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.