Talking about the environment

CU Environmental Studies Program hosts conference on environmental communication

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Copyright Ackroyd

When it comes to environmental issues like climate change, where do you get your information? Unless you’re a scientist, it’s likely that someone is relaying the information to you — say, a newspaper journalist, a TV meteorologist or your Facebook friends.

This space between scientific experts and the public is just one of the topics that academics, business people and artists will explore June 11-14, when the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado will host the biennial Conference on Communication and the Environment.

The conference, titled “Bridging Divides: Spaces of Scholarship and Practice in Environmental Communication,” is held with support from the International Environmental Communication Association.

One of the conference’s keynote speakers is Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He will address the results of his center’s efforts to help make local weathercasters become the front lines in climate science education.

First, the good news. According to the Center for Climate Change Communication’s research, only 18 percent of Americans don’t believe that climate change is happening.

“Most Americans, however, see climate change as happening in the future, whereas in reality it is happening now in every region of the nation,” Maibach says in an email interview with Boulder Weekly. (A 2013 survey by the city showed that Boulderites are more concerned about climate change than the average American, and only 7 percent said they didn’t believe it was happening.)

“Communication efforts, such as our partnership with TV weathercasters, can help to correct this misunderstanding,” Maibach says.

In 2010, Maibach’s center, along with the nonprofit research organization Climate Central and Columbia, S.C. TV station WLTX, piloted a series titled “Climate Matters,” in which the station’s meteorologist presented segments on climate change with a local angle. Topics included breaking news, large-scale climate or weather trends, seasonal trends and releases of important climate science reports.

The results were positive. The researchers conducted pre- and post-test surveys with local viewers and found that, after watching “Climate Matters,” WLTX viewers exhibited a more science-based understanding of climate change than did those who watched other local TV news stations.

Since then, nearly 200 weathercasters/broadcast meteorologists have signed on for the “Climate Matters” program, including Colorado Univision.

Maibach points out that communication about environmental issues doesn’t need to just come from experts to the public — it can be a dinnertime conversation as well.

“Jump right in and break the climate silence,” he advised, “As [Colorado State University] climate scientist Scott Denning says, ‘Climate change is simple, serious and solvable. Discuss.’” 

Maibach also offered advice for other journalists, across all platforms.

“Don’t fan the flames of the controversy through ‘false balance’ reporting in an effort to balance coverage of the scientific consensus about climate change,” he says, citing coverage of discredited scientific theories.

Many of the conference sessions involve various sorts of environmental journalism.

“It’s an appropriate emphasis, too, because a lot of people get most of their knowledge about environmental issues through the media,” says Dale Miller, a senior instructor in the Environmental Studies Program and conference cohost. “They’re a key player in environmental communication. … As much as we like to think that academic journals are important.”

Conference panels include topics such as local media coverage of natural disasters, generalist reporters covering environmental beats and environmental journalism education.

“There’s a lot of folks who are in the ivory tower, but I think there is a genuine desire to communicate important environmental issues with a larger audience on the part of people in academia, in government, in the professions, too,” Miller adds. “It really isn’t a case where we’re hoping a bunch of academics get together and… pat each other on the back.”

Miller hopes the conference will also be a chance for people in different fields to come together and make new connections. Other keynote speakers include Hunter Lovins, president of Longmont-based Natural Capitalism Solutions; Susanne Moser, a Stanford and University of California, Santa Cruz-affiliated researcher who studies climate change communication; and artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, whose large-scale installations often address issues of ecology.

In addition to scholarly papers, other presentations will include posters and works of art from a variety of media — anything from painting, sculpture, dance and digital media to installations — with a theme of environmental issues, the natural world or communication and the environment.

“It’s been our goal that people come together and make connections with people that they might not have otherwise met or thought about collaborating with or being influenced by,” Miller adds.

In addition to CU’s Environmental Studies Program, the 2015 Conference on Communication and the Environment is sponsored by Penn State University’s Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication.