” even though what’s at stake are people’s entire homelands, slowly disappearing under the waves, families having to pull up roots and migrate, farmers losing land held in their families for generations, and a lot of other really heart-wrenching stories. Pope Francis, who came out with an encyclical on climate change this spring, understands this. He talks about the earth as a “sister” and “beautiful mother.” But more recently we’ve heard more personal narratives of first hand experiences of struggle and loss because of climate change. Those kinds of narratives generate emotions. They can feel familiar and compelling, and are more easily remembered and shared. These stories have also been elaborated by images thanks to social media, and also by numbers (statistics on lives and dollars lost). All this comes together to create a much more lively and compelling set of climate change narratives, that has really changed the level of public attention and receptivity to the issue.

Pope Francis presented an encyclical on climate change on June 18, 2015.

In your 2013 book, The Power of Narrative in Environmental Networks, you argue that narrative and stories play a key role in the formation of environmental networks. How so?

In our book we describe ways that grassroots groups have organized around issues they are passionate about, and can end up having a strong impact on policy even though they are real outsiders to the political system. We illustrate with 3 case studies including a scattering of groups organizing along the Mexican-American border to protect the environment, and also farmers interested in organic and other alternative forms of farming in this country who got organized way before the surge of public interest in organic agriculture in the 1990s.

The argument of the book is that groups of very diverse sets of people with a lot of different kinds of politics, values, and experiences can form very durable networks around environmental issues – and what connects all these diverse people and the environment together is a common story. These stories, which are general narratives told slightly differently by each person, pull people together, help sustain them over both time and also geographical distance. Even after decades of being marginalized and sidelined, these groups can stay connected and work to cause real change. For example, organic farmers were routinely ridiculed after they began to network with each other and to form groups sharing information and practices. The movement involved a lot of different kinds of farmers and other people, but they all told their own versions of what they were doing to connect farming to nature, and to learn from nature about effective farming practice. Over time, these practices became celebrated as a viable alternative to industrial agriculture’s heavy reliance on chemicals.

While you were researching this issue, what were some of the findings? Were there any surprises in what you discovered?

Even while the U.S.-Mexico border has becoming increasingly militarized and portrayed as a place of danger and violence, and a massive steel wall has been built (cutting migration routes for jaguars, wolves, Sonoran pronghorn and many other animals), the people in this network have continued to express a positive attitude. U.S. laws protecting the environment have been completely disregarded by military efforts to “protect” the border. But rather than give up, people in these groups are seeing ways that the border wall can help increase public awareness of all the wildlife and other natural wonders of the region. People from Mexico, the U.S., and from tribal nations all describe the Sonoran region as a place of home or one of arrival, they felt strongly that this was a place they had to commit to. And that shared sense of the special nature of this place has kept them working together to protect it, even while the general attitude has shifted toward one of fear and suspicion. And they have accomplished some pretty impressive policy changes lately, for example, protecting wetlands, jaguars, and releasing water in a portion of the Colorado River that has been dry for decades in order to help the environment.

Cross-border politics: Water destined for the Cienega wetland flows into Mexico through a gap in the border fence at San Luis Rio Colorado. Credit: Lorne Matalon

What is the most significant element a community needs to create a strong network and support itself as an environmental community?

As I mentioned, we saw a shared story as the single most important element, a story that connected people emotionally as well as intellectually. One key piece of every story, though, was how people understood their opposition. Groups really need a common enemy, or at least a commonly articulated opposition that they can organize themselves against. One of the big challenges about the scientific climate change narrative as it’s often told, is that the common enemy is us. Everything we do contributes to global climate change, and it’s hard to see what action to take, let alone why getting organized in a group would do any good.

We also saw that some kind of personal interaction and environmental experience is really critical. Social media, where people can see pictures and hear people talking or singing, for example, is really important. But it alone isn’t enough to sustain a long-term commitment and understanding about the environment. People need to see and talk with other people in the flesh, and to personally interact with the wonderful, diverse world around.

9780262519571_0How heavily did the use of language – particularly slang and jargon related to climate change – factor in to your conclusions?

All groups we looked at developed their own slargon over time. It is an important way of gesturing to a common experience, or set of conclusions, for example. Insider language can also be off-putting for newcomers, of course, and given that we were looking at groups interested in broader societal change, rather than protecting themselves from intrusion, we didn’t see strong commitments to special language that others wouldn’t understand.

