COP21: Three ways data can combat climate change compassion fatigue


This week, leaders from around the globe are meeting in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to develop a long-term effort against climate change. But will this meeting have any impact on the way the public engages with climate change?

Aniruddh Mohan, writing for the Brookings Institute, thinks not.

"There is a certain level of compassion fatigue that has clicked into gear with respect to climate change events. Yet, with time, such events will only be more and more likely for both developed countries of the West and developing countries—such as China and India—that are highly vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Human beings are unfortunately very poor at reacting to unfolding misery, but instead, need to be shocked into transformational action by quantifiable tragedy," he argues.

From Kyoto to Copenhagen, and plenty of other events in between, the public has been saturated with climate-related stories and worst case scenarios.

There is also the problem of 'the new normal', in which the effects of climate change slowly become so commonplace that they no longer shock people into action.

This issue of normalcy is particularly apparent in Greg Philo and Catherine Happer's book 'Communicating Climate Change and Energy Security: New Methods in Understanding Audiences', wherein they quote one research subject stating, "we've almost reached our saturation point with those sorts of images as they are just so commonplace that I don't think it would register on such a personal level".

So how can journalists make climate stories register on a personal level? We looked at 3 innovative ways that journalists have used data to galvanize the public and help them engage with climate-related issues in new and interesting ways.

1. An interactive earth sciences app

Chaim Gingold's app Earth Primer teaches the user about the Earth's geological make up by letting them experiment with the impacts of different types of environmental events. Climate change messaging does not explicitly feature anywhere in the app; instead, the user is invited to play with melting glaciers and rising temperatures to draw their own conclusions. By removing overt messages, Gingold's app works around the compassion fatigue problem, whilst simultaneously helping the audience see that extreme weather events are not supposed to be normal.

“I tried to strike this tone of not lecturing to the players, because I think that creates a different kind of experience that’s less inviting,” said Gingold. “I’d rather people draw their own conclusions than me sort of spell it out.”

2. Turning climate data into sound

Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo's project Climate Symphony translates inhuman data into a relatable, analogue format. Using a process known as data sonification, in which data movements are represented via an increase or decrease in pitch, amplitude or tempo, the project aims to personalize the numbers find in hard climate data.

“In a world where we’re saturated with hearing the same messages,” they say, “any way to engage people with a subject [as] important [as] climate change is worthwhile.”

3. Climate Time Machine

Discussions on the impacts of climate change often focus on trends over hundreds or thousands of years, and it is easy for audiences to disassociate themselves from such large time sets. To make climate impacts more relatable to today's audiences, NASA's Climate Time Machine provides an interactive visualization of how sea ice, sea levels, carbon emissions, and global temperatures have shifted throughout the period of our lifetimes. By comparing climate change to our own life spans, the visualization illustrates the speed at which changes have occurred.