Talking Climate, Online in Real Time

Stanford professor is using new tools to hang out and chat

Stanford University

Stanford professor Noah Diffenbaugh is using real time, online video chat to engage the public in discussions of climate science.

Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford, has focused largely on climate variability and the influence of humans on the global climate system. Lately, he’s also being spending time in the cloud.

In April, he launched an online discussion forum called Hangouts on Air, in which participants from anywhere around the world (with a broadband connection, that is) can participate in real-time online discussions about climate.

Participation has been limited in these first months, but Diffenbaugh says the model holds promise for engaging the public on the complex, contentious and rapidly evolving issues in climate science. He agreed to answer some questions for Climate Watch.

Jeremy Miller: How did you come up with Hangouts on Air and the idea to use online, real-time discussion to engage the public on the topic of climate science?

Noah Diffenbaugh: I haven’t had a blog or been on social media prior to the Hangouts on Air. The hangouts, technologically, have afforded some opportunities for communication that don’t exist in other venues. It allows for direct interaction with people all over the world.

JM: Is this an outgrowth of your work as a researcher and an educator?

ND: Yes, but certainly in a different way. The conventional media certainly has a broad reach and I answer questions for them quite a bit. I also do a lot of public talks, whether it’s at the local church or some other group asking to hear about climate change. And that also has a broad reach to it.

But as you’ve seen in the videos, people from all over the world can come in online and I can talk to them directly about climate change, answer any questions, and clarify any misconceptions they may have. One important point is that our work is supported, in part, by public funding for research and we therefore have a responsibility to communicate with the public that is supporting our research.

JM: Have you been able to reach out to groups you once thought you might not have been able to engage?

ND: Certainly. I’ve been in contact with people from all over the world and all different walks of life. I don’t necessarily know who is going to be there before I come on. It could be a student studying development economics in France – someone I wouldn’t otherwise engage with. But we can do a Hangout and talk about climate. I’ve also done hangouts that don’t appear on air with high school classes.

There have been cases where participants have asked questions that are stimulating for the research or pointed out studies that I wasn’t aware of. The public is really smart and I always get a lot out of it. There is a feedback and I’m enriched by it.

There is also a real-time aspect. Some people are in the hangout and you can see them on the screen and they can talk. And then there is a second group who watch while the hangout is going on. They sometimes post questions but don’t want to jump into the live discussion. Then there is a final group that watches the video of the post after the hangout is done. This is the largest of the audiences. There is apparently more interest at this point in watching the conversation after the fact than being in it.

JM: With a complex and politically charged topic like climate change, how do you set up the discussions? Do you establish ground rules to guide the discussions or do they just sort of happen?

ND: That’s a challenge in general, whether I’m talking to another parent at my eight-year-old’s soccer game or talking to a Congressperson. We’re trying to communicate our understanding of reality in a way that can be understood. So the context certainly varies greatly depending on who we’re talking to.

When you’re answering a reporter’s question via email, for example, you are forced to craft a response and then someone reads that response. That’s very static. In the hangouts, I actually find that it’s easier and more dynamic. I find it easier to communicate when somebody is communicating back, because they can reflect on what they understand and don’t understand. The level of understanding is enhanced in a form of communication where the public is an observer and a participant.

In all of my scientific work I’m trying to communicate objectively and rationally. And I think that the benefit of having a conversation with someone – whether it’s face-to-face or via video technology – is that it provides some sense of the humanity of the person you are engaging with. I’m a human who is a scientist. I think that the ability to have a conversation – rather than just reading a name and a title attached to an article – makes it a direct experience and reduces the political echo chamber effect.