Of course, a lot of environmental discourse can be very jargony. But what we saw with the networks and shared stories, was that whether they used jargon or not, everyone was telling a similar kind of story. So scientists, ranchers and government agency representatives alike, they were all active narrators, not just sitting back and only listening. And people frequently incorporated both very personal and emotional information with very technical, scientific information. Stories are a tremendously powerful way of pulling these very different ways of understanding together.

It’s really empowering for someone to tell a story, and to share that with others who recognize it as a similar story. If more individuals began to narrate their own personal stories about climate change and listen to other people tell theirs, it would really help inform the climate change discussion with passion and urgency.

 As a curator on Upworthy, you write content that promotes environmental stewardship and community networking. How has social media influenced climate change communications?

I mentioned this before, but I think social media has been a driving force in creating new stories of what climate change actually means for individual lives. It’s helped personalize and make emotional what’s been a pretty technical, bloodless discussion. I really like the Instagram account everydayclimatechange. Powerful stuff. But besides sharing photos from far away places of hardship, social media is also a place all kinds of people participate, no matter their expertise, and they can also share in a celebratory manner. And being able to share inspiration about the environment, and to hear from others about their inspiration — well, that’s the beginning of a shared story about how something really matters.

Does your use of less-formal publishing through social media influence your choice of words?

 Totally!

Do you use more slang and jargon than technical phrasing to frame an issue when writing a tweet or an Upworthy article?

I think slang and jargon both can be incredible effective, particularly if you are speaking to a selected audience, one that is already familiar with the context and will understand what the terms refer to. Slang can be humorous. Jargon is great for short cuts. Both those things are really nice to be able to use. But so much of my writing is aimed at engaging new audiences, and trying to catch and hold the attention of non-specialists. Jargon ain’t great for that.

Also, I work to bridge gaps – so not just communicating science to nonscientists, but also communicating something personal, or emotional, to a scientific/specialist audience. Again, that’s what I appreciate about social media. People are participating there, and very often, they are sharing their feelings.

As an environmental communicator on the forefront of social media content, how do you think climate change communicators can improve their message and increase public understanding?

I think it’s important to see the world not as scientist/non-scientist but a world full of groups with very different kinds of knowledges. In other words, I can think of most everyone as an expert, but in different things. So communicating with them involves recognizing their expertise and tapping into that in some way to find something that resonates and will open them up to some new ideas. My writing is a constant, roving exploration of what kinds of information or framing of a story will help do that resonating. Once you create that possibility then people will avail themselves of all kinds of technical info, whether it’s jargony or not. They just need the compelling reason to do it.

I just encountered this on social media about climate change, a poem from a girl living on islands endangered by sea level rise:

..tell them we are skies uncluttered

majestic in their sweeping landscape
we are the oceans
terrifying and regal in its power

tell them about the water
how we have seen it rising
flooding across our cemeteries
gushing over our sea walls
and crashing against our homes
tell them what it’s like
to see the entire ocean level with the land
tell them
we are afraid
tell them we don’t know
of the politics
or the science
but tell them we see
what is in our own backyard
but most importantly
tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we
are nothing
without our islands

Excerpt from “Tell Them”, a poem by Marshallese poet and activist, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (@iepjeltok).

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Replacing sticky myths with stickier facts

We are proud to introduce the first installment of our series on “Slargon” with John Cook, a PhD Candidate and climate change researcher with the University of Queensland.

Sometimes it takes a conversation over dinner to see the bigger picture, and that’s exactly what happened to John Cook. Over dinner conversations about climate change with his in-laws a few years ago, John began to notice how confusing climate change science sounded and how “sticky”, or how easily-repeatable, myths could be perpetuated in climate talks. He knew he had to do something to fight back against bad information sticking.

Part of the problem to John was the way information was delivered to people. Scientists communicate climate science in a complex way, using technical jargon and slang that would confuse people who were not specialists in the field. How scientists frame debates and how journalists and communicators frame debates are very different, and John understood the need to bring both languages to the same level. In response, he has devoted the last five years to debunking climate change myths and smear campaigns. He started a website called Skeptical Science, which takes a myth-busting approach at explaining misinformation surrounding climate change debates. John is also pursuing a PhD at University of Queensland studying the psychology of climate change, and is researching ways communicators use slargon to spread confusion about climate change science. We are happy to share his ideas about the use of language in climate communications.

