An Interview with Dr. Cassandra Brooks

Nature, June 2019

Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. She was recently selected as one of the science faculty on an upcoming #TeamHB4 #WomenInSTEMM leadership initiative in Antarctica.

Please tell us about your research interests. Consumption, overexploitation, and the resulting environmental degradation threaten the long-term vitality of the resources upon which human societies depend. Based on hundreds of case studies, we know that human communities have the capacity to conserve their resources, particularly at the small to medium scale. Moreover, several conditions or processes have been shown to facilitate sound, equitable management of common pool resources.  Despite such numerous local yet spatially constrained examples, how do we scale up these conceptual frameworks to apply to the global commons? Recognizing there are no panaceas, what are some of the essential socio-ecological conditions required for conserving our global commons? My research is driven by a desire to study and devise potential solutions for collective action to address environmental dilemmas. These issues are inherently interdisciplinary, and with my advanced degrees in Marine Science, Science Communications, and Environment and Resources, I draw from a diversity of fields and disciplines – including environmental governance, international relations, policy, law, conservation biology, and economics. By creatively using the most appropriate methodologies – both qualitative and quantitative – I  compile and apply diverse datasets to address a suite of complex issues surrounding policy and management of global international commons.

I have a fierce passion for Antarctica, with the last fifteen years of my career focused on marine science and conservation in the region, especially marine protected areas (MPAs). I’ve participated in five Antarctic research cruises, studying diverse components of the ecosystem, from phytoplankton and krill to finfish and mammals. I’ve published on the life history of Antarctic toothfish—the top fish predator in the Southern Ocean that supports a lucrative international fishery. I’ve also been involved in extensive media projects, including the Last Ocean, in which we produced an award-winning documentary and a highly regarded book about the Ross Sea, Antarctica. I’ve been lead author on multiple MPA policy reports which focused on identifying key areas for inclusion in a representative network of Southern Ocean MPAs. I’ve also authored more than 150 popular articles, op-eds, book chapters, blogs and websites, many focused on Antarctic science and conservation. Most importantly for my work at the science-policy interface, I’ve spent the last eight years studying the process for adopting Antarctic MPAs. This work was the foundation for PhD at Stanford University and, along with my media and outreach work, helped drive the adoption of the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea, Antarctica – one of healthiest and most productive marine ecosystems left on Earth.

I see that your education is in biology and marine science, but you also have worked quite a bit in science communications and policy outreach. What has your journey been to this point? I am an intensely curious person with a passion for the environment, especially the ocean, which drove me to pursue science. For me, a career in science has been a life of endlessly turning over rocks to discover, with delight, what lives underneath. Yet I was never satisfied with the scientific process in isolation. I wanted to show and teach the public about the beauty of the natural world. Even more so, as I learned that everything I loved and studied – from my back yard in New England to the reaches of Antarctica – was immensely threatened, I was desperate to drive conservation solutions.

My journey has centered around science, outreach and policy – often working within these worlds simultaneously. I completed a BS in Biology at Bates College in Maine and during that time I worked in labs across campus while completing a summer Environmental Education internship at the New England Aquarium. I also spent a summer at Shoals marine lab and conducting summer research at the Mount Desert Biological Lab and Virginia Institute of Marine Science. After college I spent three years working in Environmental Education as a wilderness therapy guide working across the United States for Outward Bound, Summit Achievement and Naturalists at Large. In the midst of these largely seasonal jobs, I also toiled as a federal fisheries observer on New England groundfish boats. Seeing how poorly managed fisheries are, particularly deep-sea fisheries drove me to return to school for a masters in Marine Science at Moss Landing Marine Labs in California. There I studied the life history of Patagonian and Antarctic Toothfish (sold as Chilean Sea Bass). The research itself was a direct call from managers within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR – the international body that governs the waters around Antarctica) to gain more life history information on these species which were supporting a growing commercial fishery in the Antarctic.

I’ll never forget my first research trip to Antarctica in 2005. The wind whipping across from the icy Antarctic continent, icebergs scattering the horizon and me donning a thick orange coat to brace the elements. I remember finishing a 12-hour shift on deck sampling Antarctic fish, including the Antarctic toothfish, the top fish predator of the Southern Ocean. I watched as night fell and unfamiliar stars peppered the thick dark sky. I remember hearing a brisk exhale off the side of the boat and the wet scent of krill hitting my face. I peered to see a humpback whale breaking the surface, swimming in parallel just a few feet from our vessel. I had never felt so alive, so small and so inspired and humbled. Nor have I ever felt such a visceral compulsion to protect a place.

