Climate change is often perceived as controversial in the public’s view. One meaningful way scientists can address this problem is to engage with the public to increase understanding of climate change. Attendees of scientific conferences address climate change within meetings yet rarely interact with the public as part of conference attendance. Here, we describe outreach (sending experts into the community) and inreach (bringing the public to a conference) activities at the 2015 Northwest Climate Conference in Idaho that were designed to increase the local community’s understanding of climate change and foster interaction between scientists and the public. Conference attendees volunteered to visit community schools and civic groups to give presentations and engage in a discussion on climate change. We designed a well-attended evening plenary session for the public that featured an experienced speaker who described local climate change impacts important to the community. Local high school students attended the conference, and several were mentored by conference attendees. We reached an estimated 1,000 students and 500 other members of the public in person and many others via advertising and newspaper articles. Keys to our success were local contacts with excellent connections to schools, civic organizations, local government officials, interest groups, and a pool of motivated, enthusiastic conference attendees who were already traveling to the area. We encourage other conference organizers to consider these activities in their future meetings to increase public knowledge of climate change, particularly given the urgency of action needed to limit future climate change and its impacts.
The Sixth Annual Northwest Climate Conference (NWCC, formerly known as the Pacific Northwest Climate Science Conference) was held 3–5 November 2015 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The conference brought together hundreds of researchers, resource managers, and policy makers from a variety of institutions for a cross-disciplinary exchange of knowledge and ideas relating to climate science, impacts, and adaptation. Attendees discussed the latest climate science, challenges to infrastructure, industry, environment and communities, and adaptation solutions relevant to the northwestern United States as well as British Columbia.
Idaho, and indeed much of the United States, is in need of information about the state of the science on climate change. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, Idaho is among the states with the smallest percentage of population that think that global warming is happening and that humans are largely responsible (Fig. 1). To address this knowledge gap within the local community, NWCC organizers added several activities designed to extend the impact of the conference to the public, reaching out to the local community in multiple ways to help people understand climate change and its impacts. These activities consisted of both outreach (going out into the community) and inreach (bringing the community to the conference). The purpose of this article is to describe these activities and the impacts they had, provide guidance for similar efforts, and urge other organizers to consider these activities as part of their own conferences.
NWCC organizers targeted a variety of local groups for engagement, including school-age children; organized civic groups; conservation, hunting, and fishing groups; and the general population. We designed several activities around outreach and inreach (Table 1). Outreach activities consisted of placing scientists who could address climate change as speakers in the local K–12 schools and community college as well as at organized meetings of local institutions. Organizers contacted conference attendees (persons who submitted an abstract or were registered for the conference) to request volunteer speakers, identifying a pool of about 20 volunteers. These scientists were experts in climate change and generally had experience presenting on the topic to the public. We also solicited volunteers from a group of graduate students who were fellows of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Northwest Climate Science Center and alumni of the 2015 Climate Science Center Boot Camp, which trained attendees in methods of climate communications with the general public, media, and decision-makers. To best match expertise and experience of speakers with their audience, we sent volunteers a survey to identify their area of research specialization, speaking experience, availability during the conference (including the day before and day after), and desired audiences (especially younger versus older audiences).
Locations at which to place speakers were identified through a combination of efforts. One of us is a local high school teacher and contacted teachers at multiple local K–12 schools to gauge interest in having visiting scientists speak to their students. To identify interested community groups, NWCC organizers worked with University of Idaho (UI) personnel, including UI Coeur d’Alene Program Development Specialist Wanda Quinn, who made inquiries within their network of contacts at multiple community organizations, including civic groups and governments.
Inreach activities began with an evening public plenary session open to the public and advertised widely to the general public, and in a targeted manner to conservation, hunting, and fishing groups in local newspapers, radio, and social media. We sought a speaker experienced in addressing the general public on climate change and also wanted the speaker to address issues relevant to the local community. Coeur d’Alene has a sizable and influential hunting and fishing community, and we wanted to establish a constructive dialogue with this group that is often reluctant to acknowledge climate change. To find our speaker, we canvassed the regional climate change community, taking advantage of the program committee that assisted with organizing the presentations at the NWCC. In a second inreach activity, we hosted high school students who attended the conference for a day. Finally, we matched interested high school and community college students with volunteers drawn from the pool above in a mentoring program to provide students with insights about careers in scientific fields.
Seven conference attendees visited local elementary, middle, and high schools, and the local community college, reaching 1,000 students (Fig. 2; Table 1; audience numbers were estimated). Audiences ranged from as young as third grade students to sophomores in college. Talks were presented either in an auditorium, which allowed multiple classes to attend and therefore the speaker to address more students, or in classes, which increased speakers’ abilities to engage directly with students. Volunteers were asked to give only one talk (although one speaker gave two), thereby reducing each speaker’s time commitment. A particular challenge for some speakers was creating an engaging talk for elementary students; audience knowledge and attention span required careful thought and substantially different content and approaches than presentations to high school students. Speakers shared presentations and assisted each other to meet this challenge.
