UCLA’s Jon Christensen on the theory and practice of climate change communication

By John Mecklin | July 27, 2017

To call Jon Christensen multifaceted overstretches the prefix multi-. He is an adjunct assistant professor in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (or IoES), the Department of History, and the Center for Digital Humanities. At the IoES, he is also a journalist-in-residence, a founder of the institute’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies, and editor of its LENS Magazine. In addition, he is a senior fellow at UCLA’s cityLAB, a think tank within the university’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and a partner and strategic adviser at Stamen Design, which recently won the 2017 National Design Award for interactive design from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

A longtime environmental journalist and science writer—his work has appeared in the New York Times, Nature, and many other prominent print, online, and broadcast outlets—Christensen was the executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University before moving to UCLA. In a recent conversation with Bulletin editor in chief John Mecklin, Christensen discussed his communications-related role in a recent report from 50 researchers and scholars in the University of California system, “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report argues that lessons learned from the UC system’s own efforts to go carbon-neutral by 2025 can serve as at least a partial roadmap for the world’s attempts to deal with climate change.

Christensen was a senior editor for “Bending the Curve” and since its publication has been involved in coordinating a partnership between UC and the heavily trafficked Vox website, which, by its own account, “explains the news” and is aimed primarily (though not entirely) at millennials. The partnership produced an innovative series of videos, “Climate Lab,” that aim to put some of the communications lessons from University of California research to practical use in communicating about climate change. The six videos “star” conservation scientist and UCLA visiting researcher M. Sanjayan—an engaging personality whose television experience ranges from PBS, BBC, and National Geographic documentaries to appearances on The Today Show and The Late Show with David Letterman—and explore “surprising ways to change how we think and act about climate change.” The videos have received more than five million views.

John Mecklin: Let’s start off with what I think is an interesting concept—you being a journalist-in-residence at an academic research center. I just wondered if you’d talk a little bit about how that came to be, and how you think it’s going.

Jon Christensen: Well, I’ve never been able to get the ink and now electrons of journalism out of my veins, so I continue to see myself as a journalist, despite having now been, for about 15 years late in life, in academia, first at Stanford and now at UCLA. I came back to academia through the Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, then stuck around to work on a PhD and then ran the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford. We really saw that one of the crucial parts of our mission—in my view and in the view of others there—was to figure out ways that journalists and academics could collaborate effectively to raise the level of public discourse and public understanding about the important issues of our times. And that’s what I still see as a vital part of my own interest and mission: to be able to bring the resources of our great universities to journalists, which includes opportunities to do in-depth research, to spend the time that journalists often don’t have. But also to bring the great storytelling and communications resources of journalism to the scholars and researchers at the university, to really communicate with important audiences.

Famously, our terms for each other are sometimes pejorative, in that academics say a work is too journalistic, or journalists say a work is too academic. But I think we have fundamentally the same values, and in many cases, the same methods: What I (and others) call the practices of objectivity: of being transparent about our sources, so people can trace our work; being fair, so when you represent an argument, the person who you’re arguing with would recognize themselves and say, “Yes, that’s a fair portrait of my argument, even though we disagree”; never ignoring evidence that troubles or contradicts your argument. If you find that evidence, you have to deal with it. You can’t pretend that you didn’t see it.

I’ve come to understand in the last 15 years of working both sides of this that we’re, in many ways, engaged in the same bigger project, and so there are great opportunities for journalists and academic experts to collaborate for our mutual benefit.

Mecklin: I find it interesting that you’ve managed to hit on such a multi-disciplinary way of operating at UCLA. Is that something that your primary employer, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is focused on, to bring a lot of disciplines together to deal with sustainability?

Christensen: Part of bringing several of us [to UCLA] from Stanford was an effort to widen the circle of disciplines that are brought into researching, thinking about, and working on solutions to environmental sustainability, to include the humanities and the social sciences and, particularly, the culturally inflected social sciences. Most if not all our challenges in environmental sustainability are as much cultural and political and, certainly, economic as they are scientific and technical challenges, and it’s crucial that we bring those disciplines to bear in understanding the problems and engaging with solutions. Then, two years ago, a new director, Peter Kareiva, came to the institute from the Nature Conservancy, where he was the chief scientist. He came in recognizing that communication is crucial to everything that we do, from communicating our research and garnering support for it, to engaging with communities about the real crucial challenges that they face in environmental sustainability. Communication has not been a great strength of science and of scientists. But Peter has really brought a lot of energy and focus to that.

Mecklin: It’s been much bruited about—this idea that climate change is hard to explain, hard to get across to a general audience; for whatever reason, it’s easy to undermine a scientific discussion of climate change in any number of ways. I thought I’d start to get into that, first off, with this recent New York Magazine piece (“The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak—sooner than you think”) about worst possible climate end points.

Christensen: I’ve followed the debate about it, too, and overall, I think it’s terrific. The fact that this is the most viewed article ever in New York magazine is fantastic. Just in terms of getting people to discuss and debate and think about climate change and its potential impacts—even if we’re talking about what is the low-probability, worst-case scenario—those are risks that we need to consider and talk about and think about. I know there are particular problems with the article that have been debated, and there’s even an annotated version of the article now on the New York magazine website that addresses some of those critiques, makes some corrections. I think this is a great model for how the debates and discussion should happen.

It was interesting that a lot of scientists came out immediately and said that gloom and doom doesn’t work; this is a bad message, it’s not effective, it turns people off. I was surprised by the overwhelming response from scientists on that, because scientists have been using gloom and doom messages for the last 20, 30 years. But now there seems to have been this big shift in the perception of the efficacy of those messages. I was actually quite surprised by how they’ve come around, almost en masse now, to that point of view.

In some ways gloom-and-doom, apocalyptic messages are not particularly effective. They can be disempowering. They can turn people off. They can present climate change as this big thing that can’t be solved and isn’t being solved. As one scientist several years ago was quoted as saying, “If we really want to solve climate change, we need a time machine.” You know, it should have been done yesterday. Which leads many to think: “OK, if we can’t do anything about it, then we’ve all got other things that we should worry about.”

What changed my thinking about this was watching how effectively Jerry Brown, the governor of California, since his reelection, has used apocalyptic discourse in a way that I think is genius. He continues to talk about climate change as an existential threat to humanity and to our civilization and way of life. Jerry Brown is mobilizing apocalyptic thinking to say, “We need to do something now so that we don’t become the past of this future that we don’t want to see happen.”

The real genius is the next move that he made, which was to connect [climate change] to things that we see around us, which are controversial in scientific fields. Big wildfires in California, the drought that we were going through—he tied those to climate change. Then he asked people—indeed used the bully pulpit of the governor’s office—to demand that people do something about it, that they conserve water. And people all over California stepped up and cities throughout California reduced their water consumption by 20 percent. That’s where I think the real genius is, is in connecting that big existential threat to actions that people can take individually and collectively. I think when you put those two things together, that you can have very, very effective communication. But I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition here: We need a diversity of communication strategies.

Mecklin: This may be reductive, but things either work or they don’t. Maybe sometimes talking about climate change in a not-very-compelling way as a doom situation, we’re all facing doom, might be counter-productive. And somebody who knows how to handle the material might be able to get a really heated, “Let’s do something about this” kind of reaction. Which I’ve seen obviously with the Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock, where tens of millions of people every year sign on to read about that. It’s not like, “Well, it can’t work.”

Christensen: It’s so interesting that, in Jerry Brown’s mind—and he’s a person who has read deeply and thought about this philosophically—those two things are connected. Making people aware of the existential threat of nuclear weapons is his other top priority, and using that existential threat to mobilize action to do things to contain that risk and that threat. I wrote an essay several years ago about Jerry Brown’s approach and called it “The California Way: Sunny with a Chance of Apocalypse.” For me, that has become kind of a meme that captures this: We have to keep in mind the big risk, but we need to also give people pathways forward.

Mecklin: Part of it is knowing how to connect with ordinary folks, which I guess leads me to my segue: Can you tell us about the Vox video series on climate change that the University of California has embarked on?

Christensen: The Vox series grew out of a report by 50 researchers from around the University of California. It’s called “Bending the Curve: 10 Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” I was a senior editor on the whole report. Right before the Paris climate conference, it presented what has been California’s pathway to reducing emissions, in the context of the University of California’s commitment to be carbon-neutrality by 2025 and really presenting a pragmatic path forward.