I had worked in and studied fisheries for many years of my adult life, but only when I made the exhaustive trek into the ice-choked waters around Antarctica did I realize the severity of the problem. It was hard to believe that fishermen would travel so far – into the most treacherous waters on Earth – in search of fish. But then I remembered scrambling on the deck of New England groundfish boats as a fisheries observer, gathering measurements from the pathetically small catch, while fishermen relayed stories of hauling in cod larger than me. We have depleted our fisheries closest to home and have had to cast our lines ever deeper and further to find new fish stocks, but we now have nowhere else to go. The Antarctic toothfish that I was studying supports the Earth’s most remote fishery. And the more I studied, the more obvious it became that this species, like most deep-sea fish, was incredibly vulnerable to overexploitation.

In 2008, I stood before my master’s defense committee making a case for a Ross Sea marine protected area (MPA). Current management allowed fishing on their purported spawning grounds and didn’t take into account the overall impact on the greater Ross Sea ecosystem. A marine reserve, which excluded fishing from critical life history areas, seemed an obvious solution. But my committee scoffed at the idea. As an international space, an MPA in the Antarctic would require the consensus of more than two-dozen nations – a seemingly impossible feat. What my professors didn’t know (and what I would later learn) was that closed-door discussions were already underway developing plans for a network of MPAs across the Southern Ocean.

Later that year, I received a call from a prominent conservation photographer, “We need to talk about toothfish,” he said. He, along with a renowned Antarctic scientist, had been partially responsible for jumpstarting the MPA discussions within CCAMLR, particularly around the Ross Sea, a region deemed by many to be the last intact marine ecosystem left on the planet. They wanted my help in pushing the MPAs forward. I jumped on board their grand outreach effort, which we called The Last Ocean. We worked to generate the support of hundreds of scientists, developed an in-depth website, published academic and popular articles, a critically acclaimed book, created curriculum for school children, and traveled to New Zealand (where the largest Antarctic toothfish fishery is based) to help produce an award winning documentary film. Working with environmental non-profits from all over the world, we generated policy reports, translating complex Antarctic science into policy recommendations. Then we worked to put it all before the decision-makers at CCAMLR. By 2012, a Ross Sea MPA, what I had been told was impossible, was actually on the table of CCAMLR.

By then, I was beginning to realize that good science and effective media were not sufficient to generate sound policy, and I returned to school for a PhD at Stanford University to study the Southern Ocean MPA policy process directly. I gained access to high-level international policy meetings, approaching the research as a case study. I gained expertise in qualitative methods, international relations, environmental governance, economics and the science-policy interface. I analyzed a policy process as it unfolded in real time and learned to appreciate the complex suite of factors that drive policy development and implementation including the role of science, the influence of media, the constraints of state interests, and the power of industry. My grounding in science has also allowed me to analyze the extent to which the policies being proposed would reach their stated management and conservation goals.

In late October of 2016, just three weeks before I defended my PhD, I witnessed what many had said was impossible – the adoption of an extensive 1.55 million km-2 MPA in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. This moment changed my life. Conservation – even at immense international scales is possible. This feat cannot be understated. It was the culmination of the dogged efforts of hundreds of scientists, thousands of conservationists, and millions of global citizens over the course of more than a decade. We took one of our most productive and healthy stretches of ocean and protected it for the future. In my current research, I continue to study the MPA process in the Southern Ocean. As a global community, we have so much to learn from the case of the Ross Sea. And we have so many other areas of the world in critical need of protection.

Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome? Being an interdisciplinary scientist has been an immense challenge. I have struggled at times to define who I am, to describe my work and to find my place in the professional world. I have had professionals tell me: “you are not an expert” when I tried to put my own voice out in the world. Getting a PhD helped establish me as an expert, but in what? I surprise my colleagues by continuing to publish on quantitative fish life history, while also publishing qualitative case studies on Antarctic governance or commentaries on the science-policy process. I continue to publish popular articles on a variety of environmental and science blogs. I work in marine conservation and environmental governance. To do so, I am a marine scientist, a policy expert, a social scientist, a conservationist and a communicator. Our global environmental problems span all disciplinary and political boundaries; our solutions, research, and professional activities must as well.

