Session Transcripts

A live transcription team captured the SRCCON sessions that were most conducive to a written record—about half the sessions, in all.

Making climate change personal

Session facilitator(s): Simon Jockers, Cathy Deng

Day & Time: Friday, 2:30-3:45pm

Room: Ski-U-Mah

CATHY: Hi, everyone, are you ready to get started? I’m Cathy. I’m currently at the BuzzFeed Open Lab.

SIMON: I’m Simon, I’m working with a nonprofit based in Berlin. Today, we would like to figure out together with you how we can make planet change personal.

Before we start with a small and fun group activity, I would like to talk a bit about what climate change is on a personal level or can be on a personal level and, like, when we look at this picture here, this is a picture of permafrost dissolving; right? So this is, like, one of the things that planet change reporting is about. This is not actually something I can personally relate to, and I guess it’s the same for you. I’ve never seen this for real. It does look interesting and kind of scary, but it’s not something that touches me on a personal level.

But I have a personal thing to show you, and that is – this also looks kind of scary, but it isn’t; right? This is a historic tunnel in Berlin. It connects eastern and western Berlin. About twice a day, I pass this tunnel on my bike. So this is my way home and my way to work, and it usually looks like this. But about a year ago, last year in July, it looked like this.

So for a day or so, there was so heavy rain that the tunnel just completely drowned, and this is something that had never happened before. So this is like this one in a century event; right? That happens so there’s heavy rain, so there’s flooding. Just that about a year later, four weeks ago, it just happened again; right? So this is, again, Berlin completely drowned. And for the past couple of weeks since, there are has been a lot of rain in Berlin or in eastern Germany or in northern Germany as well.

And this, for example, is a picture of the few that was supposed to grow vegetables. So this is a farm that drowned, so, no, vegetables this year.

This stuff is actually very hard to pin on climate change; right? Because this is extreme weather event. This is stuff that happens. And, yeah, can I say, this is because of climate change? Probably not; right? But can you say because of climate change there will be much more extreme weather events? I’m pretty sure. Yeah.

And this is just, like, first world problems; right? So I can’t go through my tunnel on my way to work, and I won’t get vegetables from my farm. I guess I have to go to the supermarket; right? But elsewhere in the world, there’s also extreme weather and, like, this is where you have a completely different situation.

So a couple weeks ago, this went through the media. So apparently scientists can actually pin historic drought that we had in the eastern Mediterranean to climate change.

So this is something that is actually happening, and this is also something that plays a big role in international conflict, and this is usually not reported that way.

So a big part of the crisis if we see now in Syria has actually to do with affected people don’t have food; right? So it’s not just ISIS or terrorism, it’s the fact that the climate’s changing.

And here’s another small thing that I’m working on right now. So this is, like, work of progress thing. And what you see here is tides. So that’s mean sea levels and how they have changed over the past 30 years. And interesting aspect this year. So the red is rising sea levels and the blue ones is actually falling sea levels.

So what you see here is that, like, here in the U.S. on the east coast and on the west coast, you mostly have rising sea levels, or you’ve had rising sea levels over the past 30 years. Same goes for Europe, parts of Asia. And then you have parts in the north where you actually have rising land. And this is because glaciers are melting. Because glaciers are melting, the land is actually rising and the sea level goes down. Not the whole world is affected by climate change the same way. It’s a different experience for people around the world.

And you also see another very interesting effect of this. We have hardly any data, which is also part of the issue. People in South America and people in Africa are heavily affected by climate change. But when you look at the tide data, this is basically a map of global trade. It’s not a map of the world. It’s a map of capitalism, which is also interesting part of the problem.

So you see here when we talk about climate change and the effects of climate change, this means a lot of different things to different people. And this is something that is I think not really present in the way we cover climate change. I’m not sure if someone is actively covering climate change. Is someone working with climate change or has worked with climate change data before?

A bit? Yeah. Same here. So by far I’m not an expert for climate change. I think the same goes for you; right? This is just a topic I’m interested in and something I’ve recently started working with. And I think that will be the perfect setting for this session because we’ll try to figure out what climate change means for people. And then try to come up with ideas on how to cover that.

So we’ll start with a small session. I think –

CATHY: So we’re going to do a climate change mixer exercise on your table. So this is an exercise meant for kids, children, but we thought it would still be useful to do. So how it works is everyone – every single sheet of paper is, like, a different type of role and different type of person. And you kind of think about – you pretend to be that person. One thing that would be helpful to do is if you take a sticky note and just, like, cover your name badge with, like, your person’s name and their title, and then we can – I’ll give you a second to read over your persona, and then we can go over the activity.

