4:01 PM

Climate Central on the New Normals

The Climate Central site is an interesting experiment in science communication about climate change.  Their tagline is "Sound Science and Vibrant Media," and the nonprofit organization--funded by an array of foundations and government organizations (including the Army Corps of Engineers)--aims to provide "clear, honest, nonpartisan, and up-to-date information to help people make sound decisions about climate and energy."  Their unstated goal, in particular, seems to be to produce short video clips about climate change basics that could, potentially, be picked up by other media organizations.

Their most recent offering, for example, is called "The New Normals."  It's a video narrated by scientist Heidi Cullen (formerly of the Weather Channel) that explains how our "normal" temperatures need to be shifted to account for increasingly warmer global averages.  Shifting what counts as normal will affect everything from how we predict the weather to how we plan agriculture.  It's a significant attention-getter that points to rapidly shifting global weather patterns over time (otherwise known as climate change).

The Climate Central experiment is interesting from a communication perspective for a number of reasons.  The videos constitute original science reporting content, which can be picked up by any number of organizations (media or otherwise) and which reflect the increasing trend away from mainstream science journalism and toward independent journalism.  Did you know, for example, that the National Science Foundation has its own state-of-the-art television studio, where it produces original science content for networks like Discovery?  Developments such as this, along with the explosive growth of science blogs, is no doubt a result of the fact that major news networks like CNN have laid off their entire science reporting staffs in recent years.

But the Climate Central videos also raise interesting questions about the role of science (especially climate science) and communication with the public.  The videos are aimed at a popular audience, and clearly are keyed toward explaining the basics of climate science, particularly as it relates to things like severe weather events.  They strive, in a sense, to be apolitical (though in the U.S. even attempting to explain the basics of climate science can seem political).  In general, I think they are hoping to serve as what Roger Pielke, Jr., might call "honest brokers."

But who is watching Climate Central?  Who seeks out original content online to understand the basics of climate science?  Are the reasoned voices of Cullen and the other scientists at Climate Central whispering in a vast echo chamber where only those who yell loudest can be heard?  And is simply providing more information what we need right now when it comes to climate policy?

None of this is clear right now.  We'll have to watch and see.  Meanwhile, the normals are changing.

Comments (10)

The Climate Central scientists communicate their science well in the New Normals video. Jargon is limited and the graphics are easy to understand. As you stated though, the only people watching this may be climate scientists, science teachers, and those with an already vested interest in climate change. If the goal is to reach people uninformed about climate science, these scientists are failing. Also, they fail to make conclusions about the data. I would think this is directly due to the fact that if they do, it would unfortunately be perceived as political.

I read an article recently that proposed that people view climate change as an environmental issue and therefore people don't pay as much attention to it. If the issue was presented as a public health issue the public would be more familiar with asthma or allergies and would be more likely to mitigate and adapt to the problem.

It is a noble task to get the climate science information into popular science and even into popular media, though one really cannot argue that climate change has not been one of the most popular science issues for the last few years. I see a problem with accurately conveying the climate situation in such simple terms. The reality is that it is a very complex issue that really nobody yet understands (hence all the disagreement). The danger though is only giving pieces of the information and the letting people form opinions on the misinformation they already have collected. Even in this video such is the case. They show the planet is warming, but then leave it up to us to jump to conclusions as to why. Like Michael says, they don't make conclusions and this can be dangerous. On some issues, maybe simple can hide the whole picture...

Aaron, do you mean climate change has been a popular science issue? Maybe in word-of-mouth discussions, but not in media. Recent studies show that there has been a huge drop-off in media coverage in the past few years (since 2007). There was a small spike following "climate-gate," but for the most part, climate coverage receives tenths of a percentage of overall coverage.

On the communicating science aspect of this article, I would like to describe some of my experiences with science videos/tv. As someone who has taken classes on planetary sciences, it baffles me when I watch programs on the History or Discovery Channel that do not explain the difference btwn "theory" and a proven truth. Much of what we think we know about the universe and the formation/past/current events of planets are highly debated topics to this day. So why are these channels presenting it like it is a done deal? They should at least describe all sides of the story so that everyday viewers (non-scientists) can form an opinion on the facts. Part of communicating in science is being engaged...if I watch a science program for an hour that does not give me the chance to weigh the evidence but instead insists that this is fact and it will always be...am I really getting any "science" out of it?

SITL, can you tell me more what you mean? Sure, there are "theories" in science (relativity, for example), yet they are commonly accepted by most scientists.

Knowledge is always evolving in science--we are always testing theories, building on knowledge, refining it bit by bit. There are sometimes revolutions, but most of the time scientific knowledge is evolutionary, or slowly developing.

Is this what you mean? Or something else?

Along the same lines as what mkenna said about people not really paying attention to it because its an environmental issue. It seems as though the information is constantly changing and scientists are debating over what is really happening. Which to scientists or people who are familiar with scientific processes this seems more normal, where as to the public I think it can be really hard and frustrating to pay attention to issues which seem like they are just constantly changing. Educating the public on things which aren't completely certain seems to be really challenging.

I agree with Michael that the Climate Central scientists make everything fairly easy to understand, which is quite refreshing. Even if they are preaching to a limited audience, they are still getting their theories and research out there so that the public has access to it. What they really need to do is get some loud opinion-leaders on their side that can really push the issue and get more attention brought to the subject if they really want anything to happen. But then again, maybe climate change will always take a back seat to issues such as wars, oil, and religion until it might be too late..

The New Normals video is a good 'interest getter'. As I am not very knowledgeable in the subject, I think that it does a good job at telling the facts and arousing curiosity in the subject. As was noted before, there are no conclusions given, probably because of political reasons. It is a shame that some topics are so deeply embedded into minds as being political. When Al Gore became a big name in environmental and climate change arena, a large population the country got an immediate preconception of whether they agree or disagree about climate change arguments. Videos such as the New Normals are beneficial because it is not funded, (as far as I know) by a political campaign or biased agency. I hope that videos like these are able to make it to more homepages and news websites. They are short, easy to understand, and professional; something that people will hopefully find worth their time to watch.

I do agree that the media has done less coverage of the climate issue, being that they really can't report doom and gloom without being attacked. Without this, there is interest for them to put it in the news. On the other hand, I see climate discussions everywhere with the movement of being green. Cars are making selling points of being low in emissions. The large energy corporations such as Xcel and BP are making a point of investing in renewable and clean technology. So although CNN is not reporting on the issue as much, I still do think that the climate issue is a popular science issue as it is driving modern consumerism.