What advice would you give your younger self? I grew up in a small town in rural New England with a large family and nature as my playground which was a profoundly wonderful experience. I had so much energy and passion, but was a bit scattered. Like many young professional women, I had no confidence. I wanted to do great things in the world, but I didn’t believe I necessarily would. Somewhere in my mid-thirties (and in my PhD) I finally felt strong and confident enough to speak up for myself and really put my voice out in the world. The advice I wish I could give my younger self – and really all young women professionals coming up in the world – is to follow your passion and believe your voice matters. We all have unique perspectives and experiences to offer the world. Integrity is more important than expertise. We need you out there fighting for your future and future generations.

What are your predictions for your field in the near future (e.g., are there some really pressing questions that need to be addressed)? The future predications about environmental resources and biodiversity, including in the marine realm and Antarctica is dire. We certainly need continued research on our marine systems, including in the Antarctic. Our global community can learn from studies on best practices for conservation and sustainable use across scales and resources (for example the case of the Ross Sea). What drives communities to conserve rather than overexploit? How can we, as a global community, stop the degradation of the earth systems? How can we more intimately understand our visceral dependence on these natural systems? How can we see ourselves as part of, rather than in dominance of, the natural world?

Our survival depends ultimately not on conducting more research, but on human action, immediately. I believe we have a lot to learn from E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project which demands that we must protect at least half of the Earth’s biosphere so conserve global biodiversity, which Wilson insists is necessary for our own human survival. My hope is that we, as professional scientists, listen to and support wise elders like Wilson and the future generation, like Greta Thunberg. My experiences in the Antarctic, especially after witnessing the grand protection of the Ross Sea, have shown me that diverse communities can come together to make decisions that benefit the future. I truly believe, we as a global community, can do the same and can prevent the loss of global biodiversity, the degradation of the biosphere and halt climate change. We cannot afford not to.   

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Science Struggling Against Fake News and Fact Deniers

University World News

Flat Earth theories. Anti-vaccination conspiracies. Climate change denials. Such deeply held beliefs are impeding the job of unveiling and spreading verifiable truths, according to speakers at the international Worldviews on Media and Higher Education Conference in Toronto, Canada.

Educators and journalists who made up a panel on “Scientific research, ‘post-truth’ and fake news: What’s next?” warned of incessant efforts to deny the truth and also actively manipulate it with falsehoods.

Moderator Ivan Semeniuk, science correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, told the audience that scientific conspiracies are nothing new, but they have more currency today in the public realm than ever before.

“Something has changed, something significant,” said Semeniuk, reflecting on a professional career as a journalist that goes back to the 1980s. “And it’s having a huge impact on how we do our business, the business of bringing knowledge to light.”

Sandra Quinn, professor and chair at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in the United States, has watched the anti-vaccination movement’s activities and explained to the audience that she and other observers see two different types of activity. 

“Misinformation is simply false or misleading, and it can happen accidentally,” she said, such as when medical rumours or second-hand accounts are passed around between friends on social media. 

On the other hand, “disinformation is literally that deliberate attempt to mislead someone”, and is a bigger concern to the health sciences community. This includes fake news sites that promote the anti-vax agenda, and which look like legitimate media sites but fail to ask the critical journalistic questions of who, when, where, what and why.

Quinn spoke of such concerted efforts that were developed by the tobacco industry decades ago and are continued today by interested groups and individuals to deliberately undermine science by questioning the motives of scientists and the authenticity of their results. This has sowed confusion among the public, who may not know which sources are trustworthy.

Healthy scepticism

“Scientists are the very first people to question [research],” she said, before adding, “I believe in a healthy scepticism; I think that’s important. But we’re beyond the healthy scepticism point.”

Indeed, while Max Boykoff addressed the climate change denial community, he stressed: “I’m a fan of questioning authority.” 

As director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States, Boykoff has watched as questioning environmental science has been overtaken by denialism, and detailed the three types he sees going on with climate contrarians that have muddied the factual waters.

“There is literal denialism, which is basically hands over the ears, ‘I’m not going to listen to what you have to say’. But there is interpretive denialism, which is a way of interpreting the same information in a different way. And then, thirdly, there is implicatory denialism.” That happens when individuals accept what science is saying but fail to do anything to deal with the issues or change their behaviour, he explains.

“There are many different pathways to knowing and I think with new ways of engaging through new and social media, there’s new voices,” said Boykoff, acknowledging the enhanced ability to communicate today, as opposed to in the pre-digital age. 