SIMON: We have successfully formed two groups now. Probably make sense for you for now for talking and mingling, just move to the back. Whereas you guys just move to the front. And this is basically a role-playing game; right? So you are assuming the role here, and I would just explain the preparation, so it’s here on the sheet of paper. What you basically do is read the role carefully. A couple of roles are very easy. A couple of roles are a bit more complicated contextually.

If you think you are having problems memorizing, that probably makes sense. Just underline a couple of lines of text here. Because for the next 20 minutes, people will ask you stuff about you.

And then your task is basically – your tasks are written on the bottom here. You have about I think 15, 20 minutes to basically follow through that, talk to a couple of people and learn about them. It’s not super important that you just, like, check off every single of the questions; right? It’s more important to actually get a feeling for that. So this is basically something that should guide you through that.

Should we break character when we are asking the characters? Or should we not –

SIMON: That is a very interesting question.

Because my character would not and any of these questions.

SIMON: I think you can assume for asking questions, you can assume that you are reporting, which is probably something that is easier for you guys.

For the sake of actually answering to an interview, it makes sense if you actually assume this role; right? This is your name, this is you. So you’re not talking about a third person.

CATHY: All right. Go for it.

All right. Two more minutes, everyone.

All right. Everyone, want to sit down again?

Now you can return to your old selves.

I like being Sarah Palin.

CATHY: So, yeah, during the session, we also want to get some kind of productive ideas out of it. And the purpose of this exercise is to kind of one, get you to, like, take off your journalist hat and think about things from the perspective of, like, a person encountering information and reading stuff.

Another intention of this exercise is to get you to just recognize that there are a bunch of different perspectives and a bunch of different people and a bunch of different situations.

So, yeah, we’re going to take some time to brainstorm ideas. And I’m going to go over a couple things that you can address in your brainstorms.

So there are a bunch of challenges that are kind of unique to global warming. One is that debunking is very tricky, like, especially as journalists as much as we would love to believe that people just work on facts and just have this perfect model of facts in their brain, like, that’s just not how brains work. Like, if people have – people have fake information and then somebody updates it with new information, like, oh, that’s actually false, like, that false idea doesn’t just go away. Like, that’s remarkably persistent.

And then also sometimes repeating falsehoods will just make them stronger, so you can’t just be, like, “Hey, that thing is false.” You need to kind of provide an alternate explanation.

And then another thing that’s tricky is peoples brains aren’t always perfect at processing data and numbers. And also a lot of research is hidden away in papers and really difficult to get to.

One example of a project that I really liked and that was really creative recently was somebody made a climate change coloring book. It’s a Kickstarter project, if you Google climate change coloring book, and it’s, like, you can color in, like, maps of stuff. And that’s kind of, like, a different way to experience data because it’s, like, that’s a slow activity, you know? Like, you get to absorb it, and you get to take in each bit of data.

So I thought that was, like, a really creative way to kind of get around at this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that often the messenger matters as much as the message. You can’t just spew information at people. If people fundamentally don’t trust you and don’t think you have their interest at heart, you know, that can really backfire. Like, that can make people double down on their existing beliefs, or it can have the effect where they know this is, like, the other side, and they’re, like, more likely to reject the information.

And then another thing is that climate change isn’t really great for, like, news articles because it’s not something – it’s not like the Trump administration where something is happening all the time, and there’s a new news item. Climate change is happening slowly. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s still really important, but it just doesn’t really fit news articles.

So, yeah, it would be great if you take some time with your groups. Maybe we should break each of these tables into two groups, actually.

SIMON: Or maybe even three; right?

CATHY: Yeah. Let’s break the tables into three groups, so you can disburse and go over to different tables over there. And one, I would like you to kind of take, like, a quick minute to reflect on things that arose while you were talking with people. And then, yeah, think of new ideas – like new ways of presenting information or new types of projects that can maybe address some of these challenges and also address, you know, the impersonal nature of a lot of climate change reporting.

Sounds good? Any questions?

SIMON: So you have about –

CATHY: Oh, yeah, and you’ll have about 15 minutes to do this.

SIMON: Okay.

We will supply you with a big – with one of these giant Post-Its, so you may if you figure something out, you may draw it here. We will do that while you form groups and set stuff.

