After reporting on climate change and natural disasters in Australia, South America, the U.S., and Mongolia, science journalist Julia Kumari Drapkin grew frustrated with the failure of traditional media to convey how climate impacts our daily lives. Part of the problem is scientific. Climate models, and the climate itself, work over large expanses of space and time, and don’t translate readily to our backyards and day-to-day experiences.
Another issue is that conventional climate reporting begins with a scientist asking a question about something that’s changing, doing research, and publishing a paper. When that paper comes out, a reporter like Drapkin writes about it and if there’s time, she tries to find an anecdote to make it familiar to people. Through this process Drapkin observed that the honest conversations people have about climate change at home, or the post office, are mostly absent from the mainstream news.
Drapkin’s solution is “flipping the script” while reporting, by giving people a platform to ask questions about the changes they are seeing in their backyards, and bringing scientists in for what sometimes, are literally, kitchen table conversations. As part of the iSeeChange public media project, Drapkin and her team recently launched the farmers’ almanac-inspired platform, TheAlmanac.org, where people submit their questions, observations and feelings about the change around them, and scientists and journalists have the opportunity to respond.
When Drapkin first conceived of iSeeChange, she imagined it in an urban area, like Boston, Chicago or New Orleans—places where there are actual crowds to help launch a crowd-sourced media project. Instead, her sponsor sent her to the rural West, and KVNF public radio, in HCN’s home base of Paonia, Colorado. In this edited interview, Drapkin talks about her media experiment to encourage local conversations about global change:
High Country News: iSeeChange is part public radio reporting, and part online almanac. How does the almanac work?
Julia Kumari Drapkin: The inspiration for the almanac was understanding that scientists were interested in certain things and so were people here in the valley—and they were taking notes. Scientists and farmers and naturalists all journal about the details and changes that they notice, and those data are so important to the people who are studying climate.
It’s a tradition here in Paonia to keep farm and ranch books, because they help you make better decisions. In 2002 if your irrigation ditch was empty on a certain day, you can look back to past years and see what to expect. As I started doing more and more interviews, people said they would be interested in sharing this information to benefit the community. It’s a service that’s never been provided. It was like discovering that the classifieds had never been invented.
In the almanac you can say: I’m seeing something, I’m wondering something or I’m deciding something. We thought mapping that over time against data would be really useful, especially in the context of 2012, which is to date our closest analog for future climate change. So even if this isn’t “climate change” right now it’s the nearest we’ve ever come to knowing what future climate change will be like. This will be the normal.
The true innovation of the almanac is that layering of quantitative data and qualitative data. We’re not saying that there’s a relationship and we’re not saying that everyone’s story is 100 percent accurate. We’re just saying, okay here’s what’s happening with the data and here’s what happening to you and we’ll let you decide whether or not climate change is affecting your life.
HCN: So the iSeeChange Almanac sounds like an adaptation tool as well as a communication tool?
JKD: Exactly, people tell us all the time that there’s no such thing as normal in Colorado. With climate change our normal is becoming even less so. Figuring out some kind of baseline for where we are has potential to help with where we’re going.
HCN: Can all of this change the role of local media outlets?
JKD: I’ve never had more respect for local news. If you think of media as an ecosystem, it’s been upended. Before the Internet, we depended on local news, (but as that) gets wiped out, the ecosystem is pretty much in flux and we’re depending on the Internet, we’re depending on crowd sourcing.
I’ve covered climate change all over the world, and the stories I’ve done here in Paonia are probably some of the most important stories I’ve done, by far.
HCN: Why do you think that is?
JKD: Because as much as I love the stories I come back with from these beautiful places where people are experiencing climate change, I don’t think they’ve truly translated to audiences in the U.S. They seem like exotic places where climate change is happening but it’s a far away problem, it’s not our problem.
Being able to communicate to people on a very personal level, for me it’s been so eye opening. I’ve learned about climate change dialogues that are so much more nuanced than when I was reading scientific papers and living in D.C. People who don’t believe in climate change are so smart; they have such interesting and nuanced questions. Actually, some scientists enjoy that dialog about it. It’s actually a much more textured conversation.
HCN: So this project has helped overturn your own stereotypes?
JKD: Oh absolutely, it’s not about people being afraid of science. Farmers and ranchers have living experiments, they are more engrossed in science than I ever was. To think that this is an anti-science culture is really ridiculous and it’s belittling and that’s probably part of the reason that our conversations haven’t been getting really far.
HCN: KVNF and iSeeChange recently aired a story where a ranching and coal mining family hosted a NASA climate scientist for breakfast. How does that story encapsulate iSeeChange’s approach?
JKD: Pat Polson told me about this dry, dry wind that she experienced last year and because she’s an old timer you take that seriously. It turned out that last year was so bad, not because of precipitation, but because there was this weird wind and the temperature was so high. The only analog we have is the Dustbowl.
When I was talking to (NASA scientist) Ben (Cook) (who studies drought), I was thinking how cool would it be to put these people together at the kitchen table to talk. That’s truly iSeeChange, is to bring this conversation to the table. I asked Ben if he could come and NASA said it was okay, and the conversation lasted for two hours. There were so many questions that weren’t in that story and Ben just worked through every question that they had. Pat still believes that God is in charge. But there were a lot of surprises in that conversation. At the end of it they learned something and Ben learned something and that was the whole goal.
HCN: So it’s still valuable if people don’t change their minds about climate change?
JKD: Oh yeah, they’re thinking about these things, they have been thinking about these things. (One of Pat’s sons) in particular (who works in a local coal mine), he believes that coal needs to be phased out, and he doesn’t want his daughters working in coal mines. They all see themselves as stewards of the land, but then again, they’re at the crossroads, they don’t want rug pulled out from under them. In this valley it’s really difficult to see a way forward economically unless something comes in to take coal’s place. And Ben gets that too. Again, it was a common understanding full of surprises.
HCN: Based on your experience producing iSeeChange, how can we all have these honest conversations in our communities?
JKD: If you believe that climate change is man made or not, the climate is changing and we’re going to have to deal with it. Be respectful and be open-minded, and don’t be afraid to talk about it.
Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.