Unfortunately, not all those voices are pleasant or polite and for those in the media who cover fake news, a prime concern is the rancour that accompanies those who perpetuate disinformation. Read more …

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Business Leaders Would be Wise to Better Support Youth Climate Protests

by Lucy McAllister
MeCCO Research Team Member, Visiting Assistant Professor and Lewis Institute Fellow at Babson College

Photo: Protesters throw a ball depicting the Earth during the “Global Strike for Future” demonstration in Stockholm on May 24, a global day of student protests that aimed to motivate world leaders to act on climate change. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

All around the world people are taking to the streets to protest climate inaction: notably school children, but also moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, teachers, scientists, artists, and, what protesters in Munich described in a May protest as, “middle-aged white men for the future”. Though the above list is obviously not exhaustive, one group has been noticeably absent in its public support of the widely visible youth movement – business leaders.

Yes, global businesses are taking significant steps to address climate change, and turn a profit while doing so, and yet these steps are frequently reactive if taken at all, as evinced by Proctor & Gamble’s use of Canadian boreal forest in its toilet paper despite its previously glowing global reputation as a leader in sustainability efforts.

Too often multinational firms perceived as leaders in sustainability efforts are revealed as Dr. Seuss’s Once-lers only giving back to the future upon discovering or regretting the errors of their ways at meetings with other billionaire leaders from Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, some firms are not simply reacting to environmental or social issues that visibly surface in their supply chains or to assuage consumer calls for climate action, but instead are reshaping their entire business models in ways that address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the Business & Sustainable Development Commission has identified 30 sustainable development “unicorns,” that is, firms experiencing tremendously rapid growth, that are already making impressive progress towards, for instance, cutting emissions and reducing air pollution, all while being valued at more than US$1 billion.

Today’s youth is leading the way in pushing for urgent climate action and we would all be wise to support their efforts beyond mere platitudes, tweets or press releases, whether it is to support your child’s future or to secure the brightest talent and loyal consumer base of tomorrow.

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Environmental Journalists Know the Value of a Climate Debate

Democratic presidential candidate and Governor of Washington Jay Inslee speaks about climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations on June 5 in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Colombia Journalism Review
by Jason Plautz

CLIMATE CHANGE HAS BECOME A DEFINING ISSUE in the early Democratic presidential primary. But the Democratic National Committee has rebuffed calls to hold a dedicated debate on the topic, raising concerns that the issue will once more remain siloed during an election cycle.

DNC chairman Tom Perez wrote on Medium this week that the party wouldn’t acquiesce to candidates who wanted single-issue debates, although he said he has “made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently.” Perez, who served as Labor Secretary under President Obama, said he wanted to have candidates “engage on a range of issues that matter to the American people.”

But climate change wasn’t treated as just one “issue” during Obama’s presidency. It was spread out across the cabinet. The State Department, for example, negotiated  the Paris Agreement, and the Transportation Department focused on the risks extreme weather posed to infrastructure.

As journalists and candidates seek to show that climate change is too vast to restrict to an environmental issue, there’s concern that the DNC’s decision is going the opposite way. By refusing to devote one night to an “issue that threatens to throw human civilization into crisis,” wrote New York Timescolumnist Justin Gillis, the DNC is enabling “another round of presidential primaries in which the climate crisis is basically hidden in the attic.”

Jay Inslee, the Washington governor and presidential candidate who led the calls for a climate debate, told Mother Jones that he would still participate in a separate climate debate despite apparent DNC threats to blacklist any candidate who did so (Perez has said candidates can participate in issue-based forums and town halls). “Sixty-second sound bites, which is all you’ll be able to get in a party debate, is grossly inadequate to the task,” he said.

Unlike previous elections, climate change tops voters’ concerns ahead of 2020; an April CNN poll of Democratic voters found that 82 percent listed climate change as “very important.” That should incentivize candidates to discuss climate change from as many perspectives as they can, Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says.

“Climate change is an issue that cuts to the heart of how we work, live, organize ourselves, how we meet our needs every day,” Boykoff, the author of the upcoming book Creative (Climate) Communications, says.  “Given the information we have, given the challenge we face, it’s insufficient to not have a dedicated debate to it.”

Dedicating a debate to climate change would elevate “the public’s awareness of the biggest story of our time,” Bobby Magill, a reporter at Bloomberg Environment and the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, says in an email.

“There are so many climate-related issues at stake: The Green New Deal, which has become a GOP favorite subject of scorn, as well as carbon pricing, renewable energy, national security, rising seas, immigration and the future of fossil fuels,” he says. “Most of those issues affect everybody and are highly political.”

