As climate researchers living in a city with the highest public recognition of global warming in the US, it’s easy to slip into social media-enhanced echo chambers about the science and risks of climate change. With the decline in civic organizations, as demonstrated in Robert Putnam’s popular book “Bowling Alone,” breaking out of this bubble and engaging in science conversations across diverse perspectives takes time and energy, and is especially difficult in the absence of a community affiliation that provides common ground.
So in 2016, when the leader of the King County Labor Council invited members of our academic student employees union to help form a climate caucus within the labor council, we saw this as a chance to break outside of our echo chambers, and immediately accepted the invitation. In a state where the decline of the timber industry left many rural communities in poverty and incited tensions between rural workers and urban environmentalists, the climate caucus presented an opportunity to talk about climate science from a place of common ground — as union members who share a commitment to fairness and equity in the workplace. In order to connect our participation in the climate caucus with our research and participation in the Program on Climate Change, we designed a capstone project to create a speakers bureau within the climate caucus, with the goal of facilitating discussion with and giving presentations to any union that wanted to learn more.
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive! The capacity of the Speakers Bureau has grown from a small handful of students (Judy, Miriam, and 2-3 more) to over 15 actively engaged members of the academic workforce, representing over 6 different disciplines. We have received requests and given talks to over 260 members of the labor community as well as over 800 members of the non-labor community—an audience we had not set out to connect with initially. Members of the Speakers Bureau have written numerous newsletters for distribution through union organizations and we have been a part of successful climate change resolutions at the county level that were integral to resolutions passed at the state and federal level.
Initially, we anticipated the capacity building aspects of the Speakers Bureau to be more challenging; having enough individuals with availability and expertise to draw from for what we hoped would be frequent, potentially very tailored talks. In fact, we have more people offering to give talks than we have talks scheduled!
So why is this? While the Climate Caucus formed out of a need for climate discussions and has received substantial support from the Labor Council constituents, integrating climate talks into an existing, well-oiled machine of union representation and scheduling them during meetings (often) with other competing demands for time and existing administrative barriers, as well as building relationships and trust with the target audience, has taken some time.
Our initial presentation to the labor council included a birds-eye overview of climate change: the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification, the record of CO2 and projected changes in sea level and in the cryosphere, then ended with local environmental and health impacts in Washington State. Subsequent talks evolved to suit particular audiences. Some unions wanted to learn more about the history of the manufactured debate. Others wanted to learn more about current research in clean energy, which led us to recruit speakers from the Clean Energy Institute.
We also found that different settings required very different skill sets. For example, some permitted traditional PowerPoint presentations, while others demanded more conversational style talks without the use of visual aids; some were scheduled as 10-minute plugs within a larger meeting, while others have been scheduled as 3-hour long trainings; some were accompanied with very specific learning and discussion goals (e.g. how will a carbon tax affect my union), while others were more open in the nature and content of topics. We encountered a profound interest in future technology and policy (and there were many days in which we wished we had access to a crystal ball so we could explain what was to come), but ultimately, with a cautious, down to earth approach to communication the talks of “what could be” seemed to be well received.
While we will be somewhat stepping back from the Speakers Bureau, Miriam due to graduation and Judy due to dissertation obligations, the momentum of the Speakers Bureau and the talks continue. There is clearly a strong interest in engagement around climate communication in this area that should continue to be nurtured and developed. Anti-science rhetoric and fake news aren’t the only challenges facing effective pubic scholarship in climate science. Public perceptions of the value of higher education have also been declining and positive interactions with scientists, such as those we feel the Speakers Bureau has promulgated, are increasingly important.
Judy Twedt (Atmospheric Sciences) and
Miriam Calkins (Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences)