Climate change – a challenge for academic communication

Climate change represents a challenge for the whole of humanity. And climate change also poses a challenge in terms of academic communication because research findings have to be communicated in a way that results in people being prepared to change their behaviour. Dr Eduardo Queiroz Alves, Humboldt Research Fellow at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, is passionately engaged in science communication and was one of the winners of the second ComLab organised by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2020. He explains how to achieve successful academic communication.

Your actual research area involves permafrost within soil. What significance does this have for our climate?

Organic material is released and decays when permafrost thaws. The result is that greenhouse gases can enter the atmosphere and trigger a backlash: global warming intensifies, and yet more permafrost is thawed. I use radiocarbon dating to investigate the permafrost dynamics in Europe at the end of the last ice age, and to better understand the processes involved. Because knowledge about climate changes in the past can be used to develop scenarios for the current climate crisis and for the future.

Why is it important for you to communicate the results of climate research to the public?

Communicating about climate change is hugely important because the issue affects everyone on our planet. Climate change threatens our livelihoods, our communities, our future. But it is still possible to mitigate the consequences. This requires more people to be aware of the threat, to change their individual behaviour, and to exert pressure on politicians.

What constitutes successful academic communication?

Getting through to non-academics requires the use of clear and simple language. Many people consider climate research to be rather abstract – and it is a real challenge to simplify the subject matter while still paying attention to accuracy. Giving a sense of hope is helpful in enabling people to deal with the issue and not react as if they’re helpless! Specific examples can encourage them to contribute something to solving the problems themselves in their everyday life, instead of thinking there’s nothing they can do.

How can the younger generation be included in this?

Young people are our future political decision-makers, so it's crucial that they understand the climate crisis and become fully committed. They can make a massive practical contribution – by raising the issue in their families and among friends, forming online discussion groups, starting their own social and environmental projects at school. And the younger generation is very well versed in modern means of communication, so they can do a lot to disseminate the issues.

How can we convince young people to become more committed?

Personal encounters can achieve a lot in my experience. The ComLab project that I co-ran with my tandem partner, Danish journalist Lise Josefsen Hermann, involved us creating a multimedia report that included speaking with young people in Denmark. They found it more credible to receive information at first hand in a conversation with a researcher than simply reading about it. Some Danish schools have invited me to give talks once the pandemic has abated. I’d also love to get pupils to visit our laboratory so we can show them how research findings are obtained.

What did you learn about academic communication in ComLab?

The project really extended my horizons! I had become very comfortable in an academic environment. The report involved us speaking with young people, and with a Sami reindeer herder. I found this interchange to be very rewarding. I’m now much more aware of the importance of including traditional knowledge and indigenous communities within academic studies whenever possible.

Humboldt Communication Labs

Laboratories for successful academic communication

Twice a year the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation uses its ‘Communication Lab for Exchange between Research and Media’ (ComLab) to bring together ten scholarship holders with early career journalists from around the world. Workshops lasting several days involve them working in pairs to formulate written material, videos and other journalistic formats. The focus here is on learning from one another. The objective is for the research results determined by the scientists to be communicated in such a way that they are comprehensible and interesting to the general public. The best articles receive an award. Topics covered by the four ComLabs held to date were the corona pandemic, climate research and the European Green Deal, sustainability and social justice, and robotics and digitisation.

How do you now share your research with the general public?

I write blog articles about climate issues, including a blog for the European Geosciences Union. I enjoy reaching out to a wider public beyond my own bubble and receiving feedback. I also recently collaborated with a British artist who turned my research topic into an image. I found that really exciting, because her work was exhibited in art galleries in Paris and London.

Do you have any tips for other academic communicators?

I don’t see myself as a communication expert, but I do have one piece of advice: many people enjoy reading articles, but others find them boring and prefer videos or podcasts to consume the same message. We should therefore use different media to reach different target groups.

Eduardo Queiroz Alves

Eduardo is a researcher specialising in the use of isotopic techniques for environmental and archaeological studies with a long track record of publications in the field. He has more than 10 years of research experience and has recently completed a DPhil in Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford. Presently he is based at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (Germany), working in the Marine Geochemistry group under an Humboldt Research Fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His interests span environmental and climate studies within the academic sector and in intergovernmental organisations.

Photo: Fenina Butler

Author: Miriam Hoffmeyer

In your opinion, how can research results on climate change be communicated successfully?

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February 2022

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