One of the key elements of that commitment is communication, which was a chapter [of the report] that I worked on. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego] had asked to me to work on it to be sure that we really crafted something that would be used by Jerry Brown and [University of California president] Janet Napolitano and the Vatican. In the aftermath of Paris, we started really thinking about broadening the communication efforts using what we had learned through the research on climate communications. We know a lot about what doesn’t work. We don’t know so much about what works, although you can draw some really interesting guidelines, I think, from the existing research literature.

I went to the UC Office of the President, and they had previously collaborated with Mark Bittman—the food writer for the New York Times—on a series about food and food systems. It had been quite successful. I said, “What if we do a series on climate?” building on this massive effort that UC researchers have put in and that’s very much supported by Janet Napolitano. They liked the idea; obviously we weren’t going to make a video of this report, but to use what we had learned to experiment with communicating in new ways.

The literature on climate communications [shows that] if you present climate change as this big abstract unsolvable thing that affects people elsewhere but not you, it’s not very engaging. The other thing that we’ve learned is that facts are not enough. That’s not to say that facts are not important; they are. But you can try to pump as many facts as you want into people’s minds, and it won’t necessarily change their opinions, let alone motivate action. Why is that? It’s because frames, narratives, and values matter. People easily incorporate new facts into their existing frames, the ways they see the world; their narratives, the stories they tell about themselves and the world; and their values, their beliefs about right and wrong, and what matters to them. And we’re pretty good at simply ignoring facts that don’t fit our existing frames, narratives, and values.

The other part is you really need to know your audience. I think of the great research out of Yale on the six Americas. We often focus on one of those [six] audiences, the dismissive, who are sometimes called deniers of climate change. Then we have the “alarmed,” the people who are really concerned about the threat of climate change. But in between those are 74 percent of Americans who are in some ways potentially movable, persuadable, even the doubtful audience, I would say, because doubt is also part of science. There’s intriguing evidence that bringing people into the story of science and stimulating their curiosity works better at moving people to accept scientific findings than just presenting them with the findings. So bringing people into the uncertainties, which sometimes makes scientists uncomfortable, might actually be a good strategy. And that can be captured by the meme, “Numbers numb and stories stick.”

The other thing we know is that messengers matter. Doctors and scientists are trusted more than journalists and politicians. Religious leaders are trusted by their flocks. People trust people who share their frames, narratives, and values. This can contribute to the echo chambers that we tend to live in, but it’s a fact of life that anyone interested in communication really needs to understand.

Then the final thing I would say is that there’s some really interesting literature about spillover effects. One of the concerning findings of climate communication research is that people can easily convince themselves that they’ve done enough, such as recycling, and they don’t have to do more—such as supporting a carbon tax or something like that. This is a negative spillover effect: “I’m already doing enough, don’t ask me to do more, particularly if it involves paying a tax.” Positive spillover effects can happen too, especially when people incorporate actions into their identities and think something like, “I’m the kind of person who drives a hybrid and believes we need to take collective action too. I’m going to vote to support policies that decrease emissions, and increase the cost of carbon.” We want to create positive instead of negative spillover effects.

I wanted to try to use all of those lessons while working with the creative team in the UC Office of the President and find an approachable, fun, humorous, trusted messenger. That’s what we found in M. Sanjayan—he was the chief scientist, now the CEO of Conservation International, and he has done TV before. He was eager to try something new.

I started to see what we did in creating these six videos as an experiment. And I’ve now been looking at the numbers and the responses and see that, even there, some of them work better than others. What is interesting to me is that I think the ones that had the highest number of views, as well as the highest level of engagement, were stories that connected the individual actions that people can take to the bigger picture and the need for collective action. That reinforced some of the lessons that we can take from the literature.

Mecklin: At least the preliminary results sort of backed up what you already were thinking about how to communicate in regard to climate change?

Christensen: Yeah. We need to do a lot more, and there needs to be a diversity of strategies. But it was gratifying to see that we can now take some guidance from the literature about what can work, about what hasn’t worked as well, and some intriguing evidence about what might work better. Among the pieces that really worked was the first one, about how we’re not really very good about thinking about climate change, because of some of the reason we’ve talked about—seeing climate change as a big, distant abstract concept. But we can be nudged to think and do something about climate, like the grad students conserving energy in their apartments after being motivated by different kinds of messages, particularly environmental messages, environment and health messages, even more than cost. And they, like all people, like to compete, to be better than others. This episode connected the individual to a larger collective story. Other episodes that did that, too, were about how we can reduce consumer waste individually and collectively through things like bag bans, and then simple solutions that can lead to big reductions in food waste. Those were the most popular and the most engaging of the videos.

