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On the Organisation of Climate Change Outreach Events

I am Sarah Mercer, a Research Masters student in Geography and Archaeology at Durham University, UK. I have been lucky enough to have worked with USAPECS Board Member Mariama Dryak on an event in 2017 titled Changes in the Arctic, a climate change outreach event at Durham University. This directly led to me organising the event that I am running this year entitled Footprint. Footprint is a two day event, aiming to bring people from all walks of life together to talk about environmental protection and climate change communication.

My own interest lies in the communication of climate science, so that is what I will focus on in this article. In my own experience, I get the feeling that climate change communication is often extremist, problem loaded and overwhelmingly negative, with ideas such as “it’s too late” or “we can't do enough” thrown around more often than not. While I understand this comes from a desire to highlight the importance of climate change, I believe the common ‘Doomsday’ rhetoric is damaging to our attitudes towards climate change, and fosters an attitude of willful ignorance and laissez-faire. Per Espen Stoknes states that “If you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt, and this makes people more passive”. Being faced with an ‘insurmountable problem’ causes people to become disheartened, disengaged and disinterested. However, this is not the only way climate change, and indeed other scientific issues, have to be talked about.

If we are thinking about effective science communication, one might consider two things. One, for the audience to understand the science and two, for the audience to care enough to take personal action. There is no point communicating a scientific discovery/solution if it will go no further than the lecture hall in which you present. While many people do still deny climate change, there is a widespread understanding that it is happening, and that anthropogenic factors are contributing to the issue. However, where climate change communication breaks down is in the second aim: getting the audience to care.

Although I am no expert in climate change communication, I do believe there is no one solution to the communication issue. Scientific communication has to be tailored to your audience. Just as you wouldn’t give the same speech about your research to your research fellows as a presentation at a local primary school, we cannot use the same techniques when attempting to communicate science with the entire global population. Where a fiery speech might inspire one person to take action, a more intimate personal conversation might be more effective for another. Different people need different communication techniques. However, I do think a running theme across all of scientific communication is that we need to move from focusing on communicating just the problems, to what we can do about them.

My aim with this climate change outreach event, Footprint, is to put these ideas into action. By encouraging a more positive conversation about climate change, and by focusing on solutions for smaller problems within the wider issue, I am aiming to foster attitudes of hope, passion, and a feeling that something can be achieved within those that attend. To do this we are bringing in a range of speakers introducing various perspectives on varied climate change related matters including: the legalities of climate change, diet, social enterprising, politics, economy, urban ecology, community gardening, carbon literacy, campaign planning, zero waste, nature in education, green energy, faith and climate, carbon conversations, art and the environment, creative writing, music and the cultural dimensions of ecological crisis. By offering a vast range of topics, we aim to engage people from many different backgrounds and with many different interests. We are also experimenting with communication format. Rather than running two full days of talks, we are providing a variety of mediums through which to communicate. For example, the event will include not only talks, but also workshops, hands on activities, crafting sessions, planting sessions, musical performances, culture and art exhibitions, one on one conversations, and formal as well as informal discussion sessions. While this is not an exhaustive list of formats that could be included, we are hoping that everyone in attendance will find one or two formats that work for them. And if an attendee does not find a technique that works for them, then the discussion sessions will allow that person to think about what communication techniques would work for them, and invite thoughts about that.

I also want to discuss the limitations of using an environmental event to communicate science. Firstly, you are likely to only attract people who are already somewhat interested in climate change and have the means to travel to the event. While I feel Footprint will provide them with a platform from which to develop their interest, there is always the risk that you are preaching to the converted. Secondly, putting on such an event is expensive. Without funding from the university and local council, this event would not be possible on the same scale. Thirdly, it is a one-time event, which limits its reach temporally. Will it realistically have any impact after people leave?

In attempt to address this question to the affirmative, I aim to develop a community from Footprint through the creation of the Activism Forum. This Activism Forum will be a place at the end of the two days for the attendees to come together and work on ideas developed throughout the event with the help of the speakers who have been present at the event. The overall aim of the forum is to have action plans put in place before people leave, therefore inspiring people to continue the work they have begun at the event. These include ideas such as wildflower planting throughout Durham, campaigning for disposable cups not to be sold at University, and planning a community garden amongst many other. Though an event such as this does have limitations, I am optimistic and hopeful about the impact that Footprint, and similar events, will have.

The organisation of Footprint was inspired by having the desire to find out more about what I personally can do to reduce my environmental footprint, and has transformed into an opportunity to share such ideas with others. It is aimed at discovering how we as individuals and communities can communicate climate change information more effectively and facilitating learning about climate footprint reduction amongst the event attendees. Organising this event has been an amazing and challenging new experience for me. Negotiating the rough terrain of funding applications, attracting speakers, arranging venues, and recruiting volunteers and participants, has concreted in my mind that with determination, time and a little help from friends, climate change communication is not exclusively the realm of experts or professionals but is something that anyone who wants to make a difference in this area can think about doing.

That being said, if you are thinking about organising your own event, here are my top tips:

  1. Do everything earlier than you think, particularly venue booking

  2. Be brave. Pen Hadow has been kind enough to come and speak at Footprint, but only because I bucked up the courage to introduce myself and ask him to speak for us at another conference he was attending.

  3. Keep pushing. If you know you really want something, don’t give up on it. Be realistic, but don’t let other people (and they will) push their opinions onto you until your event becomes something you don’t recognise.

  4. Think. I am impulsive, which can be useful at times, but when balanced with more thoughtfulness it results in a more cohesive event.

  5. HAVE FUN. I have met and talked with some of the most incredible people, I have worked with the most passionate and invested students, I have seen that my university and my city has so much to offer, and it has made me feel inspired and thrilled to be doing what I am doing. Don’t let the boring logistics get you down – remember why you wanted to organise the event in the first place, and throw yourself into it.

Thank you so much for reading this article, and I really hope that if you have an idea for scientific outreach event, about which you are passionate, this has inspired you to put plans into action. I would whole-heartedly recommend it – organising Footprint and Changes in the Arctic have been the best things that I have done at university. I plan to write another article following Footprint with updates on how the event goes on the day, so keep an eye out for that in the future.

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