Bursting the Academic Bubble

In universities, we sit on such detailed and emotive stories of how climate change impacts the human and physical environments of our planet. These stories, told in the right way, could be just what people throughout the country need to be inspired to make steps towards a more sustainable society. To mobilise this scientific knowledge, universities have some incredible opportunities to do so much more to understand the audiences they could connect with and communicate with them accordingly.

Academic Conference Setting

Where in the world must we go to clearly see the factors at play within the issue of climate change?

In answering this question, our minds might wonder to the Arctic, where sea ice is thinning and causing huge difficulties for the indigenous people who depend on it to hunt. Perhaps we might think about all the coastal communities in the world who are facing the huge challenge of protecting themselves from flooding caused by sea level rise. Or maybe we might even consider all the classrooms in the country where our future workforce is being educated about the relationship people have with the environment.

Yet, as I sit at a comfortable desk in my university department and write about my research, I sometimes struggle to feel any connection to these places at all. In universities, we have fascinating discussions and debates about how to most effectively research and tackle climate change. However, where does this information go when the conversation ends? Some of these ideas will make their way into scientific journals and some of these journal articles will make their way into government policies and newspapers. Although, if this is all we do as academics to share our knowledge of climate change with the world, I wonder if we are missing out on some big opportunities that we can and should be taking to engage more people with the subject.

To me, a clear goal in engaging with the public should be to inspire behavioural change through informative messages of hope. To achieve this, we need stories. Particularly, we need stories that offer insight into the ways in which a changing climate could affect the wellbeing of the people and animals we share the planet with; stories that people can empathise with; and stories that offer a pragmatic pathway forward. This doesn’t mean bombarding audiences with graphs and figures until they hopefully get the message. It means working hard to truly understand the perspectives, hopes and fears of the people we are attempting to connect with.

This will be hard work. However, if the solution to climate change was easy and simple to understand, then we wouldn’t still consider it to be an issue. If university departments can take on the challenges of communication and audience engagement with enthusiasm and determination, we might be able to burst the academic bubble and break down the barriers that currently exist between academia and the public in order to empower more individuals, school pupils and industry leaders to take effective action on climate change. 

© 2019 by Cameron James Mackay