Tag Archives | communication

Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti

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It’s “very likely” that communicating about climate change is challenging

Communicating about climate change is tricky, no doubt about it. Not only is it a complicated issue, with plenty of risks and impacts (many of which are quite regionally specific), oodles of underlying science, and a wide range of possible actions, there’s also the complexity of the contentious political layer that inevitably gets added to the mix. It certainly isn’t a straight-forward conversation.

Those interested in advancing this issue—be they environmentalists, business leaders, scientists, policy makers, concerned citizens, or others—have generally come to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating climate change. Instead, it’s all about knowing your audience, their motivations, and what resonates with them. For instance, we know that negative messaging (of the “We’re totally screwed!” variety) is, on the whole, ineffective. It runs the risk of desensitizing people and/or causing them to throw up their hands in defeat. Likewise, most people aren’t motivated to act out of a sense of altruism or even for the sake of their children or grandchildren; rather, you’re much more likely to convince them to take action if you link it to something more tangible and immediate, like their health, their wallet, or their competitive spirit (e.g., that one-upsmanship that’s driving Californians to rip up their lawns and install drought-tolerant gardens in order to show their neighbours up, or how people silently take note, one eyebrow raised disapprovingly, of who doesn’t put out their recycling and organics bin on garbage day).

Speaking purely anecdotally, on more than one occasion (and much to my annoyance), I’ve heard people pass the buck, saying that scientists haven’t done a good job conveying the climate change message—“Well I would’ve done something, but the scientists, they just didn’t communicate it properly!” It feels like a pretty lame excuse to maintain the status quo. Scientists are scientists. They do science. Yes, there are those who are also expert communicators, like David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, and others, but, by and large, I’m happy for them to concentrate on the science. It’s not like they expect us to be quantum physicists, cardiologists, or organic chemists, so let’s not expect them to be wordsmiths and orators.

bennett - now playingHere’s the thing: We all need to take responsibility, for both delivering the message and receiving the message. Yes, we could almost certainly find a more effective way to communicate climate change, even with all its science and impacts and potential solutions. If marketers can manage to convince people that they need monthly subscriptions for things like novelty watches, vegetable peelers, or 18-month wall calendars, I’m pretty sure that it’s possible to convince people to take action on climate change. BUT—and this is a big and essential but—the public also has to do its part. We can’t whine about it being too complicated or hard to understand and stick our heads in the sand just because we don’t like what the weighty reality of the message implies. We need to step up, do the work to make sense of the issue (rather than retreating to our kitten memes and celebrity gossip), and then act on that information. It’s a two-way street, folks, and nobody is without responsibility. Hence the title of this piece: “Dialogue (The burden of the message).”

The inspiration for this mosaic was a study that examined the gap between what scientists mean and what the public interprets. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts out what are known as Assessment Reports. Thousands of scientists volunteer their time for this undertaking, where they comb through the scientific literature and synthesize it into a series of reports focused on the physical science of climate change, the impacts, and the mitigation options. The scientists assign the various findings that come out of this roll-up exercise with a rating that indicates how certain they are about each one (i.e., how settled the science is). For example, take this finding from the synthesis report: “It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration” (my emphasis). When IPCC scientists say “virtually certain” they mean they’re at least 99% sure, and for “very likely” there’s a likelihood of 90% or greater. But when the general public hears these verbal expressions of confidence, they tend to underestimate in cases where scientists are certain (and, oddly enough, overestimate certainty where scientists are less sure or the impacts are less likely). For example, while for IPCC scientists “very likely” means 90%-100% likelihood, people interpret this as more in the range of 50% to 90%. Takeaway message: communicating the science of climate change is hard because people’s baggage sways their interpretation and all too often things get lost in translation.

"Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling - communicating climate change

“Dialogue (The burden of the message)” (2015), 17.25″ x 24.5″ — layered spray paint tesserae and rocks

This mosaic is a visual representation of the “very likely” rating and the corresponding public interpretation of it. In the main grouping there are 11 lines, each with exactly 100 tesserae, to represent the 90% to 100% certainty range—the layers of spray paint are the certain parts, the rocks the uncertain. And then slightly offset at the bottom is a 12th line (or a footnote, as R likes to refer to it) that’s 50% stone, to represent the lower end of the public interpretation of the “very likely” rating.

Angle view of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

All materials for this piece were sourced from within a 400m radius of my apartment

I was so happy when I landed on the idea of using layers of spray paint—fallen from a local graffiti wall—as the main material for this piece. Not only because it was so much fun (and different) to work with as I snipped and ripped and shaved it, but also because it feels entirely appropriate for two reasons. First (and directly linked to the study in question), because the IPCC assessment reports are a synthesis of heaps of individual scientific studies. (Plus, you have to admit, there is something kind of bookish about how the paint layers look in the mosaic). But more importantly, the graffiti paint is fitting because at its most essential it is layers upon layers of meanings and messages, which makes it a great material for talking about communication and dialogue.

Let's take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

Let’s take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite's edgier cousin---a comparison that I absolutely adore!

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite’s edgier cousin—a comparison that I absolutely adore!

So, to recap: Communicating about climate change is no small feat, but let’s not use scientists as our scapegoats for inaction. The onus is on both the messenger AND the recipient to transmit and interpret our considerable knowledge about what’s happening with the climate and then act responsibly and not turn a blind eye.

Detail of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Spray paint tesserae and rocks, tilting to and fro…

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