How to heat up climate change videos.

Picture of earth showing bands of different temperatures.

A triple-threat disaster–earthquake, tsunami, and nuke threat–hits Japan. The Middle East and North Africa start exploding. Still, the paramount issue (IMHO) remains climate change. Virtually all the science says disaster is looming that could make a 9.0 earthquake seem almost trivial in terms of consequences.

Of course, that’s not an opinion you’re likely to hear from folks like Senator James M. Inhofe, who famously called the threat of catastrophic global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Inhofe and millions of others insist that the science is biased, shoddy or inconclusive.

This blog post is not the place to debate the plausibility of disastrous climate change. For today at least, let’s assume that climate change is arriving on our doorstep. Now, as makers of online videos, what can we do to help scientists, government officials and other influencers carry out their mission to slam on the brakes?

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundSome weeks ago, I asked myself that question. I realized that, as a video guy, the issue wasn’t so much climate change as climate change communication. The facts are clear–or clear enough–but our leaders are fiddling while the planet is smoldering because … well, because of a massive failure to communicate. (Yes, I know that our species’ brains have a hard time dealing with threats that seem distant in time. But we can’t wait for our beleaguered  gray matter to evolve further. So all we can do is communicate better.)

I googled “climate change communication” … and found–surprise!–that I wasn’t the only one thinking about this issue. In fact, George Mason University has a Center for Climate Change Communication and there’s a Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Originally, I wanted this post to be about my analysis of online climate change videos. When I started looking for those videos, I found someone had beaten me to the punch. Her name is Sara Peach, and she describes herself on her Twitter page as an “environmental journalist and multimedia producer.” She has a bunch of posts on the Yale forum website that sample and analyze videos. She told me her favorite is the one called Climate Change Web Videos: Advocacy Edition.

Since she’s mulled over the failures and successes of these videos for far longer than I have, I wanted to hear what she has to say on the subject. So yesterday, Sara and I talked via a Skype videochat (which she recorded with Call Recorder and sent to me). Here are a few bites I’ve excerpted.

First, I wanted to learn how she’s dealt with the preaching-to-the-choir quandary. Most people who flock to see films like An Inconvenient Truth don’t need to see them, because they’re already convinced. And the people who most need to be convinced will avoid those docs like the plague. Sara replies that there’s plenty of opportunity to reach out to people who fall between these two camps. (In her description, she draws on the Global Warming’s Six Americas analysis developed by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change.)

Because our beady little brains can’t fathom distant disasters, Sara advises videomakers to bring things closer to home. No shots of polar bears, unless your viewers live north of the Arctic Circle. Audiences need to be able to relate to your content. Fortunately (really, unfortunately) there’s already plenty of evidence of climate change for you to draw upon.

You might think of climate change as abstract and therefore boring. Sara Peach sure doesn’t: “Climate change is a great issue to report on, because it draws on law, it draws on economics, as well as science. And so there are always very interesting things to report on. It’s very rewarding to bring together all these intertwining issues.” However, she acknowledges that making these videos can be very challenging.

Thanks, Sara, for doing my research for me. It was terrific talking with you and benefiting from your experience. May climate change communication succeed in helping our leaders, and the rest of us, do what we all need to do … now!

Your comments, as always, are welcome.

One Reply to “How to heat up climate change videos.”

  1. Thanks Ron for this insight on global warming videos.

    As you and Sara Peach point out, it really is about making it personal and relevant to the audience. But, more interesting still — how the climate change subject is taken so ‘extremely’ personally by some even though they have no real context for caring. They are insulated by their mid-level education, their mid-level job, their mid-income neighborhood from really needing to ever think one way or another about the matter. But for some it can border on the violent reaction you get from an alcoholic in denial – like you attacked them physically somehow. How do you explain that? How do you produce a video that teaches and informs a ‘denial-viewer’ under those conditions?

    You are maybe raising a broader question about video and how interactivity changes the instructional media value of the content. There are videos (like TV shows and movies) you just sit there and watch – couch-potato-style and have no real desire or responsibility to act on (because you can’t, yet). And nowadays, there are videos on the internet with supporting text (like in this blog) that let you comment back and get involved interactively in a discussion about the subject. How the psychologies of learning and behavior change under the circumstances are fascinating. The questions about climate change for the ‘denial-viewer’ become ever more complex. This would be a great research study – how do they cope? They won’t flame the writer/producer with invective without knowing the mix of audience opinion.

    Of course, as you said Ron – with all the turmoil around the planet, it doesn’t seem like it will be that long before it begins to effect everyone VERY personally. Our municipal managers are already tasked with making contingency plans for rising temperatures and water levels, food and energy scarcities, and for the rising discontent of the have-nots. It may already be too late for the kind of remediation possible with a simple video.

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