Monthly Archives: October 2017

Climate Change and the Media

Today, I will be participating in a World Climate Mock UN Negotiation as a member of the Press Corps. My task is to communicate the results of the negotiations to the public. While I may not hold any negotiating power, my power to influence as a journalist can be almost greater. I chose to represent the Guardian for this simulation because it is a new, highly active organization that is a leader in environmental coverage.

Media coverage of climate change in the United States is alarmingly low, as newspapers and other media sources respond to political pressures, wavering public interest, and other stressors by cutting science sections devoted to climate related issues. This is not true of the Guardian, a cross-continental news organization that has expanded its coverage of climate change and other environmental issues. In March of 2017, the Guardian announced new positions added to their award-winning environmental reporting team. They confirmed their dedication to communicating these issues stating, “There is mounting evidence that the extreme weather events of recent years are linked to man-made climate change which is already underway. This, coupled with the fact that 2016 was the hottest year on record, are just two examples of why there is a greater need than ever before for the kind of serious and innovative environmental journalism that the Guardian is renowned for.”

The Guardian was originally founded in 1821, with an environmental section first appearing around the year 2000. Hot topics at the time mostly revolved around genetically modified foods, with few news stories related to climate change. Now, many news stories written by the Guardian Environment, focus around some aspect of climate change.

Scientific consensus is a large focus of theGuardian’scoverage of climate change, especially in the United States. A subsection of their climate change area called Climate Consensus – the 97% is dedicated to this topic alone. In editorials, the Guardian discusses how they feel “almost certain” that manmade climate change is happening and expresses high belief in the scientific consensus, citing recent scientific discoveries such as the link between climate change and droughts in Kenya, and the three 500-year floods that Houston has experienced in a short three-year time span. News articles on the topic often take a more critical focus, examining how climate denial and skeptics interact with the scientific consensus especially among groups within the United States. The Guardian conducted a study into the issue, breaking apart the climate deniers’ position that scientific consensus is a myth.

Public opinion of climate change is commonly discussed in a number of news outlets. The Guardian analyzes the factors contributing to U.S. public opinion, and those factors that may be holding people back. One editorial piece describes how fossil fuel companies have led a campaign to mislead voters, resulting in decreased public opinion of climate change. Recent news stories focus on current climate policies supported by Americans that, unfortunately, have little chance of getting passed regardless of public opinion and support.

Societal change is a necessary component of climate action. Editorials in the Guardian present how climate litigation, enforcing policies, and holding large fossil fuel companies accountable for action, may be viable paths toward climate action. They acknowledge that the Paris Agreement is good, but that “Big Carbon” has influenced many politics. News stories take a more positive light focusing on recent innovations and initiatives that are taking steps toward overall societal change.

Infographic by Katelyn Boisvert using Piktochart Graphics

The Guardian utilizes many strategies to connect with and engage readers about climate change. Many news articles are solutions focused, presenting ways for readers to get involved with the discussion or take action. They connect with sites across the globe and partner with many groups, such as their recent partnering with the Skoll Foundation to create a serious on current climate impacts and solutions. The Guardian Environment is an award-winning reporting team focused on delivering authentic journalism that communicates the news and discusses issues related to climate change and other environmental topics in a way that informs the reader and supports societal change.

Groundhogs, Dice, and Climate Change

Dr. Marshall Shepherd

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Dr. Marshall Shepherd, the Director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program. Dr. Shepherd is a renowned meteorologist, and in addition to teaching, hosts the Weather Channel Show Weather Geeks. He previously worked as a research meteorologist for NASA for 12 years, and served on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Science Advisory Board.

Dr. Shepherd’s talk entitled “Zombies, Cola, and Sports: Implications for communicating weather and climate change” highlighted some of the major challenges with communicating climate change to the public, and the downfalls of our current methods of communication. When I walked into this lecture, I had no idea what to expect from the title alone, but I discovered an engaging and informative presentation that addressed exactly what the title said it would. I walked out with a whole new outlook on communicating climate science.

When people hear the phrase climate change, many have an immediate thought or perception on the matter. It’s the same as with hurricanes and tornadoes. However, these perceptions are often wrong, and overcoming them is one of the greatest challenges of effective communication.

While climate change is still a disputed topic, most people would say that they understand the weather. If you are playing sports and it gets hot, oh well, you sweat a little more; but the second you see lightning, practice needs to stop. People assume that lightning is the more dangerous occurrence, but what they don’t realize is that heat is the deadliest natural phenomenon in that scenario. During Hurricane Harvey the people of Texas thought the hurricane would be the worst of what hit them, but this danger was nothing compared to the massive flooding that ensued from heavy rains. Heat and rain are familiar to people, and as such they tend to not consider their dangers. In addition, people still look toward unreliable sources as a means for their information. Dr. Shepherd recalled how he often receives emails from people asking him if he agrees with the groundhog’s forecast.

