Insights from the Science Online Climate Conference 2013

Start Date/Time: Thursday, August 15, 2013, 8:30 AM
Ending Date/Time: Saturday, August 17, 2013, 5:30 AM
Location: Washington D.C.

Navigating online media in communicating climate science by Chris Terai

With travel support from the PCC I had the opportunity in August to attend the ScienceOnline Climate conference. An offshoot of the popular ScienceOnline conference, ScienceOnline Climate focused on issues at the intersection of climate science, communication, and online media. I attended the conference as a newcomer to online communication. I had taken a couple science communication classes, one in which I learned about the conference, but I was still unsure of how to apply what I learned to the various online tools. The vastness and the invisibility of the online audience also left me uncertain of how best to start finding a voice online.

Unlike a normal scientific conference centered on twenty or forty minute talks by experts, ScienceOnline Climate, or scioclimate, as the conference was commonly referred to, revolved around the conversations and discussions among its participants who ranged from scientists to artists to communicators to policy experts. The 2-day conference consisted of a plenary each day that provided fodder for further discussions during the break-out sessions and over coffee. I was mainly at the conference as a student, to learn what helps and hinders communicating climate effectively, but I also had a chance to moderate one of the break-out sessions on the understandings of uncertainty. Effectively communicating uncertainty, especially in the context of communicating climate science, was a topic that I felt both scientists and communicators of science often struggle with and a worthwhile topic to discuss. When I proposed this session as a topic for a break-out session, I hadn’t realized that I’d be confronting my own uncertainties in how I’d want to communicate science online.

Listening to the plenaries and discussion had me excited and my mind racing like a kid in a candy shop, but by the end of the first day I was starting to lose focus. With a variety of online media tools, from blogs to twitter to youtube, and a variety of ways to approach good communication, from bringing issues into people’s backyard to engendering trust to telling good, accurate stories, I easily became lost and overwhelmed about how best I can communicate online. Especially when climate science has become entangled with politics in the public discourse, it is tough to figure out how I can communicate as a scientist with integrity. Advocacy is an especially difficult issue, where unknowingly one may talk about what is happening and what should be done in the same sentence. There are ways of doing it intelligently, like speaking in two sentences and being clear of when one speaks as a scientist and as an ordinary citizen, but it requires some introspection. Which leads me to the focus that I was looking for.

It was in a question raised during the plenary of the second day. The question was on advocacy, and the participant asked whether or not it was the case that everyone is advocating for some action when they speak up about the science. As a scientist, many times it is for the discussion of good science in the policy and decision making process that we speak up. Likewise, when we communicate, we all have a goal. This goal is important to identify, and it helps me identify and focus on who I want to communicate with and what online tools I’d want to use. Like good science, without a research question, all the fancy tools in the world are useless. In online communication, it is easy to get lost among all the conversations out there, but with a good sense of what one wants to accomplish, I’ve learned that it provides a variety of tools that can easily connect people from a variety of places and backgrounds to work collaboratively, as in a video project between teachers, students, and teachers that connects what we experience and the climate.

by Deirdre Lockwood

ScienceOnline organizers often call the meetings “unconferences” because they emphasize discussion and sharing rather than top-down presentations by experts. Fittingly, I took away a great deal from what participants shared in the ScienceOnline Climate session I moderated, Social Media 201. We focused on how to enhance our climate communication efforts using some of the latest social media networks—including image-rich microblogging platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, and video-sharing communities like Vimeo and Vine. Members of these communities share original and “found” content, and they are especially popular with teens and young adults. Here are the top five insights I gained from our discussion about creating a presence on these networks to communicate climate.

1. Create (or find) the right image or video and keep the text short. If you’re writing a longer essay or blog entry, you can post an image on a microblogging network to grab viewers and send them to your blog. Participants suggested great public domain image banks at, NASA (‎) and NOAA ( (currently unavailable during the government shutdown), the Earth Science World Image Bank (, and by searching for Creative Commons content on sites like YouTube and Flickr (using

2. But...make sure to put your images in context and credit the source. We talked about how sensational images presented out of context can misinform viewers and discredit communicators. Participants discussed an image that went viral on social media this summer showing a meltwater lake over the North Pole as evidence of global warming; instead it was part of an annually observed summer thaw. One participant recommended putting a text caption on the image itself to make sure it keeps its context when it’s shared.

3. Once you’ve started a presence on one of these networks, grow your following by engaging with the community. Follow like-minded blogs, see what they’re up to, and “like” their content if you do. Participants shared some favorite sites for inspiration: Climate Nexus’ site On Air Live (; New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin’s site (; and Kyle Hill’s Science on the Vine ( If you haven’t seen it yet, check out The Waveform Diary, a great science-comics blog by UW Oceanography’s Michelle Weirathmueller (

4. Have a strategy for moderating comments. An advantage of image-focused networks like Tumblr is that comments take a back seat to reposting and the “Ask” box, where followers can ask questions. But many participants shared experiences of negative commenters hijacking the discussion on blogs. Budget some time for handling (and, if necessary, blocking) toxic commenters, and invite people you respect to comment and lend constructiveness to the discussion.

5. If you have a presence on other social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, use these to point folks to your microblogging networks (and vice versa). Happy posting!