What’s the Job? Climate change in the media.

This post stems from a recent meeting of the Royal Meteorology Society titled ‘Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication’. This meeting aimed to provide insights into tools for more effectively communicating climate science. In the meeting’s description, they claim that the public are beginning to join the dots between climate change, extreme weather and the impacts on our environment. From my experience, I would consider this to be true. Climate science and global warming is certainly becoming a “hot topic”.

So, what are the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings and how far should you go in talking about climate science? It is these questions that motivated the talks. The talks began with visualizing climate data, then climate science in the era of Trump. Following that, talks moved on to connect academics to business, engaging with government policy and why we need climate science communicators. All very important aspects in taking climate science to the public.

However, I want to look at something I consider more important. I want to ask the question, “what’s the job?” A bit strange you might think. Isn’t the job obvious? Communicate climate science?  But is this really the job …

This idea comes from a book by Clay Christensen, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. The book is called “Competing against luck”. It seeks to identify what’s the difference between a continuously successful business and a business that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the early sections of the book he discusses what the job of a milkshake is. Why does someone “hire” a milkshake?

McDonald’s wanted to boost milkshakes sales so they brought in consumers that fitted the profile of a milkshake buyer and asked them how they could make their milkshakes better. Cheaper, chewier, chunkier, chocolatier? Even when the customers told McDonald’s what they thought they would like it was hard to know exactly what to do.  So, McDonald’s tried a whole range of things corresponding to the desires of these milkshake buyers. And what happened? Nothing, the sales increase was negligible.   They didn’t know what the job was. They needed to ask the question: what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to McDonald’s to hire a milkshake?

In the book, Christensen says “What causes us to buy products and services is the stuff that happens to us all day every day”. So, McDonald’s figured out who buys the milkshakes and when. It turned out that one of the main consumers of their milkshake are commuters on the way to work in the morning, almost all to take away. They ask these people, why they “hired” the milkshake. They say it helps with the commute. They hired a milkshake for this boring ride to work and the job was to keep the commute interesting. The milkshake is thick and hard to suck up the straw thus, it lasts the whole commute and is substantial enough to ensure the commuter is full all morning. It works better than a banana, coffee, water, donuts and other on the go breakfast products. With this in mind McDonald’s added berries or chocolate pieces to the milkshake to make it more interesting and moved the milkshake maker to the front making it quick to purchase. Low and behold sales increased!

What this story demonstrates is a paradigm shift. Prior to all this you’d believe that milkshakes compete against chocolate bars, sodas, other milkshakes from other fast food joints. However, this is not the case. People don’t hire the milkshake as deserts for the main part but for breakfast and to keep them occupied for a long commute.

 

Let’s come back to climate science in the media and ask: what’s the job of climate science, from the public’s perspective? Is it to keep them occupied on the tube? Give them material so they can talk to their friend at the pub? I firmly believe that to successfully transfer the results and information generated by scientists we need to understand what job climate science does for the public. I don’t know… yet. Furthermore, we must ask the question of who the competition is. Is it climate deniers or is it celebrity gossip, sport articles, even political news? We must look through the same lens as McDonald’s and seek what purpose the public would hire climate science and use that to our advantage. Answering these questions will accelerate our ability to spread facts and build a wider community who can help tackle climate change.

Before we decide what the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings are and how far we should go in talking about climate science, we first need to know, what the job is.

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!