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John Cook presenting research on man-made global warming in scientific literature to Professor Naomi Oreskes, author of Merchants of Doubt.

1. Tell us a little bit about your background.

I started out studying a physics degree at the University of Queensland. After finishing my degree, I worked in a range of areas – database programming, illustration, web design, cartooning and screenwriting. All of these experiences and acquired skill sets ended up playing a part in my current climate communication work.

2. Given your background in physics, what got you interested in the issues of climate change denial and misinformation?

I first became interested in climate change getting into “vigorous discussions” about climate science with family members (predominantly on the in-laws side). In researching the matter, I discovered that the arguments against climate change had very little scientific basis. So in preparation for the next family get-together, I started a database of various climate myths and what the peer-reviewed science said about each myth (you can’t leave anything to chance with tussling with the in-laws). That database eventually formed the basis for the Skeptical Science website.

3. How has your work with your website and your Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) development work changed or reinforced your perspectives on climate change communication?

In 2010, I received a life changing email from a psychology professor that included some psychological research into debunking. The research found that if your debunking wasn’t structured properly, you ran the risk of actually reinforcing the myth you were trying to debunk. This startled me to say the least and drove home the crucial importance of social science research into science communication. Since then, I’ve been studying the psychological research into science communication, as well as conducting my own research. Our MOOC, “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial”, is a video summary of my investigation into the psychology of denial – explaining what drives climate science denial and how to respond to it.

4. What role do you think language – specifically, slang and jargon that is often used in the media – plays in climate change communication?

It took me a number of years before I realized that science communication wasn’t just about understanding and explaining the science. Communicators also need to understand their audience. This means having a grasp of the psychology of how people process information. Framing matters. Words that mean one thing to a scientist can mean an entirely different thing to a non-scientist. So it’s crucial that scientists are conscious of the words that they use, and whether those words hold the same meaning for the audiences they’re talking to.

5. You maintain a website called “Skeptical Science”, which debunks climate change denial arguments in a Snopes-like manner on the Internet. Have you identified a common style of argument from deniers?

There are common styles of arguments that apply not just to climate science denial but any form of science denial. We see it with creationism, anti-vaxxers and the tobacco industry’s denial of the health impacts of smoking. In all movements that deny a scientific consensus, we see five telltale techniques that distinguish denial from genuine scientific skepticism. I use the acronym FLICC to remember them:

  • Fake experts: spokespeople who convey the appearance of scientific expertise but have no actual scientific expertise in the topic at hand.
  • Logical fallacies: using fallacious arguments such as ad hominem attacks (attacking someone’s character), straw man arguments (arguing against a point someone did not make) and red herrings (presenting irrelevant diversions) to distort or distract from the science.
  • Impossible expectations: raising the level of proof to an impossible level, a technique perfected by the tobacco industry decades ago to delay cigarette regulation.
  • Cherry picking: rather than taking a holistic view of the full body of evidence, this involves selectively focusing on a small piece of data and ignoring all contrary evidence.
  • Conspiracy theories: inevitably the only way to explain why you disagree with a global community of scientists is to resort to conspiracy theories.

6. How do you effectively respond to arguments by people who deny climate change?

There are two important elements to responding to denial. Firstly, if you debunk a myth, you need to replace it with a factual alternative. When you explain that a myth is wrong, you create a gap in a person’s mental model of the world. You need to fill that gap or the myth will come back and continue to influence people. And here’s the kicker – the fact needs to be even more compelling, memorable and “sticky” than the myth you’re displacing. This is the golden rule of debunking: fight sticky myths with stickier facts.

Secondly, you also need to explain the technique that the myth uses to distort the science. If people don’t understand the myth’s fallacy, they have no way of reconciling the fact with the myth. This is why FLICC is so important – it provides a framework for understanding the different techniques of science denial.

7. You also published a report in 2013 that aggregated scientific papers about climate change and found a 97% consensus endorsing the position that humans are causing global warming. Tell us a little bit about this process and your conclusions.

