By Rob Jordan

Anthony Barnosky was jogging last summer when the governor called.

At first, Barnosky, a Cal Berkeley integrative biology professor and husband of Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Elizabeth Hadly (Biology), didn’t believe the voice saying he was going to put California Gov. Jerry Brown through. When Brown came on the line, however, his voice was unmistakable. “Why aren’t all scientists shouting about this?” Brown asked, referring to a seminal paper that Barnosky (currently on sabbatical at Stanford) and Hadly had recently co-authored with 20 other scientists. The June 2012 study suggested that human pressures may be pushing Earth toward a crucial tipping point that would wipe out plant and animal species we depend on, cause major crop disruptions and lead to widespread political instability. Brown asked for help in communicating that message to the general public in new ways.

That conversation was the seed for “Communicating Science and the Environment,” a Stanford Program on Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) class that seeks to educate future environmental communicators, while providing material for Gov. Brown’s pioneering effort to engage the public on climate change and other environmental issues. Students in the sophomore class recently wrapped up a video project in which they interviewed prominent scientists around the country – all of them fellows with the Leopold Leadership Program – about urgent environmental issues. The videos will soon be posted on the California Office of Planning and Research website. You can watch some of the videos on Facebook here.

 

This video, edited and produced by Stanford students Michael Chun and Jaena Han, is based on their video-conference interview with Leopold Leadership Program Fellow Laura Meyerson, Professor of Natural Resources Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston.

 

“We are struggling with how do we talk about climate change,” Ken Alex, a senior policy adviser to the governor, told one of the class’s sessions recently. “Unless your generation and the rest of us get our act together, we’re in big trouble.”

In the class’s syllabus, instructor and PWR lecturer Carolyn Ross asks, “How can ‘translators of science’ most effectively communicate complicated science to the public?” The students’ answers, in the form of two-minute videos, ranged from stunning imagery and bracing dialogue to humorous hand-drawn animations and specially composed music. In the videos, scientists such as Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Terry Root (Biology) and Woods-affiliated Professor Kevin Arrigo (Earth Sciences) discuss in stark terms environmental challenges ranging from widespread species extinctions to Arctic warming.

“We have no choice but to deal with it,” former Woods Social Science Research Fellow Susi Moser says of climate change in one video. Moser likens the situation to the Titanic – too much momentum in the wrong direction. “We’ll at least scrape the iceberg in a really bad way.”

But the videos also talk about ways to counteract climate change. Moser and the other scientists interviewed repeatedly point the way to solutions from composting to price-competitive, desirable low-emissions products.

For students like Janhavi Vartak and Ben Roselinni, the videos are messages of hope in an often doom-and-gloom media landscape. “It helped me with my feeling of helplessness,” Vartak said. “We’re actually doing something with this, ” Roselinni added. “Solutions don’t have to be these huge drastic things that no one wants to do,” fellow classmate Francis Ball said. Alex concurred, telling the students, “Yes, there is hope, and I’m glad you’re thinking in that way.”

After a recent class he sat in on, Alex said he could envision the students’ videos featured on a YouTube channel or on TedEd, an online educational effort run by TED. “Everyone we’ve talked to has thought about it, or thinks it’s a great idea.”