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WNC locals shine as climate science communicators

Veteran climate science communicator Susan Joy Hassol talks to a BBC News host about the language of climate change from her office in Asheville in 2022.
Veteran climate science communicator Susan Joy Hassol talks to a BBC News host about the language of climate change from her office in Asheville in 2022.

 When people talk about climate change, you often hear hopelessness. But what if we reframe the conversation? Humans drive global warming; that means humans can find solutions to change the trajectory.

This is Climate Week at NPR. Reporting teams have been searching the world for solutions to climate change and this week, they have been sharing their discoveries during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

An important part of the climate solution puzzle is communication. Climate science is chock full of complicated terms and jargon and important messages often get lost in translation. Lucky for us here in Western North Carolina, the region is a hub of climate scientists and communicators. Asheville is home to the National Centers for Environmental Information , the world's largest repository of climatological data and the University of North Carolina Asheville's National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), to name a few.

Minding the words

Helping scientists translate the findings are locals likeTom Maycock, a science editor with NC State University’s NC Institute for Climate Studies in Asheville. “And really what, what I do is, help the scientists who are authoring those reports try to frame their language in a way that is more accessible, but also accurate and precise as it can be,” said Maycock, who has been a science editor on a number of publications including the special reports released the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The 2018 IPCC report, titled Global Warming of 1.5 Celsius triggered slogans and calls to action from climate activists and politicians, including the “we have 12 years to fix the climate” that became a headliner during the 2020 presidential elections. Maycock unpacked the origins of the “2030 or Bust!” catchphrase for BPR, you can find the story here.

Unpacking the health impact

In the same building, you’ll find Jennifer Runkle, an environmental epidemiologist with the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies. “I’m exactly the same as a public health epidemiologist," Runkle said. "It's just my focus area isn't necessarily on chronic disease or HIV or cancer. We're focused on looking at how human’s interaction with their environment impacts their health.” Along with her scientific expertise, Runkle brings a wealth of experience translating population-based science into action-based solutions for a variety of stakeholders.

Much of her work focuses on examining risk factors in communities in Western North Carolina and involves Maggie Sugg. She’s an assistant professor in the department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and a medical geographer. Runkle and Sugg spoke to BPR about their work, you can find the conversation here.

The two are also members of the Western North Carolina Health and Climate Working Group. Made up of local public health leaders, practitioners, climate scientists and other experts, the group is working to help engage clinicians and the public health community in the region around the topic of climate change and health.

Unjumbling the jargon

Just down the road is veteran climate science communicator, analyst and author Susan Joy Hassol, who directs the nonprofit Climatecommunication.org. Hassol was the senior science writer on the first three U.S. National Climate Assessments and is currently helping to prepare hundreds of authors of the forthcoming Assessment to speak with the public and the media about their findings. Along with tackling terms like Thermohaline Circulation, she's has been collecting words – she dubs a different kind of jargon

“It's words that people do understand. They just understand them to mean something completely different,” Hassol said. “So, for example, to the public, positive is good and negative is bad. But in climate science, they don't use the terms that way positive is upward. So, they'll talk about a positive trend in temperature. The public thinks that sounds good, right? It's not in the era of global warming, a positive trend in temperature is bad.”

The definition disconnect is a pet peeve that Hassol has turned into a public service campaign. Over the years, BPR has tapped into her expertise to help clear some of the climate word confusion, you can find the stories here.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.