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published a study analyzing the level of scientific agreement on climate change in published climate papers. She found overwhelming scientific agreement that humans were causing global warming. Nearly a decade later, we thought it was high time to update the analysis – so we repeated (and expanded) her analysis, looking at 21 years of climate papers. We found that among the papers stating a position on human-caused global warming, 97.1% endorsed the consensus. We then invited the scientists who wrote the climate papers to rate their own research. That yielded a 97.2% consensus.

The reason why this research is so important is two-fold. Firstly, the public think there’s a 50:50 debate among climate scientists about whether humans are causing global warming. Secondly, when the public think scientists disagree, they’re less likely to support climate mitigation policies. So closing the “consensus gap” is necessary to remove one of the roadblocks delaying climate action.

8. How did the public receive this study? Was there backlash?

The initial reaction was surprise: “really, the consensus is that high?!” I have to confess, I was surprised at the level of surprise. Ours wasn’t the first study to find 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. Using different methodologies to us, Peter Doran found 97% consensus in 2009 and William Anderegg found 97% consensus in 2010. But casting doubt on the consensus has been a key tactic by those opposing climate action for decades.

The next reaction was attacks on our research from people denying the scientific consensus. Those attacks have continued for over two years, taking the form of blog posts, newspaper op-eds, reports by conservative think-tanks, online videos, cartoons, papers, complaints to my university, Freedom of Information requests for my emails, TV interviews and congressional testimonies. As a scientist researching misinformation and science denial, what interests me is that the attacks on my own research have adopted the five techniques of science denial – an interesting source of data to analyze!

9. What was the strategy behind framing this as “anthropogenic global warming”? Were there alternatives?

Personally, I avoid using the term anthropogenic when talking to the general public, which is why I generally opt for “human-caused global warming”. Another alternative is “man-made global warming”.

10. What do you think is the most effective way to deliver the scientific information about climate change?

The key to communicating climate science, and in fact the key to communicating *anything*, is to make your information “sticky”. A book that I’ve found very helpful is Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. They use the acronym (I do love acronyms which are very sticky) SUCCES to summarize the traits of sticky ideas:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Credible
  • Concrete
  • Emotional
  • Story

11. Do you think we are moving towards a better global understanding of anthropogenic climate change?

From a scientific perspective, climate scientists have a strong understanding of human’s role in global warming. We have observed many human fingerprints in our climate, all pointing to a single, consistent picture. As for global understanding of climate change, perhaps the most important indicator is public momentum towards meaningful climate action. In 2015, this momentum seems to be building as we head towards the December international climate negotiations in Paris. I hold a cautious optimism that we will see the world’s countries take significant steps in the right direction at those negotiations. If we see strong leadership on climate change, we’ll then see significant flow-on effects regarding public views on climate change.

12. You’re currently pursuing your PhD, what is the focus of your latest research?

My PhD research is on the psychology of climate change and science denial. I’m particularly interested in how scientists should respond to misinformation and science denial. This research journey has led me to an intriguing body of psychological research into “inoculation theory”. This research finds counter-intuitively that the way to stop science denial from spreading is by exposing people to a weak form of denial. This has been the approach of our “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial” MOOC.

13. Where do you get your inspiration to study climate change communication?

Ultimately, what drives me is being a parent wanting to hand over a safe world to my daughter. I identified that a key way to achieve the action needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is to raise public awareness of the realities of climate change. One of the roadblocks to public support for climate action is misinformation, so I research the most effective ways of reducing the influence of misinformation.

14. Do you have any referrals for more information, or any other ideas you can share?

For a crash course on climate science, the psychology of climate change and the research into debunking misinformation, I recommend our free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.

A shorter introduction the psychology of debunking is available in The Debunking Handbook (which was recently translated into a 10th language).

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Learn Your Slargon!

When you hear the words “Climate Change,” what comes to mind? Are you concerned about the tipping point of earth’s climate, or that we will fall into a feedback loop? Are you weary of global weirding and anthropogenic forcing? If so, you are probably quite savvy at discussing climate change impacts, predictions, and mitigation strategies.

1501924However, most of us are NOT that savvy at discussing climate change. As California dives headfirst into yet another summer of drought with no relief in sight, leaders are brainstorming ways to adapt to climate change quickly. Changes to our climate will impact snowpack, water levels, and precipitation, and it is critical to know how to talk about issues that are brought about by anthropogenic (“man-made”) climate change.

