Last Wednesday, award-winning environmental journalist Andrew Revkin and paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill joined Nick Howe, professor of environmental studies, and Phoebe Cohen, professor of geosciences, in a roundtable discussion about communicating climate change in a “post-fact world.”
Gill, assistant professor of paleoecology & plant ecology at the University of Maine, is a first-generation college graduate from a working-class background (both of her grandfathers were employed in the fossil fuel industry). Having grown up in small-town rural Vermont, Gill identifies as rooted in the “demographic we hear a lot about” regarding Trump’s election.
Despite her fossil-fueled roots, Gill, a self-proclaimed geek, is not only a practicing scientist but is a vocal advocate for climate action. Through her paleoecology research, Gill “recreates past environments” which help her understand ecosystem resilience under a changing climate. Gill, who describes herself as “Indiana Jones meets Leslie Knope,” is a co-organizer of the upcoming March for Science. She is a vocal advocate for marginalized identities in scientific fields, and works on effective modes of climate communication.
Revkin has covered climate change since the 1980s. He wrote for the New York Times for 21 years, where he started the opinion blog Dot Earth, and was one of the masterminds behind the concept of the Anthropocene, a “geologic age of our own making.” He recently joined the team at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, as a senior reporter on climate change.
Despite his years covering the subject, Revkin admits that he didn’t fully “confront” climate change until the early 2000s. Before that, he thought of it as just another environmental problem—as something we can solve. He believes now that there is no we; there are “fundamental differences,” he said, in how different groups of people react to information. In addition, Revkin now sees climate change as an incredibly complex issue entwined in all aspects of the human experience. He is wary of solutions that come as perky soundbites.
Gill and Revkin kicked off Wednesday’s roundtable with a discussion of scientists stepping into the political realm. Revkin pointed out that scientists are still citizens, parents, and voters, and are thus entitled to participating in political processes. However, he emphasized, a scientist’s work is separate from their civil interests. Still, science will and always has been inherently political, Gill pointed out, because it is done by humans.
According to Gill, National Science Foundation grant applications ask about the societal relevance of proposed research. The fact that Gill’s research has implications for policy and society is considered “a feature, not a bug.” According to Gill, this kind of institutional support for applied science has helped foster a culture of public outreach among younger scientists.
Gill and Revkin pointed to social media as a useful tool for science communication. Revkin called social media a “zone of accuracy” in which citizen scientists can contribute to the verification process. Gill also uses social media to humanize scientists in the public imagination by presenting herself as a normal human with interests and passions.
“It’s all about leveraging the communities you’re already involved in,” Gill said, whether those be boy scouts, church, or a sports team. She emphasized the importance of “building consensus.” Climate communication succeeds through human connections. “You don’t have to talk about the IPCC,” she said. “Have a conversation about fly fishing.”
Many people approach conversations with climate deniers as fights to be won with facts, Gill said. However, this rests on the assumption of the information deficit model—that if people only knew the facts, they would act. According to Revkin, this model has been disproven.
“I have several degrees in science,” Gill said, “and I don’t use any of them at Thanksgiving. I use my theater experience from high school.” By that, she meant she practices empathy.
Someone might disagree with you about a carbon tax, Gill pointed out, but “no one’s going to say, ‘Your kid with asthma can suck it!’”
Revkin suggested that instead of focusing on mitigation in conversations about climate change, we focus on adaptation. Mitigation chats are difficult, as they center around constraints and what people need to give up. Discussions of resilience, on the other hand, center around weatherizing homes or helping farms adapt to changing temperature — things that are positive for all those involved. “We know that doom and gloom turns people off,” Gill said.
According to Revkin, we must embrace the effects of climate change that can’t be reversed during our lifetimes. “It’s all about ownership,” he said. Gill noted that the upside to the Anthropocene is that it “gives us permission to be more hands-on.” This hands-on approach to environmental stewardship might come in the form of re-wilding campaigns or planned relocations of species, she said.
How can you help further science communication? If you’re a scientist, leak information to journalists. Leaking “makes you feel like a super-spy,” Gill said. If you’re a writer, Revkin advised, “Listen.”
Sarah Cooperman ’17, a biology major and environmental studies concentrator, appreciated hearing that “talking convincingly about climate change doesn’t require a science degree.”
“For once,” Cooperman said, “I felt positive leaving a discussion on climate change.”