How Scribing Can Save the Planet: What I learned at #ScioClimate (Part One of Series)
I'm stumped on visually communicating climate. Carbon pollution? Greenhouse gases? How do you doodle that invisible, massive, global, local, dire, untouchable, unpredictable stuff? In search of an answer, last week I attended the first ever ScienceOnline Climate gathering, an event I was lucky enough to help plan. I wanted to see if my science scribing self could pay attention to how the best climate communicators in the country were talking about climate science. Could I grab some visual metaphors and interject a more effective role for visuals into the climate comms mix? Would Andy Revkin (NYTimes climate reporter) or Dan Kahan (researches cultural cognition at Yale) guide me to the "here's how to doodle CFC's" light?
ScienceOnline events are focused on fostering discussion- they’re officially called “unconferences”, as ScienceOnline rightly believes each participant has something equally vital to offer the conversation about how to communicate science online. It's not your typical powerpoint paper presentation kind of event.
There seemed to be consensus among participants that we clearly don’t have the right answers to the problem of how to communicate climate, because we wouldn’t all be gathering in search of better tactics if we did. Whether it was Michael Mann (Penn State climate expert, author of climate books) sitting in on the "Problem Solving, Democracy, And Handling Climate Change" session, Gavin Schmidt (NASA climate expert, climate communicator) coming to the mic to speak to the second round of plenary speakers, or a newcomer to a ScienceOnline event asking a question at the next mic over- everyone got to play the part of both expert and novice. Clearly, climate communicators are desperate to hear any and all voices that might help, and that translated into what felt like a very inclusive, beginner's-minded event.
I don't think many of the attendants expected to come to ScioClimate and see someone visualizing the entire event. The positive feedback I got on my scribing revealed the hunger communicators have for effective visuals to convey this issue.
Check out a slideshow of the scribes I captured from the whole event here:
I came to ScioClimate with two very specific intentions: first, I wondered, if I listen closely to the talks I hear, might I pull from the metaphors, anecdotes, stories, size analogies, and other devices that seasoned climate speakers use when making presentations, and start to develop a visual vocabulary for climate change that actually packs a punch? Second, if I empower attendants with a scribing toolkit for visualizing climate, could the group come up with some fresh new climate icons?
My experience of my own workshop was impacted by attending Jen Davidson’s important session on “Optimism and Hope and the Long Run” just prior. The session was about how to handle the emotions, grief, despair, and depression that arise as climate scientists or communicators regularly engage with the often-devastating realities of climate change. How do we help ourselves so we can help others? Are people tuning out of this issue because it’s too emotional, too scary, too depressing? What resources can we find to build community around honestly sharing the emotionally rife aspects of this amazing work?
I loved this session. It further clarified for me a huge part of why I’m a science communicator: having the opportunity to witness scientists letting their guards down and expressing emotion about their work- their compelling personal motives for taking up the mantle for climate science, and the roller coaster of emotions they experience while trying to contend with this massive problem- is a privilege. I am of the opinion that personal expression by scientists is going to play an important connective role between climate victims and climate scientists in the communication challenges that lie ahead on the road to adaptation and transformation.
Armed with their new visual toolkits, participants at my workshop were brainstorming icons for a list of buzz words we’d generated as a group on climate- they'd tasked themselves with visualizing disease, food, water, political gridlock, and flooding, for example.
Someone drew a bean person on top of a flooded house, reminiscent of the thousands of pictures we saw coming out of New Orleans after Katrina. It felt fresh, shocking, and really scary. It occurred to me that it was very important that it was hand-drawn, and that it was a bean person. In his indispensible Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud says that iconic faces, aka the smiley face, are compelling to us because we see ourselves in them. The minimally detailed, very reduced lines that compose a cartoon face work because when we look at them, we don’t see a well-composed face we can recognize as other. We see a blank slate, and thus we put ourselves into it. If I see myself sitting on top of a house that’s flooded, instead of a stranger in New Orleans during Katrina, perhaps I’ll start to buy in. Perhaps I’ll have a feeling, and then maybe do a little thinking, and darned if I didn’t just spend the last five seconds engaged with the issue at hand. #scioscribe FTW folks- saving the planet one doodle at a time?
I felt strongly, looking at the icons, that these same images all buffed up and photoshopped-out would lose their spontaneity, human-handed emotion, universality. I began to have a tiny conviction that what we need next for icons for climate change are hand-drawn stories using simple, homegrown humans, telling stories about how climate is affecting us. If I can get scientists to do the doodling themselves, then we may have a winner.
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