Over this summer, our interviews will focus on a growing collection of terms that apply to trends and impacts of climate change in conversations. We have compiled this slang and jargon – or “slargon” – into a glossary that communicators can utilize to explain the science, political support, and social implications that surround the conversation to the public.

Stay tuned for interviews by leaders explaining the strengths of communicating with the slargon of climate change.
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Collaborative Services and Warner Architecture and Design are now CityWorks People + Places

It’s our 20th anniversary and what better way to celebrate than to merge with our long-time design firm. Now, both team are under one roof and one name to engage people and design places that result in stronger, more successful cities. We are happy to introduce you to CityWorks People + Places. Same great teams delivering a world of services that make a world of difference.

The CityWorks People + Places Team

Chasing Ice Documentary Filmmakers

Imagine yourself in conversation with someone who is important to you. But there’s a problem: your important someone doesn’t entirely agree with what you are saying.

You provide facts to appeal to their mind and emotions to appeal to their heart. You try humor. Perhaps you even use the magical art of active listening, then reframe the issue to reintroduce this important someone to why your point is well, right. You try and you try, but the resistance is still there. Nothing and no one has moved despite your words of wisdom and wit.

What do you say then? Perhaps you say one of these well-worn lines: “Ok. See for yourself.” “Seeing is believing.” “Can you see my point?” Or, our favorite, the simple plead: “Seeeee!”

Notice all statements include a variation on the word “see.” Seeing transitions you to a world where words aren’t needed to produce agreement. Seeing puts us in awe of feats of strength and wonders of the world. Seeing creates a lasting impression. Seeing a wrong makes us upset. Seeing something worth protecting makes us want to act. Seeing explains what words often fail to say.

The team documenting an Antarctic crevasse.

Seeing is the visual side of saying something. And, if you’re going to say something – whether with images or words – why not say it well? Our last post and this next one take you to places that you might not otherwise see. These interviewees wanted you to see what climate change looks like. These folks spoke volumes with the visuals they created. In doing so, they put climate change in plain view for all of us.

As we head into the long, hot days of summer, today’s post takes you to a much cooler place. A place you may never see except through the work of Jeff Orlowski. In the documentary Chasing Ice, he takes all of us to a place where glaciers live. We welcome him to the blog and thank him for sharing his thoughts about showing climate change through time-lapse images.

How did your team first come up with the idea to take time-lapse images of the glaciers? 

It was originally James’s idea, the main character of the film. Back then (in 2006-2007), no one was really talking about how glaciers were changing. It was very insightful of him to think of that. A mutual friend connected us and suggested that we meet.

The project seems like a great way to help the public visualize the impact of climate change. What do you think are the most compelling images? 

The whole objective for us was to visualize climate change. We were talking about how invisible air is causing change all the time. Because air is invisible, it’s easy to dismiss it. We wanted to root climate change in something that the brain could understand. When you have visual imagery of the change occurring, it becomes more evident what is going on. Scientists are very rational. Sometimes facts and figures do not make the heart connection and as a species we are very emotionally driven. Seeing the glaciers change, we discovered that it was a very clear way to get people to emotionally connect with the story. Our team found that many audience members felt the clips taken during the calving event were the most compelling.

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Filmmaker scaling an ice wall

What was surprising in the implementation of the project? 

In the editing of the film, we created lots of versions that didn’t work. We tested out versions of the film with friends, strangers – to all sorts of people – to get feedback on it and to see what they liked and didn’t like. We wanted to know what they didn’t understand, what didn’t make sense, and we also wanted to know what was clear. Due to showing some of these earlier versions and getting feedback, we found out what was working and we adjusted. Originally we were making a film that was more of a biography of James, his past work and approach to photography as whole. Over time, as we were screening that version, people wanted to know more about the ice and the specific project. We realized that telling the story of James was missing this bigger story, so we shifted it away from biography to the story of the Extreme Ice Survey.

Between starting up the project and releasing Chasing Ice, what were some of the major obstacles and how did you overcome those? 

For me, the biggest challenge was the editing. This was my first film that I worked on. I was learning how to tell a feature-length story. I had done short films before, but the process of a short film and a feature film are very different.

Was there any part of the project that went easier than you anticipated?

Ha, no.

What impact did you want the video to have and is it having that impact? Why do you think that is?