What was the main question you wanted us to talk about?

CATHY: Just, like, new ways of presenting information that address these. Because if you just have news articles, news articles will have all of these problems.

SIMON: So it may address one of the points.

CATHY: Or if you have multiple ideas, that’s great too. You can work on one idea or more.

SIMON: Okay. Folks. Friends, so we’ve got five minutes left. Sorry for interrupting. So you maybe should start thinking about what it is you want to present later to people. And we have this giant paper post it thing here. I’ve already started to distributing those. So I give each group one or a couple of those, and you will see if there’s something that you can actually write down or draw or something.

CATHY: Yeah, you can pick one person to present the idea to the group.

All right. One more minute to wrap up.

All right. Everyone. Time to huddle.

SIMON: We have volunteers for starting.

CATHY: Perfect. Okay.

All right. So we can just go group by group to present your ideas, and you can present multiple ideas if you came up with multiple things. This feels like the great British baking show. Everyone was, like, scrambling at the end. But do you want to start?

Sure. –

SIMON: So you can just use the –

CATHY: Oh, yeah, you can come up here.

So – and our group, please start yelling things. But basically, what we talked about was ways to make stories that are more relatable to people. The main technical annex we came up with was to localize the stories. What does it look like in our town if – when climate change affects some measure of the environment.

And segment. So talking about how more jellyfish in the bay means that surfing is not fun anymore or the traffic is going to get worse because a whole section of town isn’t going to have the same roads.

And also, make it human scale. Like, we were talking about the example in the group activity where it was harder for some people to relate to the story because it was, like, this mass thing. It was a huge problem, which is interesting as, like, a thing that’s written down. But hearing, like, there are 38 families left here. That’s something that you can imagine. You can look at it and be, like, this is what 38 families looks like. So trying to make more relatable stories. And then at that point, it was basically breaking it down into – like the effects of climate instead of just, look, it’s going to be four degrees hotter. Like, oh, I can do it. It’s four degrees hotter into the other room. But breaking it down climate change is an identity story. What happens when there aren’t any Maine lobsters left or it’s a job story. GDP goes down by 15% in Arizona because everything is on fire all the time, what does that look like for jobs?

The economy. What does it look like if there’s higher food prices or higher transportation prices, or it costs more money to maintain public infrastructure.

Just trying to frame things as the effects, rather than just the levers that are getting pulled. Anything else?

CATHY: That’s awesome.

SIMON: Yeah, excellent. Just leave it.

Okay. Who wants to be next? Do you guys want to be next?

Yes. We do.

That’s kind of rude.

[Laughter]

Each of us will take one.

So I was thinking about how in China, which is one of the worst countries affected by climate change, how much work they have done in terms of drastically reversing it. Still, they have to do lots more to do. But just in terms of magnitude, they’ve done a lot more than other countries. And I think part of that is because of the effects of climate change are so present, they’re constantly consumed in smog, they’re breathing this air. If you talk to any Chinese, that’s their biggest concern. Environment, clean air, water, it’s everyone’s obsession to climate scientists to politicians to kids to parents.

So how do you give people an immediate effect of, like, urgency? And one idea we had had was to create this immerse space where it’s kind of like escape the room so that when you get in, it’s filled with smog. Not necessarily toxicity, but you get the facemask and as you escape the room, the water level in the room starts rising, so you feel some sort of urgency. Or alternatively, you can do it in the New York City subway, really spook people, and that will really get them.

We also briefly to kind of talk about that, why can we talk about elections and sports and not the climate? Which led me to – and we were talking about building a dystopian theme park, and I thought about what if you could do a piece kind of like a roller coarse tycoon Waterworld dystopia where, like, the effects of climate change are modeled in the best intention of your user. Build a little farmville farm and then just completely Flood it, set it on fire, all by climate change that people understand that this is the world that they’re inhabiting. Their farmville farms will all be salted.

We do sports productions, we do election predictions, all of that stuff. So why not do five years from now, like, here’s a prediction of what your town or city will look like. Ten years from now. Why not? Because we do it already for everything else.

Imagine your animal crossing characters are, like – and then they’re pulling weeds and then all of a sudden a glacier drowns a turtle. I guess he can swim.

[Laughter]

I have Jewish friends who go on this institution that funds you before you’re 25, and they fly you to Israel and make you kind of experience it, and you come back with all of these cool experiences, meet all of these cool people. And love people love going on it because it’s a free trip to somewhere awesome. Why not have a nonprofit fly people to northern parts of Alaska or Norway or Sweden or wherever else to experience icebergs that are melting or see parts of the landscape that are changing and, like, sell it as a awesome, free trip but also teach them a little bit about climate change and have them feel it by being there?

