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

You argue that part of the problems is that scientists and journalists have conflicting professional ideologies, which prohibit both groups from being strong advocates for the importance of climate change and the values of any particular plan of action. Explain.

What initially got me interested in thinking about climate change were the debates I had encountered between scientists and journalists about whose fault it was that the public didn’t care (enough) about climate change. Yet, when I began researching this problem, I encountered a lot more common ground between scientists and journalists than might be obvious at first glance, particularly in regards to observing and negotiating with professional expectations of objectivity, distance, and independence.

Encountering the findings of climate change – whether as a scientific researcher or journalists, produces a variety of responses for many that I talked to for this book. For some, there is an absolute obligation as a citizen or as an expert to do something about the predictions related to climate change. For others, there is an obligation to speak about the findings only. Some scientists reach out directly to the public or work through social groups, or even more simply, just endeavor to return the call of reporters.

I came up with the term “near-advocacy” as a way of discussing and acknowledging the wide spectrum of responses that emerge as a result of knowing the facts related to climate change (and often as well, knowing what isn’t known and the long tale of unlikely probabilities that create some of the gravest concerns). Advocacy is a still “a third-rail” for many high level professionals who work in science and journalism. Most don’t want to be associated with or slotted into left or right politics such that their credibility as science experts or journalists is compromised. And yet, these same professionals are often the ones most able to speak about the state of climate change findings and predictions. Navigating what has become a very tricky political and politicized terrain is definitely not for those who lack conviction about the role of science in society.

You note that journalists often struggle with the need to distinguish their role in informing the public with other potential functions such as educating the public about science or advocating for particular policy changes. Why have these functions proven so challenging to work through in relation to climate change? How does the climate change debate bring into sharper profile questions about how journalism functions in the contemporary media landscape?

One of the funniest metaphors I encountered that captures the challenges journalists face was from a journalist who described reporting on climate change as akin to “parking your car under a bunch of starlings.” Whenever I quote this in a talk, I always show a car covered in bird shit and get a good laugh.

It’s poignant on a bunch of different levels because it demonstrates the ways in which journalists enter into rambunctious, concerned, and diverse debates when they report on this issue. I argue that this not only speaks to the kind of issue climate change is, but also to the changing structures, norms, and practices facing journalists as a result of the rise of digital media.

Journalists are now not only expected to report on issues and put information out on a 24/7 basis, but they are increasingly expected to be verifiers and chief discussants. Journalistic methods and approaches as well as the facts they relay have never been more open to public scrutiny. In this sense, climate change is an exemplary issue with much at stake in terms of public engagement, policy, and the circulation of information.

Much of the concern about how climate change is reported on stems from the persistence of climate change denial and mis-information — despite the widespread scientific consensus that climate change is a very real problem with a range of predictions and probabilities. For journalists, the spectre of denial is something they have to contend with constantly whether in response to stories or in the choice of experts. This past year at least one major science publication closed off its comment sections after stories, citing the response to climate change stories in particular.

Recent research has shown that this kind of debate does seem to affect public perception of whether there is scientific consensus, but I also think it’s vital to develop much better digital tools for dealing with these kinds of problems related to public debate and engagement. Shutting off comment sections doesn’t solve the issue, nor does it reflect the robust commitment to democratic discourse that many, including me, argue is required particularly on contentious and far-reaching issues like climate change.

You start your discussion with a consideration of the roles which indigenous peoples, especially those who live in the Arctic region, are playing in informing the climate change debate. What value do you think these forms of indigenous knowledge contribute ? In what ways have their voices been hi-jacked by other players and through what means have they learned to be more effective at speaking for their own interests?

When the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was released in the early 2000s, it received a lot of attention because of the kinds of predictions it made about how climate change would affect polar regions. It also represented one of the first major and comprehensive attempts to combine indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. Indigenous knowledge about the natural world comes out of a different system, tradition, and methodology so this kind of work – bringing scientific and indigenous knowledge together is not an insignificant challenge. In the book, I look at this challenge from varied perspectives, recognizing the diverse ways in which traditional knowledge offers important insights both historically and currently.

What initially got me interested in the Arctic was the human rights claim that was brought by Inuit leaders and elders before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The claim was intended not only to put indigenous experiences with climate change in the Arctic before a wide public, but also to confront U.S. policymakers regarding their inaction on the very real and ongoing effects related to climate change. As the ACIA had shown and as much of the testimony offered by Inuit hunters and leaders articulated very powerfully in the claim, their ways of life, their means to support their communities, and their culture were being drastically affected by changes to sea ice, permafrost, and other environmental changes.

I come from an indigenous family, and my father is a longtime hunter and outfitter in my First Nation in northern B.C. so these kinds of stories captured my attention immediately. But, when I began to speak to Inuit leaders, I also began to see that climate change, while being a huge issue, was also the latest in a long line of challenges that have required their communities to deal with scientific researchers, media, geopolitics, resource development, and multiple national interests. The book provides a glimpse into how Inuit leaders were navigating both the needs and conversations going on at the level of villages and regions as well as transnational networks and discourses in order to influence Arctic policies and decision-making.

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.