How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part One)

The debate about climate change can often seem perplexing for those of us who take the foundations of modern science seriously.  We can become deeply cynical about why certain players refuse to accept “established truths” and become frustrated by the inability of governments to act decisively to curtail behaviors that are helping to create long-term “risks” for the future of humanity and the planet. Yet, we are never going to make progress in such debates, Candis Callison argues, unless we understand what she calls “the communal life of facts,” unless we develop a deeper understanding of the different epistemological commitments held by diverse players in this argument. Candis Callison’s recently released book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, is a spectacular example of how ethnographic work, especially work informed by the science, technology, and society perspective, might inform our ongoing debates around the environment.
Here’s what I said in a blurb for the book:

“A gifted storyteller who brings enormous empathy and nuance to each group she documents, Candis Callison depicts the current discursive struggles over climate change, as such diverse players as corporate responsibility advocates, evangelical Christians, and Inuit tribal leaders, not to mention scientists and journalists, seek to reconcile the need for dramatic change with their existing sets of professional norms and cultural values. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how science gets refracted across an increasingly diverse media landscape and for anyone who wants to understand how they might be more effective at changing entrenched beliefs and practices.”

Callison’s work ultimately raises core questions around the public communication of science, sharing insights around how advocates and activists might transform this debate. Before she gets there, she seeks first to understand in subtle and complicated ways why these various players believe what they take to be true about our relationships with the natural world. As she does so, she develops a robust account of different  “vernacular” models of climate change that have to be aligned before we can make progress in dealing with these concerns. We are speaking past each other because we see the world in such fundamentally different ways and we will never convince each other unless we understand the diverse languages through which this debate is being conducted. This books makes an important intervention into what remains one of the central controversies of our time.

I read this book with much personal satisfaction. I had been lucky enough to work with Candis Callison, when she was a masters student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program more than a decade ago, having come to us with an already established professional career as an award-winning journalist. She went on to complete her PhD in Science, Technology, and Society, also at MIT. She is now  an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism and How Climate Change Comes to Matter is her first book, based in part on her dissertation research. Callison was already an intellectual leader in her graduate cohort  in part because of the enormous respect the faculty and other students had for her deep ethical and political commitments, including her desire to use her scholarship in the service of the indigenous community where she grew up in Canada.  I am so proud of the kind of scholar she has become.

Your introduction suggests that you are seeking to better understand a range of vernacular accounts of climate change. How are you defining vernaculars and what do you see as the relationship between scientific expertise and these more popular modes of describing environmental issues?

First of all, thanks for reading my book and for the kind words you say about it. I’m deeply grateful I got to start my graduate life at MIT in Comparative Media Studies. CMS and your Media Theory class are what started me on a path to thinking more broadly about the many and diverse roles media play in, with, and around public engagement.

I started contemplating using the term, vernacular, because of what I experienced when I talked with people who were actively working to mobilize their concerns about climate change. The ways they were talking about climate change drew to a great extent on how they experienced the world, what mattered to them, and how they conceived of a future they wanted for themselves, their social group – and often, for society as well.

The way I’m using the term vernacular borrows from linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology in order to describe these processes I saw unfolding during my fieldwork. How climate change comes to be meaningful outside of a scientific context depends on how it gets talked about and reframed/reformatted/recontextualized within what people are already concerned about. So, for example, Inuit leaders who were at the forefront of global negotiations around climate change talked about it outside of their communities as a human rights issue in order to account for the fundamental changes that have already begun in the Arctic that will affect their ways of life, their cultural and social practices, and the location of their communities.

What was really interesting to think about is how very different concerns related to climate change sound in other contexts. For corporate social responsibility advocates working with Wall Street investors and corporate leaders, climate change concerns were rearticulated as “climate risk” in order to situate the issue within existing financial frameworks that require attention to fiduciary obligations and responsibilities and an accounting for risks that would harm an investment.

In a church setting, evangelicals talked about climate change as being part of Bible-based concerns and dictates to care for the poor and to be responsible stewards of creation.

You describe this debate as much in terms of questions about why the public should care about climate change as  about who or what they should believe. What are some examples of the reasons the groups you study offer for why their members should care about climate change?

Who and what is considered expert is related to a great extent to credibility, and yet how/where are our ideals of credibility formed? In our daily lives, many will trust the word of a New York Times reporter or a MIT-trained scientist – and we’re likely to assume everyone else does too. Our ideals about who and what is credible are inherently social and cultural, based on collective and historical experiences with institutions and a trust in the methods used to arrive at conclusions, analyses, and predictions. That’s the logic behind much of the work done by many environmental activists – they appeal to wide publics to act, based on evidence most will agree is credible.

Amongst those I interviewed and researched for this book, I encountered this straightforward route, but also, a range of alternative means of establishing credibility and expertise. So, my research became about trying to understand the many ways and means by which scientific evidence comes to matter, what kind of an issue climate change is in specific contexts, and how it is articulated as an issue of concern.

I often half-joke now that I would like epistemology to become a household or ‘headline’ word because how we know what we know — and how facts get established — are becoming increasingly open to scrutiny. Just look at the comments after an online story and you see this play out in various ways. But, and this is equally crucial then, the facts that we come to care about and why/how we decide to care about them — the routes by which concern becomes established — are equally important.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.