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.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Job? Climate change in the media.”

  1. My dear friend, I found your point of high interest and a good example of how social sciences’ approach can positively inform hard sciences insights. It is okay for you not to know (yet) the answer to your big question, but I’d have liked, from your point of view, what are the steps to take in order to figure that out. Or at least some thoughts on the matter.

    In other words, when Mcdonald didn’t know his answer, he wondered how to get to it. That’s how he began investigating buyers’ identity. What should we investigate to find out what the job is?

    1. Thanks for the reply and I am glad you found it interesting.

      It’s hard to know. In the case of McDonalds they were able to figure out who bought their Milkshakes. So I think the first thing to do is identify who reads news on Climate Science. As in categorise these people. But not based on their political views, education or where they live, but what they do every day that causes them to “hire” climate science.

      If I was to suggest a case study I would contact carbon brief for example (https://www.carbonbrief.org). Then, if possible, I would see how many hits they get on each post, and see when and where these hits happen.

      Hopefully from this I would be able to get idea of when people “hire” climate science. This would be similar to McDonalds identifying that most of their milkshakes were purchased before 9:00am in the morning, and from that they were able to deduce that they were commuters.

      This would certainly be a start in my opinion. However I would be interested in your take on this. With your expertise in Social Science and experience in NGOs and industry how would tackle the problem ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.