People tend to apply these same perceptions of weather to climate. They are the same after all, right? While the confusion between these terms is declining, the belief that they are the same thing is still held by many people. For all those confused, Dr. Shepherd has a great analogy: weather is your mood, climate is your personality.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the threat that climate change poses, including industries like Coca-Cola. However, there are still those who fail to recognize it. There is also a group of people who think that climate change is something to believe in, like the tooth fairy. So many times people will ask, “Do you believe in climate change?” People can believe in climate change only in the same way that they believe that gravity will make them fall if they jump off a building. As Dr. Shepherd said in his lecture, “Science is not a belief system!”

Almost more infamous than belief in climate change, is the recurring question, “Was that event caused by climate change?” Dr. Shepherd stated that this is an ill posed question. While climate change itself did not directly cause Hurricane Harvey, Irma, or Maria, it did play a role in its formation. Climate change encourages events to occur more frequently or with higher intensity—a result similar to playing a game with loaded dice.

Misinformation is another of the great challenges of climate communication. There are a number of theories, zombie theories as Dr. Shepherd likes to call them, which are just plain wrong theories about climate change.

They have been so programmed into the public’s system that many count these theories as true. This is the fuel of climate skeptics.

Overall, Dr. Shepherd described how it is difficult for people to imagine what they have never known, and how that makes it difficult to determine the best way to approach the topic of climate change. What works and what doesn’t is going to be different for different people, so we can’t deliver the message in the same way for everyone. The question is how do we communicate this threat? And this will still be a question for a while to come.

The Climate Tipping Point

Project Team: Katelyn Boisvert, Zola Berger-Schmitz, Olivia Keck, and Matthew Heldman

Recent polls reflect increasing belief that climate change is a problem, yet it still seems few are doing anything about it. This observation results from a phenomenon we have termed the “Climate Tipping Point,” that is the point where climate awareness leads to human initiated action.

Increasing climate change awareness is an important first step; but without additional motivation to tip a person to action, we cannot make the progress needed to address this issue. There is a gap in the percentage of people who view climate change as a problem and those that believe human action is necessary to combat it, which we described as the climate action gap. Understanding how to bridge the climate action gap is necessary to positively change human behaviors related to climate mitigation and adaptation.

What drives the disconnect between climate awareness and the belief that human action is necessary to combat the climate crisis, both at the individual and at the countrywide level?

This is a question gaining traction in the world of climate research and is the focus of our research project. Many studies explore the psychological factors that contribute to this disconnect at the individual level. Whether it’s faith that technology can solve the issue, failure to comprehend the impact of an individual action, or trouble comprehending the effects of incremental changes, many individuals believe that human-initiated action to reduce the effects of climate change is unnecessary.

Climate change education and policy implementation are good ways to influence people who view climate change as a major issue and just need to take that next step toward action. Many things could prompt this step, but costs and relevance of the climate action are good motivators. It is our hypothesis that risk perception, when people feel that their life is personally at risk, is a strong driver impacting an individual’s likelihood to take action to combat climate change.

Explore this background further with our first infographic! 

There is limited research on factors contributing to the climate action gap at a countrywidelevel, so we explored several factors that could be instrumental for policy implementation.

In 2015, Pew Research Center conducted the Global Attitudes Study sampling individuals from 40 countries, which included questions on climate change. A difference in population percentage of people who said climate change is a very/somewhat serious problem and those who said human action is necessary to reduce the effects of climate change was noted worldwide, which we calculated as the climate action gap and represented geographically.

Created by Katelyn Boisvert using Piktochart Graphics

Our research compared the climate action gap for each country against factors including economics, equality, education, and risk perception to explore their potential contribution as drivers for this behavior. Economics, measured by GDP, averaged a 6% higher climate action gap for the poorest 15 countries as compared to the richest 15 countries . Equality yielded a 3% higher climate gap for countries with a higher (more unequal) Gini Index. Education did not influence the climate action gap, suggesting that climate change education may not be the determining factor in motivating individuals toward climate action.

Another PEW survey question explored if people felt they would be personally affected by climate change, which we attributed as perceived risk. This value demonstrated a positive correlation when plotted against climate action showing that countries whose residents feel more at risk from climate change are more likely to believe human action is necessary to address it, and a trend was observed for those countries as presenting with lower climate action gaps.

Curious about our results? Check out our second infographic!

Understanding the interplay of these factors is important to inform climate policy and for its success, and should focus on the need for human-initiated action and building public support for climate-friendly solutions.

Wondering about specific policy examples? Check out our last infographic!

Are you victim to the climate action gap? If so, what will push you over the tipping point? Check out our podcast on this issue! 