Campaigns are rarely the best venue for policy discussion, and party polarization means that a general-election debate over climate change effectively devolves into whether or not to trust the scientific consensus. But among Democrats, there is the chance for nuance. And while sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans, whether it’s the phase-out timeline for coal and natural gas, or how they would engage Congress in passing climate legislation. Elizabeth Warren could talk about how her public lands protection plan would limit fossil fuel drilling; Michael Bennet could offer more detail on his “Climate Bank” strategy to catalyze private investment. Read more …

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Good-Natured Comedy to Enrich Climate Communication

by Beth Osnes, Max Boykoff, and Patrick Chandler
Comedy Studies (2019)

Abstract: This report explores the use of good-natured comedy to diversify the modes of comedy that can be used in climate communication beyond satire to others modes that are possibly more supportive of sustained climate action. Student’s self-assessment on a class project involving this type of comedy were collected through an on-line survey to generate data to explore their feelings of hope and their views of their own growth as climate communicators. Research findings suggest that student participation in creating good-natured comedy helps students positively process negative emotions regarding global warming, sustain hope, and grow as communicators of climate. These findings are from a practice-focussed study that shares primarily the self-reported results by students of a project offered over one semester. These findings show promise in the exploration of comedy for students to process emotions that allow joy, fun and hope to sustain their commitment to grow as climate communicators. Read more …

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MeCCO Monthly Summary: Life as We Know It

Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO)
May 2019 Summary

May media attention to climate change and global warming was up 27% throughout the world from the previous month of April 2019.

Across international wire services – Associated PressAgence France PresseThe Canadian Press and United Press International – media attention to climate change went up nearly 20%, while across international radio programming including American Public MediaNational Public RadioBritish Broadcasting Services, Southwest Radio Africa, Radio Balad and Radio France Internationale – media coverage increased nearly 30%.

While coverage in the Middle East dropped 25% from the previous month, coverage in all other regions increased from April 2019 into May 2019: among them, African coverage doubled, Asian media attention to climate change was up nearly 12%, European coverage increased nearly 22%, Central/South American coverage was up 23%, North America coverage increased almost 8% and coverage on Oceania rose over 86% compared to the previous month.

Figure 1 shows trends in newspaper media coverage at the global scale – organized into seven geographical regions around the world – from January 2004 through May 2019.

In April 2019, we at MeCCO added eight European sources to our ongoing counts: Correio da Manhã (Portugal), La Republica (Italy), Corriere della Sera (Italy), Le Monde(France), Le Figaro (France), El Mundo (Spain), La Vanguardia (Spain) and Expansion(Spain). We combined these to eleven sources that we had been tracking across Europe in the past, providing a first look at trends in ‘European Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming’ like we have done with our work to track ‘Latin American Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming’ in the past.

Tracking coverage now through May 2019, we have also now added six sources from Sweden (Dagens NyheterAftonbladet, and Expressen) and Norway (AftenpostenDagbladet, and VG) to our European monitoring. These new sources, along with previous monitoring in Europe bolster our work. In June 2019, we in MeCCO now provide European regional tracking of climate change media coverage in 25 source in eight languages (English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Norwegian and Swedish) (see Figure 2).

Overall, these new sources expand our monitoring to two new countries (Norway, Sweden) and two new languages (Swedish and Norwegian). Therefore, we at MeCCO now track media coverage of climate change or global warming across 96 sources (newspapers, TV and radio) in 43 countries and 9 languages (English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Norwegian and Swedish).

MeCCO now monitors print media representations of climate change at the country-level in eleven nations. In these countries, coverage was up 76% in Australia compared to coverage in the previous month (see below for more). Meanwhile, coverage in Canada and Norway held steady while attention was up in New Zealand (+62%), Germany (+46%), Japan (+36%), Spain (+34%), Sweden (+19%), the United Kingdom (UK) (+16%), India (+13%) and the United States (US) (+12%). In addition, US television media attention to climate change was up just 2% in May 2019 compared to April 2019.

