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The grand challenges of Earth system science and sustainability

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

In the Policy Forum of today’s issue of Science, a research team that includes recent Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom, issued a call for innovative interdisciplinary approaches to confronting major environmental challenges:

Tremendous progress has been made in understanding the functioning of the
Earth system and, in particular, the impact of human actions. Although this
knowledge can inform management of specific features of our world in transition, societies need knowledge that will allow them to simultaneously reduce global environmental risks while also meeting economic development goals. For example, how can we advance science and technology, change human behavior, and influence political will to enable societies to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change? At the same time, how can we meet needs for food, water, improved health and human security, and enhanced energy security? Can this be done while also meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring ecosystem integrity?

They identified what they call five grand challenges:

(1) Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

(2) Develop, enhance, and integrate observation systems to manage global and regional environmental change.

(3) Determine how to anticipate, avoid, and manage disruptive global environmental change.

(4) Determine institutional, economic, and behavioral changes to enable effective steps toward global sustainability.

(5) Encourage innovation (and mechanisms for evaluation) in technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability.

And their concluding message resonates with much of what I have been writing about at Global Change (emphasis mine):

These grand challenges provide an overarching research framework to mobilize the international scientific community around a focused decade of research to support sustainable development in the context of global environmental change. … Research dominated by the natural sciences must transition toward research involving the full range of sciences and humanities. A more balanced mix of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research is needed that actively involves stakeholders and decision-makers.

Reid, W., Chen, D., Goldfarb, L., Hackmann, H., Lee, Y., Mokhele, K., Ostrom, E., Raivio, K., Rockstrom, J., Schellnhuber, H., & Whyte, A. (2010). Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges Science, 330 (6006), 916-917 DOI: 10.1126/science.1196263

Related posts:

From the Environmental Literacy in Higher Education series:

From the Why Don’t People Engage Climate Change? series:

Other posts:


Image credit: woodleywonderworks

Posted in climate change science, communication and framing, education, nature and culture, solutions | 1 Comment »

Writing about disasters as an environmental literacy tool

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Here’s an interesting idea:  Get a bunch of people writing about environmental disasters to help raise awareness about what these are like (and may become) and to spur planning efforts for preventing/dealing with them.  That’s the latest from io9:

We can’t prevent environmental disasters without preparing for them. That’s why io9 is going to pay $2000 each to two people who write the best stories about environmental disaster. It’s io9′s Environmental Writing Contest – for science fiction and non-fiction.

io9 is looking for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth’s history.

We’re holding this contest to reward people for coming up with ideas that could help avert the next Deepwater spill and Pacific garbage gyre – or help people prepare better for the next Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti earthquake. Storytelling is a powerful tool. We want you to use it well.

Our awesome team of judges includes Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker’s environment reporter), Paolo Bacigalupi (author of Ship Breaker and Windup Girl), and Jonathan Strahan (editor of the Eclipse anthologies), as well as others to be announced.

Interested?  The contest rules can be found at the link above.


Photo credit:  Reinante El Pintor de Fuego

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, education, environmental literacy, nature and culture | No Comments »

The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…


Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Do women and men differ in their acceptance of climate warming?

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

In my series on why people don’t engage climate change, we saw major socioeconomic and demographic differences in how people perceive climate change.

In the current issue of Population and Environment, Aaron McCright authors an article, The effects of gender on climate change knowledge and concern in the American public, in which he examines whether women and men perceive climate warming differently:

This study tests theoretical arguments about gender differences in scientific knowledge and environmental concern using 8 years of Gallup data on climate change knowledge and concern in the US general public. Contrary to expectations from scientific literacy research, women convey greater assessed scientific knowledge of climate change than do men. Consistent with much existing sociology of science research, women underestimate their climate change knowledge more than do men. Also, women express slightly greater concern about climate change than do men, and this gender divide is not accounted for by differences in key values and beliefs or in the social roles that men and women differentially perform in society. Modest yet enduring gender differences on climate change knowledge and concern within the US general public suggest several avenues for future research, which are explored in the conclusion.

McCright shares additional insights in a Michigan State University news story covering the article:

“Men still claim they have a better understanding of global warming than women, even though women’s beliefs align much more closely with the scientific consensus,” said McCright, an associate professor with appointments in MSU’s Department of Sociology, Lyman Briggs College and Environmental Science and Policy Program.

The study is one of the first to focus in-depth on how the genders think about climate change. The findings also reinforce past research that suggests women lack confidence in their science comprehension.

“Here is yet another study finding that women underestimate their scientific knowledge – a troubling pattern that inhibits many young women from pursuing scientific careers,” McCright said.

Understanding how the genders think about the environment is important on several fronts, said McCright, who calls climate change “the most expansive environmental problem facing humanity.”

