The importance of telling the stories of climate change

By / 16th of December, 2015
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THIS week University of Adelaide PhD candidate Tullio Rossi published research suggesting that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide could be catastrophic for barramundi, a species much-loved by fishers and foodies worldwide.

It’s the latest study in a series conducted by Tullio and his colleagues, exploring the impact of industrial emissions on ocean ecology.

But labour-intensive as the scientific publication process is, Tullio doesn’t stop there.

“Publishing my findings in peer-reviewed journals is not enough, because only other scientists read them,” said Tullio, from his base in South Australia.

“The communication of my research to the public is extremely important. Without it I feel like that only half of the job is done.”

Tullio invests a considerable amount of his own time telling stories around the science of climate change through animations.

He was recently awarded first prize in the Australian Marine Society of Australia (SA Branch) Outreach Video Competition.

His clips have also won second place in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation Bommies Awards, and third place at the Inspire Australia Research Competition.

In addition, Tullio created The Ocean Acidification Page on Facebook

“The point of the research I do is to find out what the ocean is going to look like by the end of the century if we continue on the current path of carbon emissions,” Tullio said.

“But despite the importance of ocean acidification I feel that only a minority of people are aware of the issue.”

But is it a scientist’s job to broadly communicate his or her research?

Well… sometimes, says science communication specialist Dr Paul Willis, Director at the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus).

“Some scientists have the ability and the inclination to communicate with the world,” said Paul.

“And the beauty is that in this day and age, they can do that directly through blogging and other avenues of social media.”

RiAus offers a video blogging platform for scientists who are interested in talking to the general public. Tullio published one of his animations ‘Mysterious underwater sounds explained’ via this option.

But not all scientists have the interest or the capability to perform such activities.

“This is where skilled and qualified science communicators play a role,” said Paul. 

“Here, you need someone who’s a good translator, someone who can act as a conduit between the researcher and the public.”

Sometimes that translator takes the form of a journalist.

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) was established to support journalists in communicating science accurately, effectively and in a timely manner. The centre recently celebrated its 10th birthday at its headquarters in Adelaide, South Australia.

“Most journalists don’t willfully try and misreport science,” said Susannah Eliot, CEO at AusSMC.

“We aim to provide them with resources and pathways to write about science in context and with a narrative that makes sense.”

The AusSMC online portal SciMex provides story ideas and resources through its Newsfeed service, and offers a Find an Expert database of media-savvy scientists.

The centre also compiles regular Expert Reaction content, where verified experts comment on breaking science-relevant news topics. AusSMC put together Expert Reaction during the COP21 (2015 Paris Climate Conference).

Signed by 196 nations, The Paris Agreement was reached on December 12 2015, and commits nations to reduce emissions and keep temperatures ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.’

The outcome is strikingly different from the Copenhagen Climate Conference, which managed only to deliver a flimsy two pages of non-binding policy commitments in December 2009.

So did better science communication contribute to the success of COP21? Director at RiAus, Paul Willis believes so.

“I think it can be boiled down to better communication,” Paul said.

“It looks like the policy makers have had a much better level of engagement with the climate science – both the gravity of the situation and the implications for the whole planet.”

Paul suggests that ways of showing the impact of global emissions on the earth’s climate has improved in recent years.

“One of the problems with communicating the science of climate change is that for many people, perhaps they’ve noticed just that summers are a little bit warmer, or storms a little more violent,” explained Paul.

“But such changes are incremental and sporadic, and hard for people to put into context.”

“But to see evidence of receding glaciers for example, that creates impact,” he said.

“We’re talking about something that is happening right now.”

Scientist Tullio feels a part of the sense of promise in the air following the COP21 agreement.

“I like to think that through my science and my efforts in science communication I contributed a tiny bit to this outcome,” he said.

“And even if my contribution is small, it makes my life feel totally worthy.”

However he warns against complacency.

“Initial excitement aside, we now have a lot of work to do,” he added.

“Limiting warming below 2 degrees is a challenge, and will require serious efforts from every country and every individual.” 

Key contacts

Tullio Rossi University of Adelaide
61 8 8313 0543 tullio.rossi@adelaide.edu.au
Dr Paul Willis RiAus
61 8 7120 8636 jlemessurier@riaus.org.au
Dr Susannah Eliot Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC)
61 8 7120 8660 susannah@smc.og.au