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Making climate science a human story


Making climate science a human story

Picture of Vera Penêda
Vera Penêda — Director Programmes & impact
September 25, 2019

A chat with ClimateAdam: the YouTuber who uses gin & tonics to explain rising sea levels

Adam Levy is a climate scientist and a journalist who combines science and storytelling on YouTube. ClimateAdam, as he is known to his almost 3,000 followers, has been revealing nuggets of climate science in a playful and accessible way for the past five years. He made his YouTube debut explaining sea level rise with the help of a gin & tonic in a pub. He believes that science and journalism is the perfect combination to turn the grim reality of climate change statistics into human stories.

Ahead of our upcoming News Impact Summit on climate change, we talked with ClimateAdam about his unique approach to making climate change topics accessible.

Ask the doctor, on YouTube

ClimateAdam thrives on curious people who dare to ask him honest questions about climate change. “I got a question recently from somebody who said they were in Year 9 at school in the UK. They heard something in class that we were all going to die because of climate change in 18 months, and if that was true.”

“That’s the best possible comment I can get because it shows someone has been misinformed but they’re trying to find videos like mine and are brave enough to ask these questions. (…) That is one of the wonderful things about new media like YouTube or Twitter or Facebook, it’s not passive, it gives an opportunity to initiate a conversation with a random kid at school.”

Adam’s YouTube persona, “a slightly more confident and more clueless version” of himself came into existence when he noticed a huge gap between the scientific understanding and the public conversation on climate change. “The goal and hopefully the impact of ClimateAdam is not only to explain some key ideas around climate science but also to humanise them and the process around them,” Adam said.

His priority is to make videos that are consistent with the platform and enjoyable. “When I think about a topic, I try and boil things down to the single key question that I want to talk about,” Adam said, whether it’s what causes sea levels to rise or how to spot pro-climate policies. “Then I consider essential elements of each question and what elements can be made into something more playful without actually running away from the serious topic.”

The climate crisis is no laughing matter, but ClimateAdam found that “his own ridiculousness” would get folks smiling at the screen even when watching videos about climate change.

“Sometimes the hardest bit is to work out where you can afford to be playful and what you can be funny about without making a serious topic seem lighthearted,” explained Adam.

Changing the narrative through social media

Adam has witnessed how the tide has turned in favour of the climate — with movements like Extinction Rebellion and the Youth for Climate.

“I wasn’t sure I would ever see any real action on climate change. Even the thought of having a global climate agreement felt like a distant prospect, never mind an agreement which had keeping temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius as its target. That in itself is incredible.”

He has seen how much the narrative has changed in the last year. “People everywhere are talking about it. The volume and the quality of the conversation have improved hugely,” the YouTuber notes. “But we still have to ask whether that conversation is achieving what needs to be achieved. Although the narrative is shifting, the reality, unfortunately, is still behind.”

Social media like YouTube has played a major factor in stirring debate and mobilising action for the climate in the way it allows people from all over the world to interact, relate and organise.

“I think it’s been a really huge factor in it, especially speaking to a lot of youth climate strikers. [Social media] is just a fundamental part of the conversation for any young people. Social media isn’t a secondary medium, it is a primary medium and a fundamental part of their social interactions. It’s really formed the backbone for a lot of the new activism we are seeing.”

But the YouTuber notes that social media wasn’t the only medium to bring momentum to the movement. “Extinction Rebellion has gone out of their way to do things in person and to really do things in a face-to-face, human way, having meetups, small local events, knocking on doors.”

Collaboration between scientists and journalists is key

Adam understands the two paths he walks — scientist and journalist — can be perfectly aligned to discuss climate. “The job of the scientist is to find results, show relationships, find patterns, and search for truth and information. It is the job of the journalist to tell stories and to make information human,” says Adam. He believes journalists and scientists can team up to show people how scientific findings impact their lives.

Collaboration between science experts and journalists is key to changing the pace and the tone of the narrative on climate change. “News is usually about a specific event in a specific place involving specific people but climate change is everywhere. And when something is everywhere, it can feel like it is nowhere,” he explains.

“It is the job of journalists to localise climate change, to make it human, to make it heard, to make it feel close. That is a really big challenge. A lot of journalists are getting much better at it, but for a long time both the volume and quality of the way we talked about climate change has been insufficient.”

According to Adam, we have failed to cover climate change in a way that does it justice, shown by the slow pace at which action is being taken in particular when it comes to government policies.

ClimateAdam has two tips for journalists covering the climate: focus on the story and on the solutions. “Always focus on the story. A story is different from a fact, a story is something human.” On the other hand, a lot of stories tend to be depressing, and can even lead to despair for not presenting a solution to the problem. ClimateAdam says:

“Trying to give people pathways to act as part of your stories is a really excellent practice, not only because it leaves readers with a better feeling, but also harnesses that story for some purpose.”

If you wish to learn more on how to combine science and journalism to interact with young audiences on social platforms come and listen to Adam Levy at the News Impact Summit on climate change reporting, on 7 October, in Birmingham. There will be other talks and presentations on science and environmental journalism with experts from BBC News, Carbon Brief and Climate Home, Quartz, Al-Jazeera, the Lookout Station and Extinction Rebellion. See the full programme.

Further reading

  • How a chatty bot is engaging audiences on climate change
  • What’s new in climate, politics and local reporting? Join our free News Impact events and find out


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