Faculty Focus: Arlene Birt on Climate Science Communications

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In the past few weeks, I’ve been transported from one distinct sector of sustainability communications to another -from the rural Midwest U.S. to the heart of Europe- with the support of a 2017 MASD Faculty Travel Grant.

Presenting to climate scientists in Europe at the Copernicus Climate Change Service general assembly (C3S), and to organic farmers at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference (MOSES). Here’s a brief look at some sustainability communication challenges of each sector.

Climate Science in Europe

At 18 months old, C3S is a relatively new endeavor of the European Commission. It is a complex set of systems that collect data from multiple sources: earth observation satellites and in situ sensors such as ground stations, airborne and sea-borne sensors. This program provides a comprehensive variety of data to decision makers, businesses and citizens free and reliable about how our planet and its climate are changing.

At the general assembly, held in Toulouse, France, my role was to discuss strategies for the communication of climate information.

I approached this topic from the visual angle:

  • Connecting with people’s everyday
  • Humans think in stories
  • Visuals communicate pattern & context
  • Info alone is not enough (i.e. ‘Post Truth’)
  • Stories connect to emotions
  • The psychology of community
  • Examples: Climate/Environment-specific visual stories
  • Tips: Creating a good visual story

Discussion focused on ‘what is the role of the scientist in communicating data? Scientists have been trained to provide objective data – and specifically to NOT interpret it. The very idea of communicating their “objective” research in a subjective way is counter-intuitive for most scientists.

In order help audiences grasp the very complex data in climate science, we have to do both: produce solid research about climate and provide entry points into the information. This can be done through a variety of methods. Visual stories are some of the most promising methods to reach audiences and help people connect with these complex concepts.

I was honored to be presenting in the same session as Chris Rapley, scientist, author and science communicator. Chris Rapley made a point that even in science there are people behind the data, so therefore nothing is truly as objective as we might like to think.

For me this experience at C3S was an excellent insight into science communications.

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Midwest U.S. Organic Farming

At MOSES – held in La Crosse, Wisconsin – I lead a round table on ‘Tracking & Explaining Farm Sustainability’ to help farmers show their farm story. We discussed how techniques for farm sustainability vary across region, crop and the history and characteristics of each farm: and the need for these individual details to become visible in marketing & communications. We focused on the value of making farm stories visual, and ‘how to’ make it visual – stick figures included. Participants sketched out their own farm stories.

At the conference, I also learned about the challenges for organic farmers, the data used in farming, and heard some great case studies about how converting to organic actually brought formerly conventional farmers out of debt.

I’ve never seen so many farmers together in one place! I learned a lot during a discussion on the tension between organic being perceived as ‘residue-free’ vs. organic being a system of agriculture that is about being good to the soil.

I also learned about the power of lentils in crop rotation – and an inspiring story about the entrepreneurial spirit of farmer in Montana coming together to form their own distribution company when they were unable to find existing distributors willing to buy their lentils.

The Challenges of Communicating Sustainability

These conferences were in vastly different industries and at different parts of the globe, and there were a lot of similarities.

As communicators, we have to get better about communicating this important information in a way that our audiences – from policymakers, stakeholders, businesses, consumers and citizens – can engage with. Because if people can’t grasp the information, they default to ‘Business as Usual’: they ignore the information.

Most importantly, these conferences wrapped up leaving me with a positive feeling of energy for the future of sustainability communication, and that –in spite of many anti-sustainability agendas visible in the upper rungs of global politics today, the world is (and must) transition toward a more sustainable future.

Arlene Birt (MASD adjunct faculty) was the recipient of a 2017 MASD Faculty Travel Grant which supported her travel to this conference.

Images of Arlene Birt at the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) general assembly in Toulouse, France, and at the Mid-West Organic Farming Conference (MOSES) in La Crosse, Wisconsin, are courtesy of Arlene Birt

Arlene Birt

Arlene Birt is an infodesigner, visual storyteller, public artist and educator. 

Founder and visual storyteller at Background Stories—an information design consultancy that works with organizations in the US, EU and UK—Arlene’s work translates complex ideas, systems and metrics into clear visuals that help people understand sustainability.

Her work on sustainability communication has resulted in several grants—including a Fulbright grant, invitations to present internationally and has been featured in numerous publications.

An alum of MCAD’s ES program, Arlene holds a Masters in Design from The Netherlands and has been teaching in MCAD’s Sustainable Design program since 2008. Following a 5+ year stint in Brussels, she is currently faculty in the ES program.

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