Moving to considerations of content within these searches, Figure 3 shows word frequency data in US newspaper media coverage in May 2019. A waning Trump influence detected in earlier months of 2019 (see previous monthly MeCCO summaries for details) continued. The slow disappearing feature of a ‘Trump Dump’ (where media attention that would have focused on other climate-related events and issues instead was placed on Trump-related actions, leaving many other stories untold) was noted in May by mentions of ‘Trump’ on average about two-and-a-half times per article in the US newspaper prestige press comprised of the Los Angeles TimesThe New York TimesUSA TodayThe Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. US President Trump’s influence is still apparent given the presence in media accounts of climate change and the influence of his office, however this frequency is down significantly from about six mentions per article on average a year ago (and approximately 38 mentions per segment on average on ABCCBSCNNFox News NetworkMSNBC, and NBC in May 2018).

That said, Trump casts a long shadow over current nominees for the Democratic US nomination where the candidates (and their stances or perspectives or plans on climate change) were mentioned less frequently in May 2018 (see Figure 4).

In the US, the steadily building US Democratic Presidential primary race generated numerous stories about rhetoric on climate action along with some plans too. For example, US Presidential hopeful and Washington governor Jay Inslee (mentioned second most frequently among the Democratic presidential hopefuls) released a set of plans (he called the ‘Evergreen Economy Plan’) to spur decarbonization of industry and society, clean energy development and emission-free transportation. Journalist Ken Thomas from The Wall Street Journal noted, “Gov. Jay Inslee proposed Friday that the U.S. should require carbon-neutral power by 2030, laying out a climate plan at the start of his presidential campaign that embraces elements of the Green New Deal, which many Democrats have backed. The Washington state governor, who has made climate change central to his long-shot bid for the White House, said that if elected he would set targets for achieving 100% clean energy across the electrical grid and in new vehicles and buildings”. In an article calling his plan ‘radical’, journalist Emily Holden from The Guardian reported, “Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, is introducing a second portion of his climate change plan as most Democratic contenders for president have yet to officially roll out their own big-picture proposals. Inslee’s 38-page document is focused on creating jobs. It outlines a $9tn investment over 10 years and seeks to create 8m jobs aimed at decarbonizing the economy. In an earlier plan, he vowed to make the US carbon neutral by 2045. Inslee wants to upgrade buildings, replace water and transit infrastructure, clean up manufacturing and quintuple spending on clean energy and climate research. Many of those efforts would require congressional legislation. The blueprint echoes progressives’ Green New Deal, but with far more details and fewer commitments to social programs”.

Meanwhile, 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden’s occupation of a ‘middle ground’ approach on climate action drew much consternation and critique picked up on by media stories. Consequently, Joe Biden was mentioned most frequently among the Democratic presidential hopefuls in US press coverage of climate change in May 2019. For instance, Journalist Katie Glueck from The New York Times explained, “Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. defended his record on climate change on Monday in the face of criticism from rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and called for a “green revolution” that is “rational” and affordable…liberal activists and candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont questioned his boldness on climate. Mr. Biden, echoing the language of revolution used by Mr. Sanders, said Monday that the nation needed ‘environmental revolution’” and that “he had, in fact, introduced the first bill addressing climate change in the 1980s”. Meanwhile, Fox News correspondent Lukas Mikelionis noted, “Biden’s plan, which hasn’t yet been released, aims to appeal to both die-hard environmentalists and blue-collar voters who voted for President Trump in 2016. The core of the plan will likely include the U.S. re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and focusing on technology and regulations to limit emissions from the burning of fossil fuels”. Meanwhile, journalist Valerie Volcovici from Reuterswrote that Biden was “carving out a middle ground approach that will likely face heavy resistance from green activists”. Read more …

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War all the time? Climate reporters weigh coverage quantity against quality

Columbia Journalism Review
by Abby Rabinowitz

I’VE LATELY BEEN LOSING MYSELF in The New York Times archives, scrolling through front-page coverage of World War II. Days with no landmark battles, such as January 23, 1943—when, as the paper reported top-right, Allies made progress in Kharkov and Tripoli, but the Nazis built two U-boats for every one the Allies sank. Center bottom, as always: “War News Summarized.” Below the fold, a Netherlands crown princess gave birth on “Dutch soil” in safe Ottawa. The pages portray a United States facing down an existential threat. On such days, even gossip stories were stories about the war.

Today, the climate crisis is no less an existential threat. To limit the worst effects of the climate crisis, we have under eleven years to decarbonize our economy, mobilizing, as Bill McKibben and others have urged, on the speed and scale of WWII. One might expect to see that mobilization effort in the US media more often; climate change, after all, frames every beat. A threat of such breadth, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg once said, should preclude us from talking, writing, or reporting about anything else.