“Does this mean women are more likely to buy energy-efficient appliances and hybrid vehicles than men?” he said. “Do they vote for different political candidates? Do they talk to their children differently about global warming?”

McCright analyzed eight years of data from Gallup’s annual environment poll that asked fairly basic questions about climate change knowledge and concern. He said the gender divide on concern about climate change was not explained by the roles that men and women perform such as whether they were homemakers, parents or employed full time.

Instead, he said the gender divide likely is explained by “gender socialization.” According to this theory, boys in the United States learn that masculinity emphasizes detachment, control and mastery. A feminine identity, on the other hand, stresses attachment, empathy and care – traits that may make it easier to feel concern about the potential dire consequences of global warming, McCright said.

“Women and men think about climate change differently,” he said. “And when scientists or policymakers are communicating about climate change with the general public, they should consider this rather than treating the public as one big monolithic audience.”

McCright, A. (2010). The effects of gender on climate change knowledge and concern in the American public Population and Environment, 32 (1), 66-87 DOI: 10.1007/s11111-010-0113-1


Photo Credit: BostonBill

Posted in behavior, climate change science, communication and framing, gender | 2 Comments »

Parker: What happened to the seasons?

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

This interesting piece by John Parker can be found in this quarter’s Intelligent Life, the lifestyle and culture magazine from The Economist.

With a seemingly distant and global challenge like climate warming, it’s been a struggle for science to convey the realities that warming is underway and that it’s likely human caused.

What would it take to persuade the 50% of Americans and others around the world who are unconvinced that warming is happening and that is has the potential to fundamentally alter our lives and experiences?  A catastrophe like sudden, major ice loss from Antarctica or Greenland?

Subtle shifts like the timing of flowers, the lengthening of spring, the migration of birds, or thawing permafrost—things we have been documenting and writing about since the 1990s— seem to happen unnoticed.

Or perhaps not, as Parker indicates…

In the Indian state of Orissa, the black-headed oriole is the messenger of spring. It appears in the villages in January to greet the season’s start and flies away to the forest in March, signalling its end. Richard Mahapatra’s mother used the oriole’s fleeting appearance to teach her son about the natural rhythms of the world. “People like my mother remember six distinct seasons,” says Mahapatra, an environmental writer who now lives in New Delhi. After spring (basanta) and summer (grishma) came the rainy season (barsha). Between autumn (sarata) and winter (sisira) came a dewy period called hemanta. Each season lasted two months and the appearance of each was marked by religious festivals. “She had precise dates for their arrival and taught me how to look for signs of each.”

Damselflies gathered thickly a week before the rains began. Markers of the monsoon, they did not cluster at other times. The open-billed stork alighted on the tamarind tree on Akshaya Trutiya, a festival which usually fell in April or May and traditionally marked the start of the agricultural year. Farmers said that if you forgot the day, the bird would remind you, so predictable was its arrival. In the Mahapatra family’s garden, the nesting of bats in the peepal tree marked the onset of winter; when the tree flowered, it was midsummer.

Lately the heralds of the seasons have become unreliable. Damselflies swarm not only in the rainy season but in winter, the driest time of year. The stork no longer appears just on Akshaya Trutiya, but at other times, too. Villagers hear the song of the oriole in summer and the rainy season, not just spring. And this, Mahapatra says, is because spring is no longer a distinct season. Instead of six periods of equal length, Orissa now has two, a brief rainy season and a burning eight-month summer. Winter is a mild transition between the two, and spring, autumn and hemanta have been relegated to little-noticed interludes of a mere week or so.

“When I return home”, says Mahapatra, “my mother mourns the death of the seasons. Her memories of Orissa’s climate are alien to the generation I belong to. For me, my childhood Orissa is dying. The state now has a new and strange climate that nobody can understand or predict.”

Read more here


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Posted in behavior, climate change science, communication and framing, environmental literacy, nature and culture | No Comments »

Earth Day at 40: A new Gallup poll on the state of environmentalism

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Riley Dunlap has an interesting article, At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus, with new Gallup poll results that’s worth reading.

April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, an event widely considered to be the birth of the modern environmental movement. Few social movements survive 40 years, so in this sense alone, environmentalism might be considered successful. On the other hand, the movement has had limited success in policy arenas in recent years, leading to allegations of the “death of environmentalism.”  In addition, this year’s Gallup Environment poll finds historically low levels of public worry about environmental problems (particularly global warming) and support for environmental protection. Are we witnessing the end of environmentalism as a significant social movement and, in the eyes of many, a major progressive force in the United States?