Carbon facts is just a play on the nutritional facts when you get some food you eat; right? Where your consumer gets, shows you the environmental impact of what you’re buying. So carbon impact and how much minerals would be mined to make your iPhone.

SIMON: That’s actually pretty interesting. I may totally steal that.

I think Google Walmart was involved in something like this, believe it or not, a few years ago where had were going to produce a carbon score for everything in Walmart. I don’t think they did, but there was a lot of talk about it for a while.

Google bought Walmart?

No, you should Google –

[Laughter]

Yeah, remove the Google from that sentence. Just look that up.

Go to the library.

Google Walmart.

SIMON: More volunteers.

CATHY: All right. I’m going to call on this group right here.

We ended up just talking a lot and then didn’t really get to the writing part until the very end.

CATHY: Okay. How about, like, your best three discussion topics.

So I suppose we can break down into we talked first about kind of the idea of showing – I worked on a project a while back that was trying to make climate change personal by showing regions that normally you wouldn’t think would be affected by climate change that were, in fact, affected by climate change based off forecasted weather data in places, like, the Midwest, for example. But instead of bringing it to those people instead of focusing on sea levels rising or things that you would normally associate with climate change.

Another idea that we talked about kind of a little bit more – just the idea of climate change, like, believing in climate changes as a thing of morality. We were trying to think about, like, abortion and people – whether there might be some correlation between people who have, you know, a belief in pro-life and also people who don’t believe in climate change. If there’s a sizable amount of people that overlap there, you could argue that there’s a amount of right to life and climate change. Should people in the body be allowed to thrive that are also be aborted? Use their logic to help them understand. And I think that’s what we were talking about.

There was another one. I can’t – maybe there wasn’t. Oh, yeah. Browser plug in.

All browsers lead to a browser plugin.

I think there was the idea was describing someone’s morality into an interface. You say you believe in these things, these things, and these things. And you read certain articles. And as you’re reading them, you might somehow say how this article fits into your moral view and then try to find maybe contradictions or – I don’t know. Trying to figure out a way to map someone’s moralities where they should actually lie. Something like that.

CATHY: Awesome. All right. Who wants to go next?

So I ended up thinking about a lot of the things. So this is dramatically I called the future of progress because it’s not the greatest artwork. But it was mine.

So essentially we talked a lot about, like, ways climate change are at different angles that might engage people who aren’t normally engaged by it.

So we thought about how modern life is something that people are very much hold near, and how we could attack those subjects that would be extremely disrupted by climate change. And so our covering the stories of people who are in coastal cities who – and how they’re preparing or how they’re trying to prepare for the future of their city was one way to do that.

And then we have, like, a bunch of thoughts around the Phoenix flights that were grounded in June because of the heat wave and how thinking not only about how, like – pointing out, like, hey, this could happen a lot more if the earth gets hotter, and we have heat waves more often. But also thinking of creative ways of how much did that cost the country to have, like, you know, so many, like, flights delayed or grounded or, like, how did flight delays ripple across the country and disrupt the entire flight infrastructure? And then it was for extreme weather events as well. And how could that get worse in the future? But I think there are a lot of stories that fall under this kind of thing of, like, it’s not just that there’s flooding and there’s droughts and there are weather events. But that serious – there are serious consequences for infrastructure and our way of life that we may not be considering. So kind of, like, of the jobs identity I feel like sort of break down.

SIMON: That’s very interesting because Naomi has written this book called dischanges everything. And this has this aspect at the very beginning of the book.

We talked a little bit about that.

Yeah. We talked.

Just throw it up on the wall here.

Short background. I’m living this. I’m Erin. I’m from Miami. I’m actually working on a project that’s all about climate change and the impacts with students at the University of Miami.

So we ended up talking about a lot of the things that we just learned in kind of doing a quick prototype. So one of the things was when we talk to people, we know that there are going to be people who want to deny the term climate change. It has become such a tainted word because of politics and all of that stuff. So one tip that someone actually gave us. They said call it environmental changes. It could mean a lot of things. It could mean climate change. It could mean sea level rise. It could mean evasive species. It’s something that hasn’t been dirtied up yet and people have responded to that. They will reflect on things that they’ve seen.

