Got Climate Questions? Check Facebook…Seriously!

shutterstock_193652336If you’ve got questions about climate, just hop on Facebook. …nope, I’m not joking.

Social media has given me a chance to become acquainted with a lot of very interesting people. Many of whom I would never have crossed paths with in the real-world because of the oceans in between. One of those people is Alvin Stone –  Media and Communications Manager for the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

During one of our online conversations, he mentioned his new ‘Ask a Climate Scientist‘ Facebook page, which helps people get their climate questions answered by actual climate scientists. He admits, however, that the page began with a very different purpose. (…& you’re really going to want to read that part!)

I had some questions about how he pulls it all together and, because he’s a good sport, he sent me the answers.

Here’s our Q&A:


1. What is ‘Ask a Climate Scientist?’

Ask A Climate Scientist is a Facebook page that allows anyone on Facebook to directly ask a climate scientist a question. The administrators include four climate scientists and myself, who are part of the largest university-based climate research group in the Southern Hemisphere, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (ARCCSS). When we don’t know an answer, we reach out to other researchers in the Centre or some of our national and international partners. It literally gives us access to hundreds of specialist climate scientists to take on the really curly questions.

Image (1) Askaclimatescientist.png for post 1305The reason I decided to do this through Facebook – rather than develop a web page or forum – was because of the number of people of all age groups regularly using Facebook, its ability to build strong communities of interest and the direct and easy form of communication that allow answers to be as long and short as is required. Where else can you get answers straight from climate scientists in such a simple fashion?

The creation of the page also has a lot to do with what I have seen over my career. I have had an interesting career arc in relation to climate science. I worked in the media as an editor for many years, left to become a media communicator with an environmental advocacy group (WWF-Australia) and then went to a boutique agency where I worked with multinational energy industry clients before I became a media manager for climate scientists. Through each part of that arc, I have seen first-hand how climate research can be distorted either from an ideological position or a simple lack of understanding. This Facebook page is important because it takes away those distortions by allowing climate scientists to clearly explain their research to the public.

I thoroughly respect direct communication. I follow the wonderful Twitter handle @realscientists (its web page too) and a bunch of scientists on social media.

Breaking down the walls between the public and scientists, in the easiest manner possible, is the best way for people to connect to science.

2. It started out with a very different purpose, right?

Indeed it did. This is the second life of the page.

Originally when I started as the Media and Communications Manager at ARCCSS, I needed a way to anticipate the attacks of deniers around climate change to be ahead of the game and prepare my researchers.

I built Ask A Climate Scientist as a honeypot, posting research and opinion pieces on climate science. To bring those opposed to climate science to the page, I waited for an opportunity to interpose myself into an online controversy around climate science, which appeared when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened the program I Can Change Your Mind About Climate. It was then a simple matter to respond to a comment that was attracting a lot of attention and then say, “Why don’t you ask a climate scientist?” and point to the Facebook page.

For about a year I engaged on the page with those opposed to the science, referring questions to our scientists that were outside my expertise. At the same time, I was able to alert my researchers in advance to any likely attack on climate science. Interestingly, by the end of that year, the variety of arguments by those opposed to the science had become circular and repetitive and I had made other connections that meant I no longer needed this avenue to anticipate likely climate science issues.

I closed the page down with a pinned note at the top that said I was moving to the ARCCSS web page and that if anyone had further questions to contact me there.

The Ask A Climate Scientist page should have died, but every few weeks, it seemed, questions would come via direct message from people who genuinely wanted to understand something about climate science. I kept going back and answering what I could or referred it to our scientists.

Clearly, there was a need for something like this. So, at the beginning of this year, I brought in new administrators and kicked it back into life but with a different goal, to get climate scientists to talk directly to the public.

3. What role does this project play in the outreach efforts of your center?

The role with this is quite simple. We will be using it to connect to interest groups, talk to students and school teachers but primarily just to put a human face on our scientists and have them talk, one-to-one with the general public

It is still early days but we have already made first links with a group of teachers in the Sydney region and have made ourselves directly accessible to them and their students. We are happy to do this with any school around the world.

I also have a very distinct communication goal with this page that goes back to improving the way our researchers relate to the public. When scientists have to respond to the public directly, they automatically find themselves simplifying their answers in ways they might forget to do in an interview or writing an opinion piece. When scientists use Facebook to talk to the public, they automatically recognize it is a conversation and that they are not talking to their peers but people with a wide variety of education and ages. This is fantastic for developing basic public communication skills, which then spills into the other communication work they do.

4. How do you remain responsive to the public – and make sure the information you’re sharing is accurate?

One of the beauties of working with researchers who are active in the field, and specialists across a wide range of areas, is that they are already aware of the latest news in their field.

