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Social Science Research Guides Development of Videos Communicating Climate Change Risks

In the aftermath of the 2008 California fires that destroyed 550 homes north of Los Angeles, reminders of the former neighborhood remain: sidewalks, some plants, concrete steps to what used to be front porches. The fire displaced many residents, and others decided to move away.

Reconstruction begins. Surrounded by the burned detritus of his home, a northern Los Angles resident sifts through the rubble, looking for objects that might have survived the fire. | Photo © Sabrina McCormick. Used with permission.
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For filmmaker and sociologist Sabrina McCormick, these images tell a powerful story about the risks and dangers of wildfires and other extreme weather events that may be associated with climate change. The images are evocative and emotive—and for many people, McCormick says, they may be more persuasive than the written word.

At a lecture co-sponsored by AAAS and the Philadelphia-based Chemical Heritage Foundation, she described how she’s exploring the use of video to craft targeted messages to specific groups of people regarding climate risk.

Pamphlets, brochures and other printed materials are the main way that risks are communicated to the public, McCormick said. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps video could be a more provocative communication tool than print materials. “Video is potentially something that can compel people and engage people much more that the written word can, or maybe just in a different way than the written word can,” said McCormick.

Sabrina McCormick | Photo © of Sabrina McCormick. Used with permission.

McCormick is a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow assigned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment in Washington, D.C. At the AAAS lecture, she showed attendees preliminary documentary footage that she’s collected of residents displaced from their northern Los Angeles neighborhoods due to the 2008 fires. The footage chronicles how some residents decide to rebuild their homes in the same neighborhoods, on land that remains at high risk for wildfires.

In one of her video clips, a resident tours her neighborhood and points out where her house used to be and describes her plans to rebuild. She exclaims over seeing her roses blooming amid the charred ash. In another clip, a wildfire expert describes his concern that not enough thought is put into building fire-resistant communities in areas at high risk for wildfires.

“I’m concerned about people not being prepared for [climate change] impacts, which are already happening,” said McCormick, who is evaluating various sociological approaches to develop ways to effectively communicate risks to the public and to policymakers. The context of the message and who delivers it can be important, she said.

It’s also important to get people to participate in two-way communication about climate change risks. For instance, seeking public involvement in the actual filmmaking—by using inexpensive technology like cell phones and Flip cameras—might also be effective. “It’s just a matter of motivation and access,” McCormick said.

Six months later. A resident shows what is left of her home: concrete sidewalks, metal railings, and—surprisingly—her rose bushes. | Photo © of Sabrina McCormick. Used with permission.

She’s developing two types of videos that target different audiences. One type will be aimed at people facing climate change risks; it will be emotionally compelling, rich with narratives. The other type of video will be directed toward government officials and policymakers and will focus on problems and solutions.

The lecture was part of history of science series that started last year, co-sponsored by AAAS and the Philadelphia-based Chemical Heritage Foundation. The organizers envision the series as an “informal forum for researchers who explore historical and social aspects of science, technology and policy issues,” said Amy Crumpton, AAAS archivist. “We believe that insights gleaned from history and sociology can enrich our understanding of how and why social and ethical problems arise as science and technology develop.”

The next lecture in the series will be 15 June at AAAS. Kelly Joyce, a sociologist from the College of William and Mary, will speak on autoimmune disorders. Her work examines healthcare and how older adults use technology. Joyce is now on leave from the college and is serving as a visiting scientist at the National Science Foundation.


Read more about the lecture series on the history of science, technology and policy.