One of the ways that, like, we came up of the way of personalizing. Born in Florida. Raised in Florida. I’ve lived in Florida. There’s a very good chance I will not be able to die in Florida. Where I live, we will be under water. The university where I work at will be under water. It will cease to exist in probably 100 years. And I cannot think of a place – like currently but where are places where people haven’t been able to go back home or share where they’re from? That’s going to be common. The closest thing I can think of is what happened with Katrina that it just, you know, people were not able to go back home.

How was it that you put it? People don’t like, like, their lives being upended, I think you said.

I think I was talking about the fear of random disaster.

Yeah. Like, fear of random disaster. So one of the things very – well, not popular but an issue in Florida, like, your cost. Your Flood insurance, your hurricane insurance. You know, when the state had eight storms hit in the span of two years, people were getting their hurricane insurance dropped, and you must have it if you own a home there. So what do you do? It throws your kind of world into chaos because now you’re shopping for hurricane insurance. You don’t know if you’re going to be covered. The people might screw you over in the end, and then now you have a house with no roof and trouble.

One thing that I recently learned is that the army core of engineers has gone and reclassified a lot of south Florida. I live 20 miles inland, and I was told I’m in a Flood zone now. There’s – they’re expecting the water table to rise. It’s not just things coming in from the sea.

We talk about focusing on climate refugees. People are not going to be able to live. There are five, 6 million people just in the south Florida area alone. And there was one person off the record who said basically if you have money, you’ll be able to stay. If you don’t have money, you’re going to be gone. We’re dying to get someone on the record to say that.

We want to talk about the things that are going to be lost. Whether it’s in a cultural aspects, you know, foods, just anything. One of the stories that we worked on. There’s a guy in the Florida keys who is very passionate about lighthouses, historically. And, like, these were built in the 1800s. They were built in corral reefs. No one thought that was a bad idea back then. And not only is he trying to preserve them for history-sake, but he’s also trying to preserve them because if they crumble and crash into the reefs, it’s now become an environmental disaster.

So things like that. Another one in a a little bit of a jokey sense but fun, there’s the Hemingway house in Key West. Who’s going to herd all the cats when Key West floods? We did a quick man on the street. We talked to the tourists who went to the southern most point and said here’s where the water’s going to be. What do you think of this? Kind of, they were a little shocked.

And we want to tell stories of reliance. Florida has a definite history of reliance, whether it is the Native American population or populations that were wiped out by hurricanes, you know, somehow we keep going and loving our swamp land.

What is this? Yeah, and then the other thing is finding people who can communicate, like, meet them in the middle. So it’s not just saying environmental changes but, like, again, I grew up in Florida. So when I’m able to talk to somebody about this, you know, I can say, like, I remember, like, we didn’t have this problem, and you can connect with them that way. Because then they’re, like – you’re not just coming to me for story, there is a shared experience that you can tap into, and that’s been huge.

So, you know, whether you say climate change, environmental change, sea level rise, it’s man made, fake, whatever. If you can tap into that shared experience and at least acknowledge something’s not cool, like, something is happening, people start talking. And then the last thing was, again, focusing on volatility and you guys said that too. You know, that’s – these things are going to change. Like I said in Miami if, you know, the waters Flood, people are going to lose, you know, they’re going to lose property value. I mean, I joke with my parents and I said my sister and I aren’t going to be able to inherit anything because no one’s going to buy it. There’s a lot of property value down there. There’s just a lot of people down there. There is going to be huge volatility and, you know, not everything is going to be saved, unfortunately.

So anyway, sorry to take up the soapbox. I’m just saying in all seriousness, like, this is something that obviously I’m really passionate about. If anyone is looking to partner, to get some stories, we’re doing a lot of experimenting. We’ve got an amazing team of students that are doing stuff who want to do VR, drones, info graphics, interactive stuff if you have any interest in helping us or working with us, let’s please talk. Anyway. Thanks.

CATHY: Cool. Thank you, everyone.

[Applause]

CATHY: Is anyone here not okay with, like, sharing these ideas, like, having them being rounded up in a post or something?

I think it’s great.

CATHY: All right. Cool so we’ll be putting together a post. So watch out for that. Anything else?

SIMON: Thanks a lot, guys. I personally would be very interested in your experience with this session. I haven’t participated myself now, so if you want to talk about how this was for you or for your group, then just come to me later and talk to me about it.

Thanks a lot.

CATHY: Thanks, everyone.

[Applause]