Tag Archives: science

“Coal. Guns. Freedom”: Facts Fail Climate Comms


Facts alone are failing in the war on climate change communication. Instead, to truly engage, we need to share experience. Without the privilege of person-person contact, this can still be achieved remotely by inspiring others through art, to create their own experiences.

Understanding arising from experience is far more powerful than factual knowledge alone. This has been known for aeons and yet we are still failing to connect people to their environment in a way that persuades them to protect, rather than destroy, something that they are part of.

The Problem

Yesterday’s US mid-term elections are a prime example of the conservation movement’s failure “to move” the voter. To quote Brad Plumber at Vox:

Republican Mitch McConnell's re-election slogan. And it worked...

Republican Mitch McConnell’s re-election slogan. And it worked…

You had billionaire Tom Steyer spending $67 million trying to convince voters to care about global warming. You had the League of Conservation Voters pouring in another $25 million, more than in the previous two elections combined. All the while, some outlets were suggesting that recent natural disasters — from Hurricane Sandy two years ago to the ongoing drought in the West — just might push climate issues to the fore”.

Yet despite these efforts – based on pushing facts and reason – Republicans won control of the Senate by a ‘slam dunk’. The now Republican Majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, was re-elected on the back of the campaign motto “Coal. Guns. Freedom”. Recent polls show that only 36% of Republicans consider the environment an important issues, compared to 69% Democrats.

This is just days after Europe’s leaders compromised heavily on Climate Targets for 2030. While Angela Merkel was pushing for higher energy efficiency and emissions reduction targets, eastern European countries and the UK negotiated downwards. (See end results here).  The eastern countries’ unfounded fear of limiting potential economic growth is understandable, but the UK’s goading by UKIP is not. The fact that the UK government is being pushed around by a minority party on the right, who has less democratic representation than any party (including the Greens) on the left, shows a failure of imagination in communication. Arguably, this is the failure of everyone who believes in more social equality – but the environmental lobby can’t escape unscathed.

Bored Board by NaBHaN

Bored Board by NaBHaN

The facts that we’re pushing just aren’t being taken on board by a bored audience.

The Answer
Help is at hand from ancient wisdom – wisdom stretching from China dating over two millennia ago, to the surprising sagacity of Hollywood today:

  • “What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.”
    Xunzi, Chinese Confucian Philosopher, 340-245 BC.
  • The only kind of learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered or self-appropriated learning – truth that has been assimilated in experience. – Carl Rogers, American Psychologist, 1902-1987 AD.
  • Fictional Psychologist Sean Maguire, Good Will Hunting, 1998.

But how to share experience?



Unfortunately, environmentalists can’t physically connect everyone to their outside world. We can’t stage other peoples’ journeys of discovery, helping them realise how our interconnected nature means that their actions are affect all of life, and how they can positively affect others by making some different choices.

We don’t have enough time, power, nor moral right, to directly force everyone to this understanding directly.


I know where I’d like to be! Tannenwald (c) Gustav Klimt

But as human beings, we do have the unique ability to inspire. While a small number of species outside H. Sapiens may demonstrate culture, none have been able to express themselves as complexly as we have. Art, in all its forms is an expression of humanity and helps individuals share experiences through a remote medium.

While we seem to be unique in our ability to destroy, the human race is unique in its ability to create and imagine.

My argument is that environmental communicators now need to harness this power. Artists have always been inspired by nature, as have scientists. We now need to bring these two groups together to inspire others in the truth that surrounds them.


Soft cocks and bananas: gone fishing.

A month ago, I spent the day with a couple of crab fishermen in Salcombe, Devon. And I don’t mean just down the pub.

I was on a boat; their crabbing boat. 14 hours. 3am start and no loo. That’s right – no loo. I was also seasick for 13.5 hours – this may in part have been induced by the no loo situation – who knows. But either way, the day had all the hallmarks of a brief trip to hell.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t…

Now first of all, let me address why I was there. Well, I work for a project called GAP2, which is all about getting fishermen and scientists to work together. Many of you may not have realized that fishermen-scientist relationships are “an issue”– but they are, and they need to improve if we’re to work out how to better manage our often-overfished waters.

Reaching across Europe, GAP2 is running a project in the UK, where scientists Emma Pearson & Dr Paul Hart (from the University of Leicester) are working closely with crabbers operating out of Salcombe & Dartmouth.

So I was in Devon to make a short film on everyone’s progress.

Thus a day on the boat it was.