It’s hard to go in with a goal for impact. We had hoped that it would make a dent and influence people’s perspective on the issue. The issue of climate change is so contentious and it really shouldn’t be. The data is so clear. As a society, we are really setting ourselves up for failure by not listening to the scientists. We know that we are jeopardizing the ecosystems that keep us alive. By not listening more to the scientists, we are threatening the ecosystems that keep us alive.

James Balog capturing the erosion of glaciers

Looking back, what – if anything – would you have done differently? 

I would have raised more money earlier. I try not to look at things as mistakes or regrets; we just plowed forward with what we thought we needed to do to in order to create success. When we started making the film, its funding was mostly from friends and family. I was a first-time filmmaker. I didn’t have a big reputation or the connections that go with that. Slowly, we collected more and more people with experience and great insight. It took a lot of passion and dedication. Some of the most important people were our producers. They were some of the earliest people that saw the potential for the film. They saw there was something there and that it could be something great. They believed in the film.

How did you pick the name Chasing Ice?

That’s a funny question. There’s a debate as to who was the first to come up with the name. “Chasing” is a theme that comes up throughout the film. At some point someone put the two concepts of the film together, Chasing and Ice.

What’s James up to now?

He’s continuing to document how humans are changing the planet. Extreme Ice Survey is also currently installing and monitoring time-lapse cameras around the world.

When you show this movie to the public, what kinds of reactions do you get? What do they respond most to? What are some of the most interesting responses? 

I think everyone’s response was incredibly powerfully, especial in reaction to the time-lapses and the calving events of the glaciers. It’s a natural phenomenon that very few of us get to see. When you see it, it changes how you think about the world. Seeing is believing, but the first step is understanding. Audiences will say they were blown away by how powerful the images were. We found watching a glacier fall apart was more impactful then listening to someone tell you facts about glaciers.

Eroding glaciers in Antarctica

What do you think people would like to see more of in regard to climate change?

There is still a lot of confusion about how the planet is changing due to human action. We need to continue to collect more imagery that helps the public understand what’s happening and how to take action and find solutions.

Are there any other visual projects about climate change that you would like our readers to know about?

Readers can continue to follow the work of James Balog’s organization Earth Vision Institute as he continues to take powerful imagery of our changing planet.

Seeing Sea Level Change

If you’ve been waiting for the answer to last week’s riddle, the time has come. What is east and royal and tidal all over? The King Tides Trail, of course!

The American playwright Wilson Mizner famously said, “Art is science made clear.” There may be nothing that captures this sentiment for the science of climate change as accurately as the King Tides Trail project in Portland, Maine. Created by Jan Piribeck, an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Southern Maine, the King Tides Trail project is an interactive art piece that wraps 4 miles around the Portland peninsula and uses markers and geographic data points to show the anticipated impacts to the city from a changing climate. The project identifies areas that would be flooded by rising tides in the next 50-100 years and illustrates this hard-to-grasp concept of sea level change in a visually clear way.

Today Jan speaks to us about her work on the King Tides Trail project. For over a decade Jan has focused her work on a series of projects that fuse Art and Geographic Information Systems. Jan and her team unveiled the King Tides Trail Project on December 8, 2014. The project is meant to inspire awareness about the impacts of climate change to the Portland community as well as the rest of the world. We welcome her insights about visual communications for climate change issues.

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission exposes regular flooding problems in Portland, Maine. Source: Aaron Godfrey Parker

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Aaron Godfrey Parker

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Who first came up with the idea?

The idea came from the process of observing high tides and their impact on my neighborhood in Portland, Maine. I live in part of the city that just a little over a century ago was covered by waters from the Back Cove, a mile-wide tidal basin located nearby. About five years ago I began noticing areas that flooded regularly during high, high tides. At first I thought this was rainwater, but upon further investigation found it to be brackish water that pushes its way up through storm drains. I decided to start working with students at the University of Southern Maine (USM) to observe and record these tidal inundations, which led to a study of sea level change. Living on a peninsula offered the opportunity to observe a number of sites that are vulnerable to rising tides. Many of these are located along two popular cycling/walking trails in Portland, and it made sense to mark these sites and create a pathway around the shoreline of the city for those who want to witness the impacts of the highest tides of the year, also known as King Tides.

