Helping climate science make sense.

Google Fellows Seek to Fine Tune Climate Communication

Communicating climate science information is no easy task — take it from me, I've been working at it for at least a decade now. The science is complicated, and it's all too easy to present it in boring formats, with the message of why climate change matters getting lost somewhere between the terms "anthropogenic warming" and "solar irradiance." Add in the extremely polarizing political environment surrounding this issue, and you have a major challenge.

A screenshot of the AMS' Paul Higgins, from one of the funded climate communications videos. Credit: WRI.

As part of a climate communications initiative, a group of scientists and policy researchers are seeking to ascertain what video format appeals most to people when digesting their climate science news.'s philanthropic arm (which has helped fund Climate Central), has chosen to devote some money, effort, and technical wizardry to helping climate scientists and science policy specialists better communicate with the public.'s efforts include workshops that bring together groups of interdisciplinary specialists to explore innovative approaches to climate science communication.

As part of this venture, the World Resources Institute helped put together three videos each by three different researchers: Texas A&M climate scientist Andy Dessler, Brian Helmuth, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina, and Paul Higgins, associate director of the American Meteorological Society's policy program. Each of the videos addressed a study that was either in progress or had recently been published.

The first video from each of them is simple, consisting of a webcam talk (these proved too stiff and visually uninteresting for my taste). The other two videos consist of a more conversational style video, with "B-roll" images rotating through, and a whiteboard talk in which the scientist spells out why their study is important.

Strangely enough, I found the whiteboard talks to be the most engaging, which surprised me, since such talks put the viewer in a classroom-like setting. Yet it's in this setting that the scientists seemed to be most energetic or enthusiastic about their work, and that translates into better viewing.

The three scientists, along with WRI's Kelly Levin, are serving as Science Communication Fellows (along with Climate Central's own Nicole Heller).

The fellowship program allows researchers to explore climate communications challenges, and access small pools of funding and Google technical resources to work on follow up communications projects.

Another fellow, Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University, is hosting a series of Google+ Hangouts on climate change topics (although these are not funded by Google). His first, on extreme weather and climate change, was held on April 6.

As for the videos, they're available from WRI's website, where you can go and vote on the ones you found most effective. It's a worthwhile exercise, and it's encouraging to see more researchers stepping out of their comfort zone to improve their communications skills.

« Climate in Context


By willem malten (santa fe nm 87505)
on May 9th, 2012

Ok, this may be slightly off topic, but we have been wondering about the sudden sink holes that are appearing everywhere (maybe climate related) and in so many ways are mysterious. Our hypothesis ? Could it be that the earth is bombarded by tiny black holes that “shoot” all the way through the earth? That would explain the lack of debris and the exact circles that are created. What would give this idea weight is if there are both “entrance” holes and “exit” holes on the other side of the earth, both most likely with slightly different configurations (going in and exiting out). The only way to test this hypothesis is to see if the sink-holes around the world line up somehow. We need you guys, google fellows, to map the exact locations of sink holes around the world on google earth and see how they would line up through a round sphere (the earth). Mmmmm yes it is some work, (an intern could do it), but it would be so interesting, especially if they did line up. Gracias.

Reply to this comment

By Tom Smerling ( (Chevy Chase, MD 20815)
on May 14th, 2012

Fascinating!    I took the WRI test several days ago, before I read your post. 

And I also was surprised to find that the whiteboard was most effective (except for the distracting and repetitive background music, and poor lighting).

Why?  My guess is that this is because the Whiteboard sketching

1) is dynamic not static (like the webcast and photographs)
2) closely tracks and illustrates the verbal message—you have two congruent sensory channels reinforcing each other
3) is slightly playful—everybody enjoys cartoons
and possibly
4) mirrors the way our minds work, as we shape incoming bits of information into a narrative or mental image that provides structure and meaning.

To be fair, the webcast and photos were a bit like “straw men.”  Most webcasts use a power point, and few speakers would flash random photos of, say, glaciers on the screen. 

A better test might be to compare the Whiteboard to a really well-done Powerpoint—with arresting images that closely fit the script.
Finally, the Whiteboard should be accelerated (like the “Story of Stuff”) during boring moments, like when the speaker is laboriously writing section headings in upper case letters.

Lots of food for thought here!

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.