What does climate change really mean to me?

3 Apr 2024

Imke Hoppe studies how complex scientific topics can be better communicated to a wide audience, even in a highly charged context. She took over as Professor of Earth Science Communication and Climate Education in January 2023.

Climate change is increasingly making itself felt in everyday life: in exceptional heat waves in the summer, in fierce storms, in flooding. At the same time, researchers ever more frequently point to alarming changes, higher average temperatures around the globe, warmer oceans, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. To many people, however, it still seems unclear which of these phenomena relate to genuine climatic changes and which are simply unusual weather events? From a scientific perspective, the major issue here is finding out what is normal and what isn’t, what is anthropogenic and what reflects natural cycles.

“In our research, we see a very keen interest in the topics of climate change and biodiversity,” says Imke Hoppe, Professor of Earth Science Communication and Climate Education at LMU. Yet the content is not always communicated in a way that people understand. “We therefore want a more granular understanding of what deeply concerns people in the vast context of public communication about climate change. What elicits a powerful emotional response? What changes attitudes? What do people actually take away from extensive coverage of climate change, of the reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and of high-profile conferences such as the latest COP round in Qatar?” Obviously, the researcher is addressing a complex and highly topical subject that touches on many other disciplines at LMU.

Portrait of Imke Hoppe. She stands in front of a softened background in the LMU main building.

Professor Imke Hoppe

© LMU/LC Productions

From sustainable nutrition to the new mobility paradigm

Hoppe started out by reading applied media studies at the Technical University of Ilmenau (TU Ilmenau), where she later earned a doctorate in empirical media research and political communication. She gathered initial experience in many areas of the media landscape immediately after leaving school, working at a local newsroom, in the theater and with documentary filmmakers. “That gave me a very solid grounding in the basic skills,” Hoppe says. For her dissertation – entitled “Climate Protection as Media Impact” – she led an interdisciplinary team in developing and publishing a 3D online simulation game about saving energy.

After a stint at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) in Ilmenau, where she began by applying herself to educational media for children and adolescents, Hoppe moved to the University of Hamburg. Here, she conducted research at the CliSAP Cluster of Excellence (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction) under the aegis of DFG Priority Program SPP 1409 (“Science and the Public Sphere”). Her topic? Climate change from the perspective of media recipients.

One focus of her work has been on media coverage of the UN Climate Change Conferences and the IPCC reports and how this affects public opinion and the generation of knowledge about climate change. As a postdoctoral researcher, Hoppe took part in a comparative analysis of social media debates around sustainable nutrition in five countries – Germany and the UK, but also Canada, the USA and South Africa – within the framework of the interdisciplinary research project “Sustainable Lives: Food Choices as Politics and Lifestyle”. This was followed by a deployment at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Systems Engineering for Future Mobility, where her focus was on autonomous local public transport in the context of the mobility transition. Then, in April 2023, Hoppe was appointed Professor of Earth Science Communication and Climate Education at LMU.

Core mission: Explaining science in plain language

For Imke Hoppe, one central line of research is on how the future of the climate is dealt with and received in the media. She also closely follows the course of communication between scientific researchers and societal actors, and finds it fascinating to understand the expectations people actually place on the media. Hoppe recalls her studies relating to the CliSAP Cluster of Excellence, which required her to visit two completely different places: a small town on Germany’s North Sea coast and the large city of Hamburg. “The huge parallel was that people in both places very much wanted regional media to develop what would effectively be a local perspective on the global topic of climate change,” she says. “Many people want media to help them better understand what climate change means for the place where they live, for the local neighborhood, for their family, for the people of city X or town Y.”

This knowledge transfer – conveying scientific insights in a way people can understand in their everyday context, albeit without oversimplifying issues – remains the core mission of academic communication. “Here in Munich, and especially at LMU, we have all kinds of touchpoints with other fields of research and areas of expertise,” Hoppe says. “For me, it is a kind of intellectual paradise.” All kinds of projects help her to learn what communication can do to explain content better and with a sharper focus, where there is still room for improvement, what issues need to be referenced and how different target groups can genuinely be reached.”

All kinds of touchpoints in an “intellectual paradise”

To take just one example: At LMU, Hoppe works with Professor Julia Pongratz on the CDRterra project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). CDRterra explores ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it. For the various technologies that could provide solutions, her group wants to develop materials that explain the underlying scientific methods in plain language, making the benefits and drawbacks clear to everyone. All that, she says, can play a part in preparing the ground for a public debate. “It is not easy subject matter,” the scientist confesses. “We want to explain it so clearly – for schools and the general public as well – that people have a good chance of understanding what CDR actually is.” Only then, she argues, is a broad-based debate possible in civil society.

For the professor herself, a focus on finding solutions is always important – especially in the context of controversial discussions. “Particularly in the climate change debate, I would really like to see a bit less attention given to the alarmist or disaster framing,” Hoppe explains. “Placing greater emphasis on strategies born of the various scientific research disciplines, discussing the possible ideas and pathways together with the pros and cons – that could contribute to a public debate informed by genuine science.”

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