The Bed & Breakfast owner thought I was mad and I wasn’t convinced she was wrong. Emma, the hardy scientist I was accompanying, was completely at ease with a prospect of a day onboard, as her work necessitates going out with the fishers often a few times a week. But I was less sure. A land lubber and a wimp, I was harbouring a dark suspicion that not only would breakfast make a swift reappearance, but that a 14 hour day full of fish and waterproofs wouldn’t be “that much fun”.

The night before was filled with trepidation. I spent quite some time wrapping my camera in clingfilm,  I de-spidered the wellies, and I set the alarm clock with care. And I didn’t drink much fluid. All was set.

At 3am, the alarm sounded and I positively leapt out of bed. After negotiating my way into three layers of clothing and becoming a packhorse to a tripod, camera and enough food for a 14th century expedition to France, Emma & I exchanged a sleepy good morning before climbing into the car. We were off. Driving through the darkness, the roads were quiet and we quickly (oh how quickly) arrived at the dock. There we met the skipper, Alan Steer, who had kindly agreed to take us onboard his boat “Superb-us”. Deck hand Paul was also on side and we made our way to the boat.

Arriving onboard, in the 4am gloom I was pleasantly surprised. There was an indoor bit – “the wheelhouse”, and there was even a hob and a kettle! As we chugged out of Dartmouth we all had a cup of tea. Alan put his feet up on the dashboard, we had a chat about crabs and I ate a banana. Perhaps all was going to be well?

It wasn’t. The banana made reappearance swiftly. The travel sickness tablets too. I hung over the back of the boat. Although a beautiful, tranquil day in early June, my worse suspicions had been confirmed. The grey water slopped around the gunwale and I hoped I hadn’t ruined any paintwork.

But then the fishing started. As the morning sun rose in the sky, Paul and Alan made their way out onto deck. The first string of crab pots was going to be pulled. The fishermen were about to start reeling in their livelihood, and there was a buzz in the air.

Paul stood by the bait table, sharpening his knife. While it was a calm day, it still seemed particularly hazardous to be so casually holding such a sharp blade while standing on a slippery, moving deck. But Paul showed no such qualms and started ripping open a box of haddock.

Meanwhile, Alan operated the winch. The winch was hauling a rope, attached to which were the boat’s “crab pots”, laid out in neat rows along the seabed. For the uninitiated, crab pots are traps for the sideways scuttlers. Each weighs between 30kg, is made of a rope-wire mesh, and emerges from the sea covered in brittlestars.

As Alan pulled the pots from the surface of the water, he set them on his table by the side of the boat, opened the trap door and sorted the crabs inside. Underweight crabs, malting crabs and “berried females” (i.e. those carrying eggs) were returned to the water. The rest were sorted into males and females and plopped into blue bins underneath the sorting table.

The emptied pots were then passed along the table to Paul who fitted fish and then returned the empty, re-baited traps to a growing, neatly stacked pile on the opposite side of the boat. Emma the scientist stood close by to record the catch.

Activity settled into a steady, smooth flow of motion. The calm cries of “Cock, hen, soft cock, berried” merged with the chirpy background noise of Radio 1, and life began to look up for the pale and sweaty onlooker.

Having managed to focus on something other than the horizon, I got my camera out. The full film of the day is yet to be edited, but if you want a short glimpse of the activity, you can watch this on minute snapshot of the day here.

Next, once all the pots on the string had been hauled, we sailed back down the route that we’d come, relaying the string clean and empty to catch some crabs afresh.

And then we did it again. And then again. With 11 strings, this took all day. But there’s something about fishing that merely describing “how it works” can’t capture.

It’s a strange mix between factory efficiency and the great outdoors. And not just the outdoors experienced in a field – but the vast expanse of the ocean. Knife blades gleam, machinery whirrs and men in overalls move with smooth efficiency. But the seawater slops over the side of the boat. The rope from the winch swirls into vast snakey coils and the sun shines as a sea urchin rolls across the deck.

There’s a feeling of purposeful busyness, tempered by freedom. Sure – the day was all about work, there was an alarm clock get-up, a production line and uniform – but there was also a vast horizon, ever changing colours of the sea and the odd over-friendly seagull.

This is not to romanticize the occupation of fishermen. Their industry commands the highest death toll in Europe, the hours are long, and you rarely meet a millionaire.

On the other hand, I can see why they do it.

At about 3pm, all the strings had been pulled and re-laid and we began our journey back home. I can’t deny that there was a large part of me that was relieved; mightily relieved. Particularly so that I could find a loo.