How many people were involved?

A core group of 15 students was involved in creating a temporary installation marking the location of a 3’ sea level line and the King Tides Trail. The students also created a Google Map of the trail showing points of interest and the trail’s proximity to the 3’ sea level line.

The following students gave generously of their time, energy and talent to the development of the Portland King Tides Trail: Nicholas Barter, Nathan Broaddus, Amber Desrosiers, Marina Douglas, William Freeman, Ken Gross, Emma Hazzard, Richard Hudon, Abigail Johnson-Ruscansky, Ryan Jordan, Kristyn Peterson, Caitlin Puchalski, Samantha Quimby, Lisa Willey, Mike Witherell

Vinton Valentine, Director of the USM/GIS Lab and Marina Schauffler of the Gulf of Maine (GOM) King Tides Project provided valuable assistance throughout the project.

Click on the image to view an interactive Google map of the King Tides Trail.

Click on the image to view an interactive Google map of the King Tides Trail.

What was your role?
I was the project director; this involved organizing and presenting lectures to orient the students to data about sea level rise (SLR) and to various forms of installation art. I facilitated discussions and activities leading to the design and implementation of the King Tides Trail and was the liaison with the city of Portland and the GOM Council and King Tides Project.

The project seems like a great way to help the public visualize the impacts of rising sea levels. Please explain the method you used in this project.

We used over 2,000 red surveying whiskers pounded into the ground with 60-penny nails to delineate and make visible a portion of the 3’ SLR line. The space we marked is located in an empty urban lot slated for real estate development. We used GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping tools to project the line, and loaded this data into a hand-held GPS (Geographic Positioning System) receiver. This enabled us to walk and mark the line in physical space. We also used GIS to map locations for 28 Beacons (blue wooden stakes topped with solar lamps) along the King Tides Trail. The Beacons marked the trail and sites along the trail where tidal changes can be easily observed. Additionally, circular sidewalk graphics were created to mark locations vulnerable to flooding. Some of the sites were given names such as Knudsen Pond and Somerset Lagoon as a way to form a narrative around SLR in Portland. Hand-painted maps have been created to document the whereabouts of these locations.

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Abigail Krolak

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Abigail Krolak

Do you have other ideas for how to visualize rising sea level?

Yes. Each student came up with a proposal for an installation. We couldn’t create them all, but they were all compelling. For example, one student proposed compacting trash collected from beaches to make large sculptural cubes that could be used to construct sea walls. The absurdity of the idea is part of its strength. These sea walls wouldn’t be functional except to point out the excessive waste that is contributing to the demise of our atmosphere and in turn leading to accelerated sea level change. All of the students were inspired by Tsunami markers, which are stone slabs used to mark where Tsunami waves have occurred. The markers warn against building on these spots. Another student proposed a large-scale cast concrete sculpture inscribed with wave patterns to be installed at the portal of the King Tides Trail. There were many more ideas that deserve future consideration.

How did your team decide on this method?
We wanted to do something where the entire class could be engaged in the making, and we had several factors such as durability and visibility that factored into the decision to use the marking whiskers, stakes and sidewalk graphics. Due to the collaborative nature of the project, students wanted to pick materials that were representative of the entire group and not reflective of just one aesthetic voice. The materials chosen borrowed from the visual vocabulary of surveying tools, which went along with the idea of the students being environmental and cultural surveyors and workers. We wore hard hats with HAT (highest annual tide) at the work site.

Have any other coastal cities in the U.S. undertaken this type of art project.

Volunteers installing red whiskers along Portland high tide line during an early stage of the project. Source: University of Southern Maine.

Volunteers installing red whiskers along Portland high tide line during an early stage of the project. Source: University of Southern Maine.

There is a really interesting project called HIGHWATERLINE that does workshops and public art to mobilize communities to develop resiliency to climate change. They do work in cities throughout the country.

Did you need permission from the City of Portland for your project?

Yes!

If so, how easy/hard was it?

The city of Portland was supportive, but there were protocols that took time to work through. This involved things like dig safe permits and approvals by the Portland Public Art student art review committee. The class made a formal proposal that outlined materials, maintenance and dismantling plans and so on. Everything had to be approved before final permits were issued.

Were there any particularly challenging obstacles?

