"When it comes to climate change, the solutions are human-based"
Why it is so important to communicate climate science to us, humans
Happy 2023! I hope most, if not all, of you were able to take some much-deserved break over the holiday season and thanks for your continued support of Thin Ink.
Q&A with America’s First Science Idol
I’ve been covering food and climate issues in some shape or form for nearly 15 years now and two key things I’ve noticed is the importance of science and the even bigger importance of correctly communicating said science.
I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent reading scientific papers and reports and failing to make head or tail of it, no thanks to the dense, undecipherable language so prevalent on those pages.
So when I first met Tom Di Liberto last September in Washington DC, I knew I wanted to feature him on Thin Ink. You see, he’s one of those rare climate scientists with a knack for communications. Yes it’s a cliche but it’s also true.
Tom works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the key U.S. agency tasked with researching and predicting changes in all things climate, weather, ocean and coasts.
He handles communications in NOAA’s Climate Program Office, writes for climate.gov, NOAA’s site on climate science, adaptation and mitigation, and handles marketing and social media for climate.gov. So yeah, he’s in the thick of it.
I asked him how and if communicating climate science has changed, what the challenges are, and what can those of us who care about climate change can do.
Q: Tom, how did you get into this role?
A: When I first started working after grad school, it was at the Climate Prediction Centre, which is a different part of NOAA. They're the folks who issue the seasonal outlooks. I was working as a forecaster focused on food security… mainly for the developing world, on things like floods and drought. I would never know what the forecast was outside my door, but I could tell you how the monsoon was doing or how the harvest was in West Africa.
But I’ve always like communication. In 2013, the AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) had this contest at their annual meeting called American Science Idol. You had to give a three-minute talk on a topic you chose. I entered and won. So I came back to NOAA and slowly started getting pulled into doing more communications work that I really, really liked.
Then I came to a fork in the road, where I kind of had two job offers - as a forecaster and doing communications. I took the position that confused many of my scientist friends but I've enjoyed it very much. Probably the best decision I ever made.
Q: Why is it important that climate science is communicated in a way that is accessible to people?
A: Well, I mean, what good is science if people don't understand it? There’s obviously this idea of discovery and creativity and that's wonderful, but when it comes to climate, we know there's a big issue, climate’s warming, but it’s really about impacts on people, places, infrastructure, flora, fauna, so it's so important to be able to communicate that.
It's making sure that the science is being properly understood. It's also important to have conversations with people and oftentimes as scientists, we don't tend to do that. It’s like, “Here’s the report” and sometimes we forget the human elements of it.
When it comes to climate change, the solutions are human-based. Humans have got to make the decisions. So being able to have that conversation and develop those relationships is, I feel, an incredibly important thing for climate science and climate change.
Q: You've now been doing it now for almost a decade. Has it become easier or more difficult?
A: I've been doing this for eight years! So yeah, let’s round up to a decade! Comparing that (when he won the contest in 2013) to now, the focus is very different. A decade ago, a lot of conversation was on like we need to tell people what is going on.
The conversation is shifted a lot more. In some ways, that's great that in a broad sense we’ve moved beyond conversations where we have to prove climate change is happening.
We’ve seen an evolution - this transition from “It's not even warming,” to “But it's not us,” to “It's warming and it's us but it's not that big of a deal.” It’s like ever shifting goalposts.
Now people want more from you as a communicator. They want to talk more about solutions and it's much harder because a lot goes into solutions beyond science. It's a human endeavour, a political endeavour, by its nature. Then I always say, “I’m a scientist. I can communicate the science. But if we're talking about policy, you and me, we're on the same point.”
That’s kind of the hardest thing I've been seeing as a communicator. For myself, it’s recognising what I can and cannot say, recognising when I'm saying something from my expertise as a scientist versus my existence as human being on earth.
The other hard part is that our planet keeps warming. We keep seeing more and more extremes. I've been doing this nonstop for a decade and it can take a lot out of a person to constantly be living in this negative space if you have, like, a strong empathy muscle. I feel like a lot of people in this field kind of do.
So to see all of this and know that things are going to get worse in the near term, it's difficult.
Q: So how do you then stay motivated and inspired?
A: What gives me hope going forward in some sense is… almost like a mind trick sometimes. “There's a problem, we have to fix it, I gotta keep going.” And I'm a super stubborn person. Like at no point am I ever going to stop unless the science changes!
I have two kids. They keep me going. Also, being able to interact with younger generations is always a shot of adrenaline to me. I should say teachers are super interested too and want so much more climate material and that's always amazing… and someone has to make the stuff for them!
Also I just like people. I don't want to see people hurt. So I can easily get some motivation out of that. But yeah, it's hard.
Q: Ha, that reminds me of a recent discussion I had about what’s happening back home in Burma and my thing is that even though the situation seems dire, we can’t stop talking about it because if we give up, then the bad guys win.
A: Yeah, sometimes it's as simple as that.
Q: What do you think is a greater challenge for you these days - climate denialism or greenwashing?
A: They’re cousins. They're related. I think greenwashing is a form of denialism. It's a recognition that they can give the appearance that they’re doing something but still really just maintaining status quo.
We know that if we maintain the status quo, it's basically climate denialism in essence at this point.
In United States, there was this survey that showed that the truly dismissive people are about 6% of the population. Those are people that probably no matter how much you talk to them, you're not going to convince them.
The most difficult thing nowadays in general is that there's so much more information out there and it's much easier to be led astray or to not recognise what is true and what is not.
