How does Climate Science become Climate action?

by Steph Courtney

It’s been 198 years since Joseph Fourier realized the warming power of our atmosphere and 166 years since Eunice Foote created the first experimental evidence of the greenhouse effect. However, the first congressional hearing focused on climate change was 31 years ago and it’s been only 15 years since the first federal emissions regulations were announced. This time lag shows there’s a disconnect between the science of the climate crisis and what individuals, industry, and governments are doing (or, more often, not doing) about it. Now, there are many social scientists working to understand that disconnect, including several at Auburn and in COSAM, and I am one of them.

Changes in policy and practices can come from the “top”, like governments, or from the “bottom”, though the passion of many millions of people shouldn’t necessarily be called the bottom of anything. In my years at Auburn, my research has addressed both of these aspects, each critical to reducing harm from climate change. For my M.S. thesis, I studied how graphs can be used and improved to teach non-scientist audiences about climate change. Specifically, I re-designed graphs used in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which are often covered and reproduced in mass media. Thus, improving all aspects of these reports, including the scientific figures, could impact the climate literacy of the general public which should lead to bottom-up policymaking (hopefully). The graph re-designs were based on many other studies of climate change communication, and I used eye-tracking, surveys, and interviews to examine how my study participants were using them. Eye-tracking, usually my research method that catches the most attention, works basically as it sounds. Our lab has several trackers that use infrared to record where a person is looking on a computer screen or in the real world, and those recordings show what aspects of a visual stimulus are most noticed, which are used for certain tasks, which are overlooked, etc.

More recently, my research has focused closer to “the top” of policymaking, not with legislators, but with state and federal employees that make decisions about adaptation to climate change. This research has been conducted in collaboration with the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (SECASC), a branch of the US Geological Survey. The CASCs fund and facilitate science that can be used to improve adaptation to climate change, which could include a wide variety of individuals and organizations, but is most relevant to folks making decisions about parks, wildlife reserves, protected forests, cultural heritage sites, etc. Our project is about science evaluation, or how we can measure and understand the impact and effectiveness of the research that has been done. I used previous literature and several rounds of interviews to make a research-grade survey measuring how respondents have applied any climate adaptation research project to their professional roles. By “research grade”, I mean that there are methods available for making a survey more valid, i.e. improving the odds that the survey is measuring what you intend it to. More broadly, by improving how we can measure the impact of research, we can learn how to make it more impactful in the future, including more efficient spending of public funds and improving resilience and adaptation to climate change.

At some point while reading the above, you may have thought to yourself, ‘wait, there are social scientists in COSAM?’ and, if so, I’m sure you’re not alone. The short answer is yes, there are! The longer answer is that the COSAM social scientist count has been exploding since 2017 with the start of our Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) cluster.

As of this school year, every COSAM department has a faculty member that studies education in their discipline, often focused on undergraduate education practices. Some DBER graduate students, such as myself, expand our research to include informal education and use of information in our fields more broadly. However, all DBER researchers benefit from our backgrounds and connections to math and natural sciences. My BS and MS in geology, as well as my current progress in the Earth system science PhD program, allow a deeper understanding of what is important in Earth science communication and the nuances of the science that may not be apparent to someone trained in education or psychology alone. In the field of climate change, roles like mine that cross boundaries – between social and natural sciences, between scientists and the public, between knowledge and action – have been more highlighted and supported in recent years in hopes that research like ours can help turn 200 years of climate science into policy that saves lives.

Acknowledgement: This analysis is supported by the National Sciences Foundation and was done in the Geoscience Education and Geocognition lab of Dr. Karen McNeal in the department of Geological Sciences, Auburn University.