Of the couple that did not do quite as well … one was about cell phones and how many of us have this drawer full of old cell phones that we don’t know what to do with, but there are potential solutions for creating kind of cell phones with interchangeable parts that would last longer, and that could evolve. That, and an episode about new forms of nuclear power, new technologies that might be an important part of the energy mix, you know the decarbonized energy mix in the future, were both kind of geeky, techy stories. I think they were interesting, and they did well, but they didn’t do as well and weren’t as engaging as the others.

The one that did least well was one of my favorites, really. I had advocated for a story about messengers, and how it’s important to have different messengers, whether it’s the Pope or a Tea Party member, who are convinced that climate change is something serious that we need to deal with. I realize now—this is looking back and interpreting—that it was partly because it was, I think, really kind of meta: It was a story about telling stories.

I think it was interesting that in these six episodes—it was a small sample—we had a sort of test or experiment and saw some of the things that according to the research can really engage people. What we want to do now is to use those lessons going forward and continue to experiment.

Mecklin: That would be really useful because, where I sit, I’ve probably come across at least a dozen very seemingly authoritative explanations for the right way to communicate climate change. There are endless numbers of people who claim, “Well the reason it hasn’t really caught on is because it’s being handled in X way. That’s the wrong way. Here are the right ways.” But there’s very seldom any backup, any data, anything that says in even a quasi-research oriented way, “Well, this is why it would be better to communicate in this way.” To circle back to one of the places we started, on that article in New York magazine, all the scientists came out right away and said, essentially, “This is horrible. To bring up worst cases like this is going to turn people off.” Then, as you said, it became the most-read article in New York magazine history. So it’s going to be interesting to see the results of the Vox videos. Do you expect to have some sort of “Here’s what we found” kind of document or presentation?

Christensen: I’m working on that now and have done an analysis of the numbers and using the data that we have. Some of it’s pretty straightforward, like how many views did a video get. I’m also creating a kind of index of engagement, of how many of those viewers actually engaged in a conversation, how many of them voted up or down—which I think is interesting and revealing. Then doing a text analysis of the comments—and there were lots and lots of comments on them. In a preliminary look at that, at a kind of high level, doing a sort of distant reading through text analysis, I was surprised and gratified to see that, overall, the comments were substantive and on point. I don’t want to make too much of this. It might be that that’s partly, maybe in no small part, an artifact of Vox, which kind of prides itself on its explainer journalism model, of really giving people the explanations that they need of what’s happening in the news.

When you actually do a close reading of the comments, it’s kind of easy for me to go, “Oh god, these kinds of arguments back and forth”—it echoes what we typically see in comments, which is not the highest level of discourse in the land. But if you read more, you go, “Well, there’s actually a lot of kind of substantive conversation happening here. It’s pretty on point with what’s in the videos.” Sometimes we read comments or we read debates that are happening online about this New York magazine article, for example, and we take the extremes as being indicative of the state of the conversation. Because they stand out, we’re attracted to that. They’re well-defined and polarized and contesting. We often miss this conversation that’s happening in the middle. I’m increasingly convinced that that’s where we really need to focus. Like I said, 74 percent of Americans are in the middle somewhere on climate change. They’re persuadable, they’re movable. They’re diverse, too, so we can’t just think of them as one mass audience.

But that’s where I think there’s a lot to learn, a lot to experiment with, a lot to try. One of the episodes that we’re thinking of doing, the high concept of it is: “We’re all in Paris.” Despite the polarization that we see, and in some cases because of that polarization, that has motivated a lot of people to be, “Hey, we’re in. We’re on board with these goals to get to carbon neutrality this century, hopefully by mid-century,” to contain the greatest risks. Whether it’s individually, in our companies and corporations, in our cities or our states, that we’re all in one way, in some ways or others, on this path, despite the polarization that’s happening and that often dominates the conversations.

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