Inside Climate Storytelling
When covering climate change and environmental issues, university and college communications teams balance the scientific and the personal to tell compelling stories. They tackle climate change reporting through narratives that support wider institutional movements, featuring sustainability, climate justice, and more. Here’s how four teams focused storytelling on alumni, staff, and students who are dedicated to advocacy and have personal connections to the land and people they fight for.
Young activists fighting for intersectional climate justice
The magazine team at Williams College, Massachusetts, U.S., frequently centers climate change in its work. Over time, Williams Magazine and the new storytelling website Williams Today have covered topics like environmentally efficient campus buildings, reducing the school’s carbon footprint, alumni climate researchers, and faculty roundtables that look at the intersections of race, class, gender, and the environment.
“We have covered this issue from so many different angles. It’s really a perennial story subject that we go to as often as we can, and as often as there is a good story to tell or a newsworthy story,” says Editor in Chief Amy Lovett.
One such story: “From Activism to Action,” a series of profiles from the spring 2021 issue. The story came about when a professor from the environmental studies program reached out about a student who in high school had launched a group advocating for sustainability issues, including divestment from fossil fuels. This student had recently won an award, been quoted in a Huffington Post article, and participated in a press conference with environmentalist Bill McKibben for his work.
Collaboration across campus became key to the story’s success: The magazine reached out to faculty members across disciplines to find other students doing work within the youth climate justice movement to feature in the piece.
“It occurred to us that the story used to be: ‘You graduated high school. You came to college. You found your path. Maybe you dabbled in student groups or activism. And then, as an alum you made your impact,’” says Lovett. “Now, from our anecdotal evidence, students are getting engaged so much earlier in their lives, and they're bringing that with them to Williams and then bringing their peers along—it’s almost a piece of their lives. It’s probably part of why they were interested in coming to Williams—because they saw this as a place where they could continue this kind of work.”
The magazine’s coverage has grown more intersectional over time, exploring the racial justice and social justice spaces, as exemplified in “From Activism to Action.”
“Our storytelling has changed because the nature of activism has changed. And we want to make sure our storytelling is timely, relevant, and inclusive—and reflects the emphasis the college long has placed on sustainability—without fatiguing our readers,” says Lovett. “That’s the fun challenge that we have.”
Climate change in the college’s backyard
The communications team at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, U.S., used documentary film in its climate coverage. “Fighting Climate Change Through Maine Wilderness Conservation” tells a purposeful, human-centered story highlighting alumnus Steve Tatko, a conservationist, forester, and generational Mainer who works in the state’s 100 Mile Wilderness.
The 2022 bronze Circle of Excellence Award-winning six-minute video shows Tatko trekking through the forest, cutting trees with a chainsaw, boating across a lake, looking at maps, taking notes, and calculating equations in his office.
In its Circle of Excellence Awards submissions materials, Colby’s team wrote, “We chose to highlight Steve because of the impact he has on the region. … We often feature alumni all over the world doing amazing things, but it seemed fitting to turn our lens on a Mainer in our own backyard.”
In the film, Tatko speaks about his personal connection to the land where he works.
“I was raised to run around these hills. The fear of losing that connection, the fear of losing that ability to access the place is what really drives me,” he says. “Part of where we’re at with the environmental movement, I think, is coming to terms with the fact that we’re not othered from these places or othered from nature, we’re a part of them.”
The video closes with an inspirational thought from Tatko: “None of us can flip a switch overnight and make the type of monumental change that’s really needed, but I think if each of us push our own little switch, eventually all those switches will flip to ‘on,’ and then you’ve got some change.”
The Ohio State University
Climate research scientists with a legacy
As its 2021 winter issue cover story, Ohio State Alumni Magazine featured climate scientists Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, both “rock stars” of Ohio State as described by Editor Mary Alice Casey. At the time of publication, they were both 73 years of age and still working full time at The Ohio State University, U.S., as senior research scientists and professors.
The magazine’s coverage of the Thompsons won a 2022 gold COE award, with judges writing that the magazine’s “captivating, warm, and memorable” story was a “must read.”
“We saw an opportunity to talk about climate change a little differently than our magazine has in the past—and that was to tell the story through these two alumni who have dedicated their lives to climate research and whose careers as Ohio State professors progressed right along with the field of climate science. We wanted to provide readers with information about climate change, and to tell the story through the eyes of these experts,” says Casey.
The magazine showcased the Thompsons’ discipline of paleoclimatology, which looks at climate periods of the geological past, and described their many expeditions to drill ice cores in the Arctic and tropic regions. Ice cores are long columns of ice that reveal such characteristics as how much snow accumulated year over year and what was in the air when the snow fell.
The article gave readers the opportunity to learn about and contribute to scholarships for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students interested in climate science. It also highlighted the university’s efforts to increase storage space for ice cores at the university’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.
“The Thompsons have been invested throughout their careers in supporting young scientists who become knowledgeable about the work and carry it on,” says Casey.
Fifteen years ago, the cover of one climate-centric issue of the magazine showed an illustration of a polar bear on a piece of ice, isolated and surrounded by water. The feature article, “Managing the Meltdown,” began with a hypothetical story of a mother reading to her son and explaining how polar bears were now extinct. It went on to describe how human activity was leading to climate change and outlined research by Ohio State faculty to address the crisis.
Reader response to the coverage was overwhelmingly negative. In contrast, the 2021 feature on the Thompsons generated no complaints and a handful of positive letters.
“What was different about how we approached it this time was really to show their careers, show their commitment, show the lengths they’ve gone to professionally, and the effect it had on them personally as far as raising a daughter in addition to teaching and conducting research,” says Casey.
The challenges the Thompsons faced and overcame in their work and personal lives made for compelling storytelling, she says.
“If people care about who they’re reading about, then your sources’ messages are more likely to resonate,” says Casey.
Washington University in St. Louis
Searching for refuge in a changing climate
Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., used the medium of film to show people with real connections to the land where they work, study, and live.
The seven-minute video, “In Search of Refuge,” is the inaugural story in a series that focuses on different aspects of climate change. It features interviews with scientists from the Tyson Research Center (the university’s environmental field station), the Missouri Botanical Garden (a research center), and the university who are working throughout the Missouri wilderness.
In the film, Kim Medley, Director of Tyson Research Center, speaks to her personal connection to the land.
“I’m from Missouri, so having studied across the United States—coming back to these ecosystems that are very familiar, [that] I learned about as a kid just hanging out in the woods—it was really a familiar place for me when I started here in 2013,” says Medley.
The video showcases a collaborative research effort to determine whether habitats known as microrefugia exist in Missouri and the Ozark Mountains. Microrefugia preserve favorable conditions for animals and plants amid climate change.
In the video, Adam Smith, an ecologist from the Missouri Botanical Garden, speaks about his revelatory experience while working on climate projections for Missouri plant species.
“We’ve always talked about climate change. But in some sense for me, even though I studied it intimately, it wasn’t personal. And then I realized: this is the future that I will be living in?”
The video was awarded a 2022 bronze award for Communications—Storytelling. COE judges wrote, “This story took a global issue and explained it using a local approach.”
In the closing moments of “In Search of Refuge,” the video’s narrator issues a call to action and “a promise of hope amidst a changing world.”
About the author(s)
Hannah Ratzer is Editorial Specialist at CASE.
Article appears in:
March - April 2023
DIGITAL ONLY ISSUE - Measures of Success: Five teams share stories of data in action. Plus a spotlight on sustainability: fundraising for climate initiatives, digital sustainability, and storytelling about climate change.