We were working under a compressed timeframe and the protocols seemed prohibitive at times, but in the end the cooperative and flexible attitudes of the city officials and persistence on our part helped assure that the project would happen.

You received funding through the Limulus Fund at the Maine Community Foundation. How did you go about pitching this idea to the foundation?

The grant was submitted through the Gulf of Maine Council on the Maine Environmental Climate Network. They did the pitch and were successful.

Source: Press Herald

Source: Press Herald

How competitive was the process?

I’m not sure, but I think the review is quite thorough. Proposals have to show merit and be viable for completion.

How has the public reacted to the project? What have been some of the most interesting responses?

There was interest on the part of the media. The project was covered well in local newspapers and was featured on Maine Public Radio. Many people reached out to tell me they enjoyed reading and hearing about the project, and those who jog along the King Tides Trail have mentioned seeing the glowing Beacons at dusk.

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Riley Young Morse

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Riley Young Morse

Do you think the project will prompt the city to take action to mitigate against the rising sea levels?

The scenario of a 3’ rise is more severe than what the city is officially planning for. The apartment complex to be developed in the empty lot where we marked the 3’ SLR line has been approved, and there are plans to elevate the surrounding roads by 2’ to accommodate rising tides. This is in accordance with current flood maps; however, the question intimated by the King Tides Trail is, will this be enough? The installation was informed by the research of Maine State Geologist Peter Slovinsky, who points out that the latest scientific predictions for SLR are 1’ by 2050, 2’-3’ but potentially more by 2100. The State of Maine has adopted 2’ as a middle-of-the-road prediction by the year 2100 for areas with regulated Coastal sand Dunes. Slovinsky suggests examining scenarios of 1’, 2’, 3.3’ and 6’ on top of the highest annual tide. These scenarios relate to the National Climate Assessment, and also correspond well with evaluating potential impacts from storm surges that may coincide with higher tides today. The aim of the King Tides Trail was to illuminate these potential impacts through artistic visualizations and processes.

The city is aware of the work we did, but there is no indication that the project resulted in specific action. Information about the trail will continue to be distributed through a website and digital database that are due for publication this week! Communication and collaboration with the city to raise awareness of SLR was one of the goals of the King Tides Trail, and headway was made in this regard.

How would downtown Portland be impacted if sea levels did, in fact, rise three feet by 2100?

There would be a dramatic impact on waterfront properties and on some locations that are currently not considered to be waterfront properties. One of these would be the parking lot in front of my condominium; I live not far from the downtown, and my parking spot would be under water given a 3’ rise.

Red whiskers placed in Portland's Bayside neighborhood identify where the tide line would be if sea level rose by three feet.Source: The Forecaster

Red whiskers placed in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood identify where the tide line would be if sea level rose by three feet. Source: The Forecaster

What are some things the city can start doing today to prepare?

About a year and a half ago the Portland Society for Architecture hosted a symposium called Waterfront Visions 2050. They brought in experts on sea level adaptation to address concerns about Commercial Street in Portland’s Old Port district. It was an incredible program that included an exhibition and public forum for sharing ideas about what to do to prepare. There are many innovative ways to address SLR. The important thing is not to ignore that it is happening and not to panic and make unwarranted choices about vacating properties.

Have you thought about doing a similar King Tides-type project in another coastal area? Or whatever other projects are you pursuing at this time?

There is great potential to expand the King Tides Trail beyond the Portland peninsula. This summer I will focus my energies on extending the project into Casco Bay. Ideally, I would like to travel to coastal communities throughout the Gulf of Maine and along the US coastline to do similar projects.

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To learn more about the King Tides Trail project, visit http://esealevelchange.org/. You can also learn more about “Envisioning Change,” an art collaboration in Casco Bay to visualize climate change impacts, of which the King Tides Trail project was a part, by visiting the University of Southern Maine Digital Humanities program at https://usm.maine.edu/usmdh.

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Kristyn Peterson

King Tides Trail 2014 Photo Contest submission. Source: Kristyn Peterson

Visually Communicating Our Changing Climate

This year, we’re focusing on climate change and sustainability. We’re pleased to introduce you in upcoming weeks to people who are helping us see the future using visual communications to help all of us understand what changes are happening and to come. We’ll kick off the theme with a mystery – what’s east and royal and tidal all over? Stay tuned for the next week’s answer.

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