Communicating the Climate: How to Communicate Scholarly Findings on Climate and Weather in a Controversial Time

Workshop Report (Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany, 18 August 2017)

by Katrin Kleemann


On 18 August 2017, the RCC hosted a workshop on the challenges and goals of communicating climate research. The workshop was organized by two RCC doctoral candidates, Jeroen Oomen and Katrin Kleemann, and financed by the European Commission through the Marie Curie ENHANCE ITN Program.

The workshop’s call for participants was mainly aimed at early-stage researchers working on climate-related issues from social science and humanities perspectives. The workshop’s goal was to discuss how to effectively communicate climate science, climate research, and other issues relating to climate change, as well as how to engage with climate science from a humanities perspective, and most importantly, how to communicate work in this field in a way that could make a difference.

It was a very hot Friday in Munich when the 19 participants from various institutions in the US and Europe came together to discuss climate change. Several staff members, members of the RCC doctoral program, Carson fellows, and visiting scholars present at the RCC also contributed during the different sessions of the workshop, bringing rich and diverse experiences and viewpoints to the table. The participants were Matthew Bender (The College of New Jersey, USA), Dorothea Born (University of Vienna, Austria), Saskia Brill (RCC), Vera Gebhardt (New University of Lisbon, Portugal), Gustaf Johansson, Vikas Lakhani, Raechel Lutz (Rutgers University, USA), Julia Pohlers (University of Kiel, Germany), Pollyanna Rhee (Columbia University, USA), Emilie Schur (University of Arizona, USA), Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa (Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research, Bremen, Germany), Eline Tabak, Lynda Walsh, as well as the four speakers, Dania Achermann (CLiSAP, University of Hamburg, Germany), Christoph Baumberger (ETH Zurich, Switzerland), Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum/RCC), and Grit Martinez (Ecologic Institute, Berlin, Germany/University of Maryland, USA).

Four thematic sessions formed the basis of the workshop, which opened with an introduction by Katrin Kleemann and Jeroen Oomen.

The first session, entitled “How To: Climate History,” was centered on the following questions: How do we think and talk about climate reconstruction from documentary, instrumental, and proxy records? How can we make climate history useful for contemporary discussion among historians, with scholars working in the natural sciences, and the general public? Dania Achermann, who is also an alumna of the RCC’s doctoral program, gave a talk on “‘Those Who Don’t Believe in Math?’ On the Role and Perception of History in the Climate Sciences.” Her talk traced the history of meteorology and climate science from the nineteenth century to the present. A key part of Dania’s talk was the interdisciplinary nature of climate science today and what working between and across disciplines can entail. The quote in the title stems from a remark made by natural scientists who, after noticing humanities scholars moving into the office next door, wondered if these are the people who do not believe in math. This quote illustrates prejudices, probably on both sides, as well as other obstacles that humanities scholars, physicists, or mathematicians face when working together—such as funding for their research, or misunderstandings or disagreements about methods, philosophy of science, and communication with the public. We were left with the prominent question: How can we communicate better to overcome these obstacles when working in areas that span disciplines?

Talk by Dania Achermann. Photo by Noel Healy, used with kind permission.

The second session, entitled “How To: Uncertainty and Unknowability in Climate Science?,” focused on how to accurately and fairly represent unknowability and uncertainty in climate science without inadvertently feeding climate change denial, and how to construct and translate knowledge without being vague. Christoph Baumberger talked about “Uncertainties in Climate Model Projections and their Implications for Decision Making.” He discussed climate models and defined what constituted sources of uncertainty. He then went on to explain the vocabulary developed and deployed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes likelihood metrics (probabilities given as percentages) and a confidence metric (indicating agreement between experts, worded with phrases such as “likely” or “very unlikely”). The use of these two forms of evaluation poses a problem—they are incompatible. Christoph also raised philosophical questions such as whether and to what extent future generations and their well-being should be taken into account.

The third session, “How To: Responsibility and Social Factors in the Face of Climate Change?,” dealt with the cultural and cognitive factors of climate change acceptance and the role of the notion of responsibility for human action. Helmuth Trischler talked on “Communicating Responsibility, Justice, and Fairness in the Anthropocene.” Helmuth’s talk touched on the Anthropocene and questioned whether it is the right concept from which to address such moral concerns. He also presented three different modes of knowledge production. One example of communicating the Anthropocene and, essentially, climate change was the “Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands” exhibition recently hosted at the Deutsches Museum, which encouraged and facilitated an environment of openness around discourses on the Anthropocene concept. This aspect was particularly appreciated by visitors, but they also felt the need for some guidance through the exhibition.

Workshop participants listening to the talk by Helmuth Trischler. Photo by Laura Springmann, used with permission.

The fourth and last session of the workshop was entitled “How To: Perceptions and Transformations in a Controversial Time?” Here, presenters and participants discussed questions of how to communicate and visualize climate research effectively, how to reach a broader audience, and whether the message should be hopeful or catastrophic. Grit Martinez gave a talk on “If Men Define Situations as Real, They Are Real in Their Consequences (Thomas & Thomas): Perceptions of Climate Change and the Role of the Social Sciences and Humanities.” The quote used in the title illustrates the persistent challenge that climate change still represents in the present time. Grit presented and compared the developments of environment-related policies and civic activism, as well as the presence or absence of a welfare state in both Germany and the United States. In the German empire, the government developed a “cradle to the grave” policy to care for its individuals, whereas in the US a “rough individualism” is present, where risks are regarded as problems of the individual. This notion is reflected in government policies and in activism; compared to the US, Germany has a strong green movement and a large network of NGOs, both of which are powerful and proactive.

Vera Gebhardt gave a short presentation on “Experiential Futures,” which posited design as a potential way to discuss climate change and its consequences for the future. The presentation included a video of a 2012 art installation in Amsterdam called “Silent Spring: A Climate Change Acceleration Performance,” which simulated what would happen to birds’ singing if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to increase. Canaries have been used in coalmines to warn miners of the presence of toxic gases; in this simulation, the birds change their songs as the amount of COin the atmosphere increases until, eventually, they simply cease to sing.


We look forward to seeing the results of these discussions put to paper in a 2019 issue of RCC’s Perspectives – we will keep you posted!

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