We also have a system to double-check responses with senior peers and leading experts. It is not unusual for us to go direct to a researcher outside of the Centre to get an answer if the expertise is not immediately to hand.

The speed of our response varies with the complexity of the question. Generally, we try for the next day or quicker but sometimes complex answers can take a week as we chase answers from leading experts. When this occurs we direct message the questioner to let them know why there is a delay.

5. The page clearly says it’s not a place to ‘debate public policy around carbon.’ How do you moderate it? Is it hard to keep the engagement positive?

We are very clear that this is not about policy. It was a decision I made with the original page because it brought in all sorts of other areas that were outside our expertise and brought in a different set of debates. As I say on the page, there are plenty of other forums for those debates. The aim of Ask A Climate Scientist was to clarify the science. What people do with that information is up to them.

As for moderation, the rules firmed over time. We generally moderate with a light touch. Up front, we block people who spam and those who resort to abuse or threats. On the odd occasion, we will block those who are clearly just trying to be disruptive and are repeatedly ignoring any semblance of science. Essentially, as long as someone is asking reasonable questions, referencing the science and seems to have genuine curiosity we have no problem.

Remarkably, even when the page was serving as a honeypot for those opposed to the science, it was easy to keep the debate civilized and even friendly. It is simply a matter of demanding respect and the right to be heard. A dose of humor now and then really helped as well.

My encounters with climate change deniers in this forum showed that while we may not have agreed on the science of climate change, there were certainly many other areas where we found common ground.

With the new version of the page and a community that is genuinely trying to find out more, I have not encountered much negative engagement at all. People like the fact they can talk to and get an answer directly from a scientist. In our day-to-day lives, that opportunity does not come along too often.

6. What kind of response have you received?

It was unexpected. In its original incarnation as a honeypot, I intentionally kept it small, with only around 300 followers. Halfway through January, before I brought the page back to life, we had 340 followers.

We have done no promotion for the page, other than a quick mention on Twitter that probably brought in another 15 followers.

However, once we went live and started answering questions again, word of mouth seems to have got out. We now have 635 followers after just over a month with no effort to attract them and just through answering questions.

This is a small population but over the next few months, we intend to bed down our question-and-answer systems and then increase the profile of the page through a targeted campaign.

7. Is most of the interaction from Australian citizens? Do you think they respond differently to climate discussion than those from other countries?

In the first incarnation, because of the how I brought followers to the site, yes, Australians were the primary visitors – but there was also a smattering of Canadian and US followers who moved in the same climate change opposition networks and joined the page.

The page in its original form was really a reflection of the climate denier echo chamber. So the discussions there were self-referential and primarily sourced from a number of climate science denial blogs.

The current incarnation is much more international, with people from Europe, US, Canada, India, and the Middle East asking questions. It’s interesting that we are getting meteorological questions as well. We can certainly answer these but our colleagues over at the Facebook page of Australian Bureau of Meteorology are the real stars in that area.

My original thought was that the discussion didn’t vary greatly across countries but on review that is not true. In the European countries, the Middle East and India there appears to be a greater acceptance of climate change, and the questions are about trying to understand something better.

In the US, Canada – and to a smaller degree Australia, there is a slight increase in wanting to find answers to a climate change denier talking points. The people asking the questions understand the reality of climate change but are struggling with some concepts they have been challenged on.

Overall, though, most of our questioners just want to understand something for personal interest or had a strange question that had been bugging them but didn’t have an avenue to get it answered. We even had one fellow ask us about the plants in his area and radiative heat from black rocks in his greenhouse and even whether greenhouses could add to global warming. It was an odd but genuine question that our researchers enjoyed answering and turned out to be incredibly instructive across a whole lot of global warming questions.

8. What’s your ultimate goal with this project?

There are two goals, really:

o   To break down the barriers between scientists and the public and make researchers accessible. This helps scientists to be viewed as real people, not some movie stereotype. In the process, I hope it will also help some regain their trust in science.

o   To explain climate science and climate change in a way people can easily understand so they can share that knowledge. I thoroughly believe that information shared among friends and colleagues taken directly from an expert will travel further, faster and with greater depth than any media report or scientific paper.

9. How can people help?

At this early stage, we hadn’t planned on collaborators until we have seen how Ask A Climate Scientist develops. However, we are always happy to take on ideas and welcome assistance from other climate science or communication experts. Anyone is free to contact me through my email or via the page. This project is all about reaching the public and we would happily work with anyone who can help us do this better.


About Alvin Stone

Alvin StoneAlvin Stone is the Media and Communications Manager for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales. He worked as an editor with Fairfax Community News and then News Local for over a decade before moving into communications. He has honed his skills working for WWF-Australia and Primary Communication, a boutique agency specializing in work for corporate clients in the energy, transportation, IT and not-for-profit sectors.

Email: alvin.stone@unsw.edu.au

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