Read more to find out…


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Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmental ethics, environmental history, environmentalism, nature and culture | No Comments »

More from Shellenberger and Nordhaus on uncoupling energy policy from climate policy

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Their latest piece: Freeing energy policy from the climate change debate.


Environmental advocates — with help from pollsters, psychologists, and cognitive scientists — have long understood that global warming represented a particularly problematic threat around which to mobilize public opinion. The threat is distant, abstract, and difficult to visualize. Faced with a public that has seemed largely indifferent to the possibility of severe climactic disruptions resulting from global warming, some environmentalists have tried to characterize the threat as more immediate, mostly by suggesting that global warming was already adversely impacting human societies, primarily in the form of increasingly deadly natural disasters.

The result has been an ever-escalating set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic, imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment, as suggested recently by sociologist Bill Freudenburg and others that climate science errs in being too conservative rather than too apocalyptic.

Nevertheless, S & N want us to consider the extent to which dramatic energy policy can be rolled out in the absence of incentives like carbon taxes or cap and trade if, as they suggest, we are wasting time using science to pursue the latter:

In the end, there is no avoiding the enormous uncertainties inherent to our understanding of climate change. Whether 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, or 450 or 550, is the right number in terms of atmospheric stabilization, any prudent strategy to minimize future risks associated with catastrophic climate change involves decarbonizing our economy as rapidly as possible. Stronger evidence of climate change from scientists was never going to drive Americans to demand economically painful limits on carbon emissions or energy use. And uncertainty about climate science will not deter Americans from embracing energy and other policies that they perceive to be in the nation’s economic, national security, and environmental interest. This was the case in 1988 and is still largely the case today.

Now is the time to free energy policy from climate science. In recent years, bipartisan agreement has grown on the need to decarbonize our energy supply through the expansion of renewables, nuclear power, and natural gas, as well as increased funding of research and development of new energy technologies. Carbon caps may remain as aspirational targets, but the primary role for carbon pricing, whether through auctioning pollution permits or a carbon tax, should be to fund low-carbon energy research, development, and deployment.


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Posted in communication and framing, energy, solutions | No Comments »

A message about communicating climate science

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Matt Nisbet has an interesting piece, Chill Out: Climate scientists are getting a little too angry for their own good, at Slate today that adds another view to the ongoing discussion about environmental literacy and communication.

Posted in behavior, climate change science, communication and framing | No Comments »

Stavins: “What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?”

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

That’s the question asked by Robert Stavins at Harvard.  This piece is worth reading.  He wrestles with many of the same questions that many of us in higher education have thought a lot about (here, here, here, and here):

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Although I applaud the call for more emphasis on environmental teaching and the addition of environmental courses, several impediments exist in higher education and beyond which make it difficult to translate these actions into a more environmentally literate society:

  • Disciplines, departments, and majors have long been divided into separate silos.  We reward specialization and expertise over the kinds of interdisciplinarity that is needed to conceive of and deal with global change problems.  As we have seen in previous posts, it’s time for higher education to consider adding problem-centered approaches to the general curriculum.
  • As a result, training students about the environment is often the responsibility of environmental studies and science (ESS) programs.   This is a problem because it absolves most departments and faculty from having to engage the environment as a serious issue.  Many programs at a typical university operate as if humans have little or no connection to the natural world.  Until human systems are properly embedded in natural systems and students are encouraged/required to explore these linkages, there is little reason for students to associate the human experience with impacts on the natural world.
  • These kinds of structures are problematic.   At best, it means that most students in higher education receive little substantive training in how their lives connect with the natural world.  At worst, students are trained to perpetuate disciplinary tradition that (1) ignores the relationship between human societies and the environment and (2) values high achievement in a world that is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust as a measure of success.
  • There can be limits to a “more knowledge” approach.  Namely, as we have seen with climate communication, cultural values shape the perception/reception of information.  Just as  scientific facts seldom speak for themselves, we can’t expect a push for more education to always solve environmental challenges either.  The way messages are framed is important.  And the cultural context of the target audience is also critical.  Most people in the world have a very different cultural background than Harvard undergraduates.

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, higher education, nature and culture, sustainability | No Comments »

How much is a ton of CO2?

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

One of the challenges of climate literacy is helping folks visualize fossil fuel emissions and their impacts.

Last year, Bowdoin College completed its emissions inventory and climate action plan.  We discovered that the campus emits a total of 24,000 tons of CO2 equivalents each year.   So how much is that really?

One student decided to help illustrate this by creating an art installation, cordoning off a 27-ft x 27-ft x 27-ft cube in the student center with red ribbon.

Now imagine 24,000 of these cubes emanating from a college campus each year.   That helps show the magnitude of the challenge.


Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College

Posted in behavior, campus sustainability, climate change science, communication and framing, energy, higher education | 1 Comment »

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