Yet as we unloaded the catch in Dartmouth, and took a photo of me holding the biggest cock we could find, I felt like I’d achieved something. I’d made a connection with a food source, I’d witnessed an industry centuries old, and I’d tackled an environment I’m not best suited to. Obviously – I’d only taken some film – and everyone else on board remained of the opinion that I was a city softie. But while the day was characterized by nausea, and everything did pong somewhat of haddock – it transpires that fishers may have the right idea…

Accordingly – I’m going to be blogging more about them in the coming months. Stay tuned for the film in full, an explanation of French nicking, and an interview with Alan the skipper!

Proof is boring: land the plane.

The good doctor sat back down next to me, brow furrowed. “There’s not much I can do” – she whispered as she shuffled back into her seat. We were on a flight to Cairns, Australia, and she had just returned from attending a passenger who was ill. Seriously ill. In fact, the passenger was dying.

But the plane wasn’t going to land – because as the good doctor surmised – “if he’s going to die, he’ll do so whether we’re on the ground or in the air”.

So we kept on flying though the night. Rows of human bodies, covered in standard issue BA blankets and cocooned in our air-borne tube above the cloud – with one poor soul desperately struggling with life and death.

But nobody cared. Nobody cared, because apart from a select few, nobody knew.

And at some points in Cairns this week, at the international gathering of the world’s most preeminent experts on coral science – this situation struck me as an analogy for the way the world is dealing with the issue of climate change.

A coral calling

2,800 marine biologists from 80 countries had converged in Cairns, a coastal city in Oz for the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium (#icrs2012). In case you’re not down with the science – coral reefs are rapidly degrading (as elegantly shown by Terry Hughes’ opening address slides’ here). This is due to a catalogue of human errors, but climate change is proving particularly destructive.

EXPLANATION: SKIP IF NOT INTERESTED. Rising levels of greenhouse gases mean that more carbon dioxide is dissolving in the oceans, which in turn is resulting in warmer, more acidic oceans. Corals – calcareous creatures – are unable to grow and renew in such conditions, and are unable to keep up with the pace of change driven by humans’ carbon addiction. AND ITS OVER.

So coral scientists are sad. Indeed, they’re so sad that they’ve rung the changes by issuing a Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs. Clearly defined by Bob Richardson (President of the ISRS) as “a medical prescription for the world’s coral reefs” and “not a political statement”, the position documents solid agreement from a group of non-partisan, credible experts adds to the proof of climate change. Which from scientists, is what we need.

But to address the issue of climate change – to solve the problem and make a change – we need more.

Because proof is boring. 

This dawned on me as I sat through an assemblage of symposium scientists who felt the need to explain why they believed that climate change was happening (for a good 25% of their presentation), before getting onto the meat of what they were doing, what they had found, or what they were proposing.

Before I go on, I should point out that I like these people – I agree with their views – to all intents and purposes – I’m one of them. But this truly was a case of preaching to the converted. Everyone in that room agreed with the idea that climate change is already happening; coral scientists who don’t would be denying the evidence of their life’s work.

Yet the depressing data, gloomy graphs and stats of woe were reeled out over and over again. Even some of the scientists, who issued a call “to avoid the doom and gloom” – then started delving into the very same content. The effect was awful. I got goosebumps. My boss got cross. And everyone came out, shaking their heads in an owlish way, shrugging and resigned.

Landing the Plane

While its ok for the academic elite to stick to writing prescriptions – the rest of us need to escape the role of the “select few” in that plane on its way to Australia, overwhelmed by the thought that “there’s nothing we can do anyway”. We need to wake everyone up – start shaking those sleeping bodies – pulling off the blankets, disconnecting the ear phones and lobbying the pilot to land the plane. The sick man needs to be treated properly. Sure – he may well deteriorate, or even die anyway. But he’s got a hope.

I work for a charity called SeaWeb, which did an incredible job in pulling out the stories of the coral reef science gathering and feeding them to the world’s press. The 5 man team managed to achieve 3000 pieces of media coverage – indeed you may have read some such articles over the past week. And its because they told stories – they crafted them from the science, from the abstracts into tales of meaning, of relevance and interest.

And I think this is something our entire movement needs to imitate – engaging the public in a positive, constructive and instructive way

So this is my request to leave behind the nasty charts and the scary stats that makes us feel sick and without power. Instead let us tell stories about people and their families, to illustrate the science so that the whole world can know what’s going on. And then let us build on this engagement. Let us look for solutions to problems we’re encountering already, and to those we can see approaching on our horizon. Let us even look for opportunities within the change. Let us embrace our future. It may not be as blue as we want, it may not be as green. But it’s the one we’ve got – so lets stop fretting and get on with making it work.

If you’ve got any ideas about how we can do this proactively, I’d be really interested to hear from you. Please email me at shagudia@hotmail.co.uk .