Yet my news feed tells a different story. Scrolling through my Apple news feed on a Sunday in April, climate coverage was hard to come by. I saw stories about a rabbi shot at the Poway synagogue, who had delivered an inspiring sermonTrumprallying supporters with calls of “fake news”; and a teen whose hepatitis may have been induced by green tea. Other top stories included a piano prodigy turned viral sensation and an American tourist charged with killing a Dominican national in Anguilla. The “Science Section” led with UFOs from The Atlantic, followed by the oldest tree, dark matter, the FCC’s SpaceX plans, wondrous volcanos, someone eating a live rattlesnake, and research indicating the world is sadder and angrier than ever before. At last, I hit a climate piece, from Wired: a story on plants genetically modified to absorb more carbon dioxide.

I repeated the exercise with the Times’s news app: three articles on Biden’s run, Barr’s Congressional testimony, the Sri Lanka Easter attacks, the California synagogue shooting, and, finally, a three-day-old story,  “Can Humans Help Trees Outrun Climate Change?” To be fair, the Times had that week run an ambitious slate of climate stories around Earth Day, as well as a climate-themed issue of its magazine.

In fact, the Times leads US popular newspapers in climate coverage, at arguably our best climate-coverage moment ever. A recent study of five major US newspapers counted more climate stories in March 2019 than almost any month since 2000. Of those stories, more than half—a grand total of 423—came from the Times. Read more …

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New International Research Project to Explore Climate Change Communication Through Social Media

CSTPR Director, Max Boykoff, is collaborating on a new project funded from the Spanish Ministry of Science.

The project “Communicating climate change through social media: Strategies, emotions and images” (CLIMAenREDES) will be conducted, from June 2019 to December 2021, by a group of 16 researchers from 10 universities in 7 countries. It will be coordinated by the Research Group on Science Communication of the University of Navarra (Spain), with Dr. Bienvenido León as principal investigator (PI) and Dr. María Carmen Erviti as associate PI. This project is sponsored by the Spanish Ministry of Science.

The other participating universities are: University of Colorado Boulder (US), University of Florida (US), University of Oxford (UK), University of Otago (N. Zealand), University of Porto (Portugal), University Miguel Hernández (Spain), University of Murcia (Spain), Gulf University for Science and Technology (Kuwait) and National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico).

Social media play an increasingly relevant role as a source of information and as a means of shaping the social discourse about climate change. Academic research has shown that the messages that are received through social media have a similar persuasive efficacy to those of inter-personal communication.

In the digital environment, several persuasive narrative and storytelling techniques can be used together with communication strategies, in order to reinforce action to address climate change. Previous research has demonstrated that the agenda of the social media does not match that of traditional media. Social media manage their own topics, formats, narratives and focuses.

In the last few years, the role of emotions in the digital environment has gained interest, particularly some of the characteristics related to popularization of topics through social media. In the area of climate change communication, emotions are regarded as the missing link in research about this topic.

Within online communication of climate change, particularly through social media, images –photographs, graphics and video-, are especially important. Research indicates that images are of great importance to communicate climate change, in a way that promotes citizen engagement in mitigation and adaptation actions.

This research project will analyze some trends of increasing importance to efficiently communicate climate change through social media, with a particular focus on the role of images and users’ emotions. We start from the hypothesis that social media can play a very relevant role to communicate climate change, in a way that overcomes some of the traditional limitations of traditional media, thus facilitating citizen engagement and action to address climate change.

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Do Experiences with Extreme Weather Change Beliefs about Climate Change? Perhaps, if Your Neighbors are Harmed

Photo above: Residents embrace near a washed-out home in Jamestown, Colo. on Sept. 14, 2013. Flooding hit the mountain community hard, and residents were trapped for days with no road into or out of town. Photo: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post.

by Deserai Crow
CSTPR Faculty Affiliate and Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs, CU Denver

Elizabeth Albright, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

Leaving catastrophic damage in their path, flood damages and recovery costs across the U.S. tally in the billions annually, a cost-estimate that is likely increasing over time according to a 2008 study (Brody et al. 2008). Colorado’s catastrophic 2013 floods were one such example. The floods caused billions of dollars in damage to Colorado communities, homes and businesses, and regional infrastructure.

As the climate changes, scientists warn that increasingly intense and damaging weather events will become more frequent (Coumou and Rahmstorf 2012; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007; Karl et al. 2009). To make matters worse, households are increasingly relocating to flood-prone areas. Our work over the past 5 years has tried to understand if, how, and under what conditions individuals and communities can learn from, adapt to, and become more resilient to these climate-driven disasters.