A list of references can be viewed

Hurricane Pyro

Category : Blog , Environment Blog

Severe hurricanes are covered extensively in the news because of their relative infrequency and the utter destruction they bring. While wildfires are destructive, they are also a fairly regular occurrence in certain states, particularly those with hot or dry climates. So news of them tends not to travel much outside of the affected states’ borders. However, unlike hurricanes, we cando something about wildfires.

The past several weeks has seen the news filled with terrifying stories of hurricanes pummeling the southeast U.S. and our Caribbean territories, but behind the wall of water and wind laid the stories of roaring flames spreading across the west. Unfortunately, national coverage of these awful events did not spread as quickly as the flames, with most news stories occurring in state newspapers and relatively few in national news outlets.

While wildfires are a large blow for local community members, the wildfire’s impact extends far beyond. Many aspects of tourism are interrupted including visitors’ access to affected areas, and jobs and trade such as lodging and sales, and these losses continue even after the fire is extinguished. Damage to the natural resource of the trees themselves cannot be forgotten, as well as the loss of wildlife habitats. The economic and physical destruction caused by a major wildfire can be similar to a small hurricane, but there is action that can be taken to reduce the impact of a forest fire.

Fire was often used by Native Americans to open forests and promote biodiversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the occasional small fire helps to thin areas, allowing new growth to develop, and that some species of plants are even dependent upon fire for dormant seeds to sprout.

In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service recognized wildfires as a hazard and began to suppress them, isolating plants from this important resource and indirectly promoting larger and more intense fires. This policy has since changed, but the time it was in force was enough to set our forests off kilter.

Without the natural balance obtained through frequent burning, forests grew denser, providing more fuel for fires to consume. Reports by the U.S. Forest Service have also shown that widespread insect outbreaks have led to an increase in the number of dead standing trees, or snags. These trees fuel wildfires, allowing them to traverse deeper into the forest and grow at times to uncontrollable levels.

Climate change also plays a part, especially its role in earlier snowmelt as a result of warmer summers has led to warm and dry climates that are the perfect atmosphere for fires to thrive. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that a 1°C increase in temperature could increase area of a forest burned during a fire by as much as 600 percent.

Some people may think that wildfires only impact the forest, but in fact the negative impacts of wildfires can stretch for miles and influence the whole state. Each year, 7-8 million acres of forest and grasslands burn, costing tens of millions of dollars for firefighting. The 2017 fire season alone has already cost over $2 billion, as compared to $1.6 billion last year as reported by the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, wildfires lead to reduced air quality and numerous other health impacts for those living in the area.

Recently, Oregon suffered a massive hit as a result of the Eagle Creek Fire, which burned an estimated 33,682 acres as reported by The Oregonian. Although this a relatively small acreage as opposed to some of Oregon’s historic fires, this one hit close to home.

The fire started in the area of Eagle Creek, quickly spreading west towards Portland and even jumping the Columbia River into Washington. There were 140 hikers evacuated from the area, and Highway 84, one of Oregon’s main thoroughfares, was shut down due to the fire.

Smoke from the fire rolled over Portland and stretched even farther west of the city. In some areas, ash built up to an inch in height covering resident’s driveways and patios. Portland residents Wesley and Cassie Boisvert described how the smoke caused hazy driving conditions and made your eyes sting. The air quality was so bad that they worried about bringing their young daughter outside. Residents with respiratory problems were advised to stay indoors. Even though the fire occurred four weeks ago, there is still a noticeable amount of smoke hanging in the air.

The damage was considerable within the forest. The trails in the Eagle Creek area, beloved by all those who live in Oregon, suffered large amounts of damage and continue to be closed to hikers. Residents followed the progress of the fire, heartbroken, afraid to check the news in case it brought worsening updates of the fire’s destruction, especially in the historic area of Multnomah Falls. As it was, the destruction of trails at Eagle Creek was a large hit to the community. For Oregonians, not being able to get out to that area of the gorge is sad and devastating. The access to nature is why people live in Oregon, as reflected by Portland resident Cassie.

The U.S. Forest Service and other forest management entities often face major legal issues when trying to employ methods such as forest thinning to prevent wildfires. Thinning a forest by specific cutting decreases forest density, thereby limiting the possible fuel for a fire. Many environmental groups view this practice the same as logging, but their viewpoint does not consider the destructive impacts a fire can have if it rages through a densely-packed forest.

Controlled burns are another resource management method that is more commonly employed today. Purposely burning sections of a forest helps to decrease density and contributes to ecosystems that require fire to survive.

While wildfires are typically a concern for the most vulnerable areas like California, Oregon, and Montana, it is important to support better policies for forest management and to work toward preventing the rise of major destructive wildfires. In the end, this may not be enough in the increasingly hot and dry climates of the west, but it gives us the fighting chance that might just be enough to save our forests.