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In defense of not being serious in climate communication

Posted on 15 August 2017 by Guest Author

You should stick to what you know. And I know that I’m not serious.

My life may appear pretty earnest. You see, I was previously a researcher in atmospheric physics, and now work as a reporter at Nature where I cover the most serious issues facing modern research.  To exacerbate the earnestness, I’ve been known to describe myself as a feminist, vegetarian environmentalist on dating apps.

But that’s just one side of me. I also have an alter-ego. He’s mischievous, lacks self-awareness, and is obsessed with climate change.  He’s called ClimateAdam, and he exists (mostly) on YouTube.  Take a look:

ClimateAdam began - like so many of my life events - in a pub.  Perhaps unadvisedly, I got chatting to a drunk stranger, who asked me what I was doing with my life.  I explained to him that I was researching climate change, in the second year of my doctorate at Oxford. He replied - and I quote - “Well I’ve got something that’ll disprove your climate change…”, like climate change was something that I had come up with on the spot, single handed.

He pointed at the ice cubes floating in his gin & tonic, and explained that when this ice melted, it wouldn’t change the level of the drink.  “True”, I acknowledged.  “So why”, he demanded, “are you people going on about sea level rise?” 

I took a deep breath, and explained what I knew.  That when ice on land melts, water flows into the oceans and raises their levels.  That as water heats, it expands by a small fraction. And that it’s these effects that are rising the seas. 

Then something miraculous happened. He said, “Oh. That clears that up”, and went back to drinking his G&T.

This simple response felt like a bigger achievement than any of the tortuous calculations I had crunched in my research.  And if I could get a positive response out of this drunken stranger, then why not sober strangers too?

Up till then, pretty much all the climate communication I’d come across in lectures was some combination of overwhelmingly complex and unbearably preachy.  I knew I wanted nothing to do with either. Climate change is serious, but I’m sure as hell not!

Instead, I decided I wanted to make videos. Videos that were as entertaining as my favourite YouTubers.  The kind you’d want to watch even if you didn’t care about climate change. Most importantly, I wanted to make videos that reflected me: cheeky, self-mocking, and - above all - playful.

So I made my first video. Imaginatively, I named it ‘Sea Levels and Gin & Tonics’.  Here it is:

When I clicked publish, my greatest hope was that a few friends would share it on Facebook, and think I was super cool. But it wasn’t just my friends who shared the video.  To my delight, everyone from Greenpeace to Upworthy seemed into it.  Inexplicably, though, my friends still didn’t think I was cool. 

A lot has changed in the three years since that first video.  I finished my doctorate and started working as a science journalist, but I’ve kept making videos as ClimateAdam. The ClimateAdam philosophy is simple. Talk about climate change in playful and accessible ways, to lure people in and trick them into learning. Also: every last one of the on of the screen characters must be played by me.  This part of my philosophy is purely to appeal to my vanity.

Humour helps us talk about climate change, because humour is cathartic.  It allows us to think about overwhelming issues without being floored by fear and guilt.  So many people are silent about the climate because they’re scared.  Scared of climate change and terrified of being lectured. But if the person talking to you is taking the piss out of themselves, the fear evaporates. And even though you’re laughing, you can still take climate change seriously.

My latest series has taken my philosophy to new, challenging territory: helping people to cut their personal emissions. It’s one thing to inform people about climate change without alienating them.  But it’s a next level challenge to ask people to change their behaviour without coming across as insufferably self-righteous.  Especially for someone as insufferable as me. 

To overcome this character flaw, I again looked to YouTubers for inspiration.  I realised that hacking videos - where hackers mod everything from computers to cars - provided the perfect parody material.  And so, Planet Hacks was born:

I’m certainly not saying that all climate communication should be playful.  But I will say this: we need to talk climate change every way we can. Playful and serious. Nerdy and witty. Liberal and conservative. After all, climate change affects us all.  So surely climate change should speak to us all. 

Check out more ClimateAdam videos here, and follow ClimateAdam on twitter.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. I think humour and a light touch is a good communication tool. We all like a good laugh, so its a point of commonality. Humour unites people and reduces tension.

    However playing devils advocate, its frustrating how we have to bend over backwards to get the climate message across, when it can be simply stated that greenhouses gases are causing temperatures to increase, and we know this for reasons a), b) and c). And its already altering global weather patterns, generally for the worse.

    How many forms of delivery mechanism does the message need, for goodness sake?

    Getting off fossil fuels has something in common with breaking an addiction. Its going to be hard work.

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  2. I see the latest series is on persuading people to cut emissions. This reminded me of a recent "discovery" I made. With more emissions the sky is going to radiate more strongly and I wonder if the modified Swinbank model of night time downward thermal radiation to estimate sky temperature (Tsky) for a clear night sky is not going to have to be adjusted.

    Here I would like an opinion on what I have discovered (it could alter perceptions on dew formation and drought in forests): The mechanism is this: Radiation to the sky on cold clear nights and thus radiative cooling of the ground, "dew machines", etc. When the ground, etc, is cooler (from radiating) than the dew point, dew forms. if the sky temperature is less than the temperature of the ground, then the net radiation is to the sky (objects lose heat and temperature declines). If the sky temperature is greater than the ground temperature, then objects heat up at ground level.
    I used the modified Swinbank model of night time downward thermal radiation to estimate sky temperature (Tsky) for a clear night sky and also calculated dew point temperature. If Tsky is below dew point temperature (Tdew), then objects can cool below Tdew by radiating to the sky and dew can form. Now look at my graph drawn from my calculations. With air temperature (Tair) and ground below about 7 deg C, objects can radiate to the sky effectively until they have temperature below Tdew. If Tair is greater than about 7 deg C then it seems dew will not readily form because Tsky is greater than Tdew (usually). All the calculations were done for a relative humidity of 95%. The above might be complicated by having a warm cloud or warm rocks, etc, nearby. Now dew forms on clear nights (no cloud). From this site you can check my calculations, using the formula for a cloudless sky: I believe you will find what I found - at about 7 deg C net radiation from ground to sky becomes nearly zero. If temperatures increase with global warming, less dew will form in arid areas (if I am correct). The graph is on my Facebook page

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  3. Humour certainly can play a part: it's called writing in Aphoristic style... the truth still has to be grasped and that is the trick otherwise it's just empty humour that gets thrown away like all the other pieces of empty humour we hear everyday...

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  4. In the end is it funny? What do you really want to say?

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