Climate Engagement: 3 Creative Ways to Make People Care

Posted by on Monday, September 5th, 2016

Why is talking about climate change so daunting? Many reasons. It’s vast and scary, while also seeming abstract, impersonal, and remote. When the average person’s frame of reference is their neighborhood, community, or state, it’s difficult to scale up one’s thoughts and concerns to 196.9 million square miles of planet. (That number itself is essentially meaningless to most people.) Even if people agree that climate change is real and something to worry about, it’s still an issue that’s hard to fully grasp or see as an urgent priority.

To address this challenge, climate scientists and communicators have come up with a number of innovative approaches that help make climate change relevant and real. Here are the few of the best recent examples.

Mesmerizing Visuals That Make Data Resonate

The scientific consensus supporting climate change is enormous. Climate scientists have mountains of data at their disposal, but just showing the numbers makes most people glaze over. Charts and graphs (typical ones, at least) are not only boring, but open to misinterpretation.

spiral2016-2Climate scientist Ed Hawkins, of the UK’s University of Reading, is known for designing visualizations that help make science communications more engaging. Improved web technologies have made it easier to create interactive, animated graphics that show data in understandable and convincing ways. Some months back, Hawkins released an animated, circular graph showing the increase in global temperatures between 1850 and 2016. Watching the temperatures spiral ever higher as the years progressed, the meaning was as unmistakable as the visual was beautiful.

Hawkins’ spiral graph was widely praised within the climate community, but the acclaim didn’t stop there. Those same visuals were featured (much to Hawkins’ surprise) in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, during a segment intended to raise awareness of climate impacts.

Image courtesy of Ed Hawkins

Image courtesy of Ed Hawkins

Last week, Hawkins released a new visualizationwhich shows the same temperature trend in the form of an infographic. The image features global temperature maps for each of the 167 years, placed side by side in what is known as a “small multiples” technique. Seen as a whole, the change from blue (representing cooler temperatures) to mostly red (representing warmer temperatures) is striking, as well as instantly obvious.

By turning numbers into visuals that are clear, straightforward, and arresting, these types of communications make the data resonate and penetrate more effectively than any pie chart or bar graph could.

A Relatable Metaphor to Help Explain a Complicated Concept

The online version of my power bill has a nifty feature that lets me compare how many kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity I use month to month. It’s pretty cool, and does make me think more closely about how I use energy. But what is a kWh, anyway? According to Wikipedia, a kWh is “a derived unit of energy equal to 3.6 megajoules.” Huh? What do those numbers actually mean to people who aren’t physicists or engineers?

Australian inventor and entrepreneur Saul Griffith has come up with an innovative way to help explain this type of data. He and his team have created a highly detailed and visually gorgeous interactive chart that displays how much energy the U.S. consumes in a variety of sectors – transportation, manufacturing, residential, etc. The usage amounts are displayed as BTUs (British thermal units, otherwise known as quads). OK – but what is a quad, exactly?

CheeseburgerGriffith gets that this is not a unit of energy most people understand. So in a recent talk, he compared the energy in a quad to the calories in a cheeseburger. (For his purposes, this hypothetical cheeseburger contained 210 calories). By this measure, the average American consumes the equivalent of 1,000 cheeseburgers every day. Suddenly, our energy use goes from abstract to, frankly, gluttonous.

Human Stories That Make Climate Impacts Personal

Even when people are concerned about the impacts of climate change, the need for action isn’t a top priority for most. Climate predictions usually describe impacts over a 20, 50, or 100 year period, which doesn’t inspire much urgency in the here and now. This online project helps to change that by giving people a highly personal way of thinking about the future. DearTomorrowasks people to submit messages, videos, and photos that will be opened in the years 2030 and 2050. The messages are meant to be addressed to a young person the author cares deeply about – their own child, grandchild, niece or nephew, a student.

Image courtesy of DearTomorrow

Image courtesy of DearTomorrow

Creating the message requires really imagining what that young person’s world will look like in 14 or 34 years. Will we have done enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change? Or will that generation wonder why we didn’t do more to protect their future? The award-winning campaign moves climate action away from something we “should do” and turns it into something we must do for the sake of our loved ones and future generations.

So far, over 200 letters and 83 photos have been submitted, including one from ecoAmerica founder Bob Perkowitz, addressed to his granddaughter Ellie.

Keeping It Real

These various approaches use a number of proven techniques: Avoid jargon. Use visuals and metaphors to communicate more clearly. Don’t get mired down in numbers and data. Make a personal connection. Appeal to shared values such as the desire to protect our families.

What they all have in common is an ability to move the climate issue from abstract and remote to something relevant, personal, and urgent.

This story was originally posted on the ecoAffect blog by Ellen Hall on September 1, 2016

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