“It’s about us, the air we breathe, the microplastics in our bodies”
5 Dec 2022
The earth is warming, the species diversity falling: What makes people protect the climate and the environment? An interview with communication scientist Julia Serong to mark the UN Biodiversity Conference.
The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) is taking place in Montreal from 7 to 19 December. An interview with communication scientist Julia Serong from the Munich Science Communication Lababout the challenge of communicating climate change and biodiversity loss.
There’s a lot about climate change in the media. Is there much about protecting biodiversity?
Julia Serong: You can’t separate the two. Biodiversity is an aspect of climate change. The decisions made at the climate conference in November will have various impacts on species conservation. So, from the media’s point of view, there is a certain legitimacy in focusing on climate change. What gets left out of the picture is that by protecting biodiversity, we can do something to combat climate change.
When do humans protect the environment, climate, biodiversity? "We humans are also part of the ecosystem," says Julia Serong, referring to the consequences that climate change and environmental degradation also have on people's living conditions.
Only now is it becoming clear, through research, how important forest preservation is for climate protection as a means of storing carbon — not only the Amazon as the earth’s green lung, but also the forests here locally.
Thinking climate change and species protection together
It may have to do with the fact that when we think of species conservation, we think of wildlife first. In the 1990s, forests were already a topic of conversation in the media in Germany — acid rain being the main focus — but only now is it becoming clear, through research, how important forest preservation is for climate protection as a means of storing carbon — not only the Amazon as the earth’s green lung, but also the forests here locally. So far, that has not been viewed as connected with species conservation, where many people just think of particular animal species like the elephants.
But weren’t photos of polar bears on the ice floe widely used for a while to illustrate climate change?
Yes, ten or 15 years ago, species conservation was often used as an easy illustration of climate change. So we would see pictures of polar bears in the polar regions. But focusing on a single species, and one that lives far away, gave the public too narrow a view of climate change. This may be what is behind the greater attempt to convey the message of climate change in all its complexity.
It doesn’t just affect the orangutans or the bees; we humans are also part of the ecosystem. It’s not just about the environment and all the greenery that looks nice, it’s about our actual living conditions.
How climate change affects health
What role does biodiversity play in planetary health, your topic of research at the MSCL?
By now, climate scientists have come to realize that communicating climate change cannot focus only on rising temperatures and on CO2 emissions. There are many more problems than that. There is pollution, which is undeniable, and is a problem for species conservation — but also for humans. There are natural cycles, which were previously balanced and are now out of balance.
That has consequences for biodiversity and for the habitat of plants and animals — but also of humans. It doesn’t just affect the orangutans or the bees; we humans are also part of the ecosystem. It’s not just about the environment and all the greenery that looks nice, it’s about our actual living conditions. The oxygen we breathe. The pollutants in the air that are impacting people and animals.
Microplastics, for example, don’t just affect sea turtles, they are now found even in human breast milk. This stuff affects us, on a very massive scale. The planetary health concept tries to communicate more strongly how these things are interconnected.
Many diseases that you might not immediately connect with the issue display strong links to climate change and environmental factors.
So, the idea is to show that climate change is also about impacts on people’s own health?
Yes, that is one of the aims of the planetary health movement, which is being driven not only by climate scientists but by medical scientists, too. Many diseases that you might not immediately connect with the issue display strong links to climate change and environmental factors. Whether that’s allergies or cardiovascular conditions, which naturally increase with heat and with changes in the air. Fine particulate pollution has a direct medical impact.
Solid figures for climate policy
We have the 1.5-degree target for climate change and we now have the 30-percent target for species conservation, meaning that 30 percent of the earth should be placed under protection. How important are such markers for communication?
They are intended to make the complexity tangible and the problem concrete. The 1.5-degree target is certainly a tool that is useful to translate the problem into political decisions and to communicate it to policymakers: If we want to avoid the worst possible outcome, we have to stay within this range. That’s important for the political system to be able to measure whether the measures that have been taken were the right ones. Whether it helps the population to understand the urgency around climate change, I rather doubt it.
With climate change, we have reached a point where both are needed: the political system intervening in a regulatory way and people participating in the ways that they can. Without them, it won’t work.
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Even if I, as an individual citizen, am very motivated and even make changes to my own behavior, it is very difficult to relate my own contribution to the 1.5-degree target. It’s more important to get away from abstract concepts and focus on how we are each affected, and express solidarity with our immediate environment.
It’s a big challenge to communicate the complex problem of climate change as something that is both global and requiring systemic changes but also involves the individual. With climate change, we have reached a point where both are needed: the political system intervening in a regulatory way and people participating in the ways that they can. Without them, it won’t work.
So why not address the two target groups separately?
Media communications have changed in recent years because of social media. The interaction of the conservation movement and the political world is happening in front of an audience. This causes the issues to become polarized, which itself can become a problem. The climate change movement needs to learn to better identify their target audiences and which audience they can better reach with what message. However, there is still nowhere near enough empirical evidence on how climate change communication works and what group dynamics and reciprocal effects can occur.
How to explain climate change and the challenges that come with it? Images of polar bears on a melting ice floe tell us about global warming and its consequences. Do they possibly narrow our view and make climate change seem like a distant problem?
The climate change discourse, on the other hand, is aimed much more at individual behavioral change: getting people to give up eating meat, drive less, stop flying. The question then is how moral communication can be done in such a way that people don’t get the impression that they’re living their whole life wrong. That quickly leads to a sense of overwhelm.
Protecting the climate and species in our own environment
So, species conservation lends itself to motivating people to do something to protect the climate?
As an individual, I find it easier to sign a petition for the tree around the corner not to be cut down, or to donate money to protect a particular species of animal.
The climate change discourse, on the other hand, is aimed much more at individual behavioral change: getting people to give up eating meat, drive less, stop flying. The question then is how moral communication can be done in such a way that people don’t get the impression that they’re living their whole life wrong. That quickly leads to a sense of overwhelm. In our society, it is difficult for individuals to always be consistent.
I believe that the structures of civil society, as well as mini-collectives, can help bridge the gap between ‘me alone’ and ‘global society.’ Me doing something in my own environment and seeing that even small steps make a difference. Species conservation is not just about the orangutans that live so far away. There are already attempts to persuade urban gardeners not to mow their lawns so often. That is species conservation that starts right here at home.
Dr. Julia Serong is Research Director of the Munich Science Communication Lab and a research associate at the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research.
Julia Serong studied communication science, economic policy and English at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. From 2009 to 2014, she was a research assistant at the Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies at the Free University of Berlin, where she completed her doctorate on the topic of "Media Quality and Audience". From 2013 to 2020, she was a research assistant (project manager) at the Institute of Journalism at TU Dortmund University. Until 2021, Julia Serong was coordinator of the ad hoc working group "Facticity of the World" at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.
More on climate change, species conservation and the World Conference on Nature