One of the important questions we sought to answer is whether those who directly experience damage from extreme climatic events – such as disastrous flooding – change their beliefs about the causes of flooding. Our research allows us to understand whether experiencing an extreme flood event changes someone’s beliefs about climate change and the role climate change may play in extreme flood events.

Sudden, extreme climatic events, particularly those that cause extensive damage, often garner increased public attention to issues surrounding climate change, at least immediately after the disaster. Directly experiencing extreme weather events may shape individuals’ beliefs about the seriousness of climate change, even if the science linking global climate change to specific localized weather events is complex and uncertain (Egan and Mullin 2012; Konisky et al. 2015; Sisco et al. 2017; Spence et al. 2011).

Understanding these links is critical, in part because beliefs about climate change may influence public support for policies aimed at addressing issues related to climate adaption and resilience. In local governments, we increasingly see action to mitigate and manage risks, including conversations about building resilience (Albright and Crow 2015; Brody et al. 2008; Godschalk et al. 2003).

In our forthcoming paper, we examined how 903 residents in six flood-affected Colorado communities perceive the seriousness of climate change and its potential link with the floods. We specifically examine (1) the proximity and severity of flood damage to residents, focused on household, neighborhood, and/or community levels, (2) how flood damage experience may affect climate change beliefs, and (3) how demographic variables, political affiliation, and beliefs about climate change may impact perception of future risks.

The findings from our study indicate that experiencing a flood does have an effect on climate change beliefs. Direct experience with a flood causing household damage is not significantly associated with climate change beliefs several years after the flood, however. Rather, it is the perception of neighborhood and community damage that is related to a greater belief in climate change and its links to the floods and future flood risks. This connection between more communal measures of flood damage and belief change is surprising and an area we intend to explore further. It also gives some element of hope in an era where we hear daily about self-interested decision-making to know that concern for community may be a motivating factor in belief changes after a disaster.

Visit the research team’s website at for a full report and publications.

The findings described here will soon be published in the journal Climatic Change under the title “Beliefs about Climate Change in the Aftermath of Extreme Flooding”. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Albright E.A. and Crow D.A. (2015). Learning processes, public and stakeholder engagement: Analyzing responses to Colorado’s extreme flood events of 2013. Urban Clim 14:79–93.

Brody, S.D., Zahran, S., Vedlitz, A., and Grover, H. (2008). Examining the relationship between physical vulnerability and public perceptions of global climate change in the United States. Environ Behav 40(1): 72-95.

Coumou, D., and Rahmstorf, S. (2012). A decade of weather extremes. Nat Clim Chang 2: 491–496.

Egan, P.J. and Mullin, M. (2012). Turning personal experience into political attitudes: The effect of local weather on Americans’ perceptions about global warming. J Politics 74(3): 796-809.

Godschalk, D.R., Brody, S., and Burby, R. (2003). Public participation in natural hazard mitigation policy formation: challenges for comprehensive planning. J Environ Plan Manage 46(5): 733-754.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007). Climate change 2007: Synthesis report (Eds. Pachauri, RK, Reisinger, A). Cambridge Univ. Press.

Karl, T.R., Melillo, J.M., and Peterson, T.C. (2009). Global climate change impacts in the United States Cambridge Univ Press.

Konisky, D.M., Hughes, L., and Kaylor, C.H. (2015). Extreme weather events and climate change concern. Clim Chang 134(4):533-547.

Sisco, M.R., Bosetti, V., and Weber, E.U. (2017). When do extreme weather events generate attention to climate change? Clim Chang 143(1-2): 227-241.

Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C., and Pidgeon, N. (2011). Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experience. Nat Clim Chang1(April): 46–49.

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Former Fulbright Scholar, Anna Kukkonen, Earns her PhD

In 2018, Anna Kukkonen (second from the left in the picture above) was part of CSTPR as a visiting Fulbright Scholar from the University of Helsinki, Finland. She recently defended her thesis entitled “Discourse Networks and Justifications of Climate Change Policy. News Media Debates in Canada, the United States, Finland, France, Brazil, and India”. Professor Tanya Heikkila from UC Denver served as an opponent in the defense. A post-doctoral party called “Karonkka”, an old Finnish academic tradition, was held at a local restaurant in the honour of the opponent Heikkila.

Congratulations Anna!

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