And greenwashing has gotten so good - a lot of it is you'd have to like really, really look into the nitty gritty to see exactly what is being talked about and for most people that's not their area of expertise.
I think the biggest issue currently is flooding the zone with crap and kind of like poisoning the discourse in the broader sense which makes it really, really hard to actually focus on something.
I feel like people want to do something and they don't want to feel overwhelmed, but it's hard, and… I don't know if we do a really good job of communicating what people can do.
Q: That was going to be my next question! What can people do, particularly those from rich countries? Where do they start?
A: It's hard… to communicate in a way that doesn't make them feel like you're lecturing them in a top-down (way), saying, “you can't do that anymore”, especially in richer countries. But it's very obvious that our lifestyle is one that leads to a huge amount of greenhouse gases.
So what can people do about it? I'm not going to get into that whole argument (about going vegetarian)… But I feel like if you go meatless two days a week, that's still great. It's also good for your budget and probably good for your health over the long run.
It's also about being more cognizant of the way we travel, the way products come to you, and who's pulling those levers. And one thing you can easily do - I say this in my role as a human being on earth - is you can vote. Not even for federal office. It’s for local office. A lot can be done on a local level.
One good example is land use. I live in an urban area and the projections are over the next 30 years or so we're going to add well over a million people to this broader area. That seems to be a general trend in the United States and I think globally. The question is how do we house those people? It gets into this conversation of equity and other issues.
So the IPCC report talks about increasing density, have mass transit and create more housing for people closer to jobs and amenities. They travel less, which means that their general CO2 emissions are less, which means that you're actually reducing emissions.
But in the United States, a lot of the times you're only allowed to build a single family home. So in essence, what you're doing is codifying a type of land use, which is inherently not good for the environment.
Another thing is just talking about (climate change) more. So if you care about it a lot, you tell your friends and family. It means a lot more coming from people they know and care. So even if you feel completely hopeless on the solutions, you don’t know what to do, you can just talk about it.
But in general I just don't think we've done a really good job communicating this and a lot of things are so structural that you can feel like, “I can't tell you one thing that you can do that can break down that structural thing”. The thing is, though, if all of those people get together, that's important. It’s building a community to fight for these issues or joining an existing community so you don't have to recreate the wheel.
That's one reason why the youth have been so amazing. They built such a wonderful community so fast and community and relationship building are solutions. You can't solve climate change without that.
Q: Have you actually spoken to folks who might conceivably be in that 6% group and have you actually changed their minds? How do you do that?
A: Before COVID I gave lots of public talks on climate as a representative of NOAA. I've done open houses. Anyone can come and talk to me. So I've talked to plenty of people who are in that 6%. And one thing is it’s often very different talking in person than on the internet.
When you have a physical human body in front of you, it’s amazing how things are different. I don't know if I've convinced anybody of the science, but I've at least convinced them of my humanity and in some aspects that's as best I can hope for.
I can't physically go into someone's brain and change their mind. But the least I can do is make them see me not as “the other”. My goal here is not necessarily to convince them but I'm gonna find something I have in common. At the very end (they can be), “I didn't believe that guy. But you know what, he likes the same sports team as I do.”
A couple of times in the Facebook comment sections on the NOAA site, I’ve been aggressively cordial and given lots of information to people, and they’d be like, “Oh I didn’t know that. Thank you.” So there is a bit of a squishy centre.
Q: Let's end on a on a positive note. What are you looking forward to for next year? What are you excited about in terms of climate science communications?
A: It's funny when you first asked, I was like, “Oh, the Women's World Cup is next summer so I'm looking forward to it.”
But in terms of climate, I'm really excited to see how the money in the Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act in United States gets spent.
I'm also incredibly excited to see what the next step is for a lot of these youth activist movements globally. In the United States, they’re pushing for local bills.
One thing I always look forward to every single year is to learn about new climate communicators who represent vulnerable or marginalised communities. I grew up relatively privileged. I’m a white, straight man in the United States of America. On a scale of all humanity on earth that's like winning the lottery.
And I feel like my entire life in one shape or form has been learning about that privilege and understanding that and I'm looking forward to being able to interact with more people who can help me understand the impacts of climate change at a level that I sometimes can't appreciate or see.
There are also all these really great programmes going on at NOAA and I'm really excited to see how those go and develop. Like the urban heat island work, we'll be mapping our first international city - Freetown in Sierra Leone. Rio de Janeiro is also supposed to happen at some point.
I don't know if you feel this too. Climate change is global, right, and oftentimes I forget that in each local community, there are these really amazing local groups doing stuff.
Three Good Reads
Here are three recent articles that I really enjoyed. I hope you do too. If you’ve come across other good reads, please share!
How tech & big business co-opted “local” - Expedite
This is about how a coalition of big restaurant operations managed to derail a new law in California that was meant to improve working conditions for fast food workers by co-opting the concept of local businesses.
Expedite is a newsletter focusing on restaurant tech. Kristen Hawley, who always writes these things in an engaging way, was part of the Substack Food Fellowship I was on last year.
Review: Nomad Century by Gaia Vince - System Change
This issue of political economist Ann Pettifor’s newsletter is about the latest book from British environmental journalist Gaia Vince. It’s a very even-handed review that made me want to read the book but also alerted me to some of its possible shortcomings as well.
Besides, Ann, who was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crash, always has interesting takes on current affairs.
Agriculture and Food winners and losers of 2022 - Politico
A more typical news article that does a good job of rounding up some of the big food & agri fights over the past year, particularly in the European Union, with glimpses of more fights to come in 2023.