Five speakers gave presentations at civic associations (e.g., the Rotary Club) to a total of 100–200 attendees. Despite our attempts, we were unable to schedule a talk with local government officials and a planning and vision committee.
The evening public plenary session, which occurred prior to the start of the conference, was titled “The implications of climate change for fishing and hunting in the Pacific Northwest,” and was given by Bill Geer of Lolo, Montana. Approximately 300 people attended the event, including community members spanning a range of ages (from high school students to retirees) as well as conference attendees. Geer was selected because he had substantial experience speaking to public audiences about climate change, and his topic of fishing and hunting is important to many people in northern Idaho communities. A reception following the talk allowed attendees to further discuss climate change and ask Geer questions in an informal setting. A front-page article in the local Coeur d’Alene newspaper and an online article on the Spokane newspaper website highlighted Geer’s presentation and provided additional public exposure to climate change impacts in the Northwest.
Twenty-seven high school students attended one day of the formal conference. They listened to the conference keynote speaker, Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to scientific talks on the topic, “Water Year 2015: A prototype year for the future climate of the Northwest?” Students viewed talks of their choice in the first afternoon concurrent session. Five high school and community college students were paired with volunteers during the first day of the conference to provide mentorship and attend talks and lunch together. Feedback from these participants was positive and suggested that more time would have been beneficial.
At some of the activities, such as the public plenary session or Science on Tap (a regular meeting open to the public featuring a scientist), we were likely reaching people who already acknowledged the science behind climate change and the role of human activities. In these situations, people had to make an effort to participate, and therefore we speculate that individuals who were uncertain about climate change or believed it is not happening may have been less likely to attend. Yet this latter group is critical to reach to make progress on changing views about climate change science and increasing climate literacy. Four of our activities reached this group. First, volunteers gave talks at schools, where the event was part of the curriculum. Second, speakers presented at regularly scheduled (e.g., weekly or monthly) meetings of civic groups, where the climate change discussion was just one part of the agenda, and thus audience members came for a variety of reasons. Third, in our marketing effort for the evening public plenary session we carefully chose wording that would appeal to the general public rather than aggravate the embedded political polarities around climate change. We used wording about the future of wildlife and fisheries habitat and their role in protecting it rather than wording about climate change as a cause for concern. We also worked hard to obtain advance media coverage about the plenary session in newspapers and interest group newsletters. Fourth, the evening public plenary session was covered on the front page of the local newspaper. Therefore, we feel we reached people who otherwise might not have expressed interest in hearing about climate change.
LESSONS AND CONSIDERATIONS FOR FUTURE CONFERENCES.
Scientists are increasingly called on to engage with diverse audiences including the public and policy makers. We strongly encourage organizers of future conferences that discuss climate change to consider implementing one or more of these outreach and inreach activities. The pool of possible speakers is large: a postconference survey of conference attendees revealed that 43 of 82 respondents (52%) said they would participate in outreach/inreach activities at next year’s conference. An additional resource of local speakers who can help effectively engage the public on this topic is the “Climate Voices” initiative, a searchable network of scientists from across the United States who are actively involved in public speaking about climate change. Note that such public engagement is not limited to the topic of climate change but could be included in conferences about medicine, food, water, and so on. In this section, we describe considerations for developing a successful program (Table 2).
A key aspect of engaging with the public is discussing local resources and issues that might be impacted by climate change. Given the wide range of impacts in northern Idaho, it was easy—and important—for speakers to do so. Furthermore, extensive advertising of public events and the conference itself through various media outlets and organization networks will lead to greater public awareness. One important resource could be broadcast meteorologists, who reach members of the public daily on issues related to climate and weather.
Early and committed organization is critical. Beginning to plan well in advance of a conference helps identify volunteers, who may need to incorporate activities into their travel plans, and hosts, such as teachers who need to make time for a speaker in their curricula or civic groups who need to schedule a talk. Once volunteers have been identified, frequent, clear communication between speakers and hosts is very helpful and may need to be coordinated by conference organizers. We encouraged speakers to discuss the content, audience, and setting (e.g., auditorium or classroom) with their hosts. This advance discussion is especially important to teachers, who want to understand the topics and experience of their volunteer speakers. Both volunteers and teachers are extremely busy with other demands on their time, leading to possible miscommunication and mistakes that may jeopardize the engagement. Thus, we recommend that conference organizers facilitate these relationships by participating extensively in the scheduling and initiating contact among the groups multiple times (e.g., follow-up e-mails within a week or two of the conference). Use of web-based documents (such as Google Docs) aids coordination among distant organizers.
Personal connections between organizers and local contacts and teachers and civic groups undoubtedly helped schedule speakers. Our multiple local contacts provided established relationships and trust that likely resulted in a higher number of speaking engagements. It is difficult to assess the criticality of local contacts; such avenues should be pursued if possible, although we suggest that a program can be successful without the established connections that local contacts provide.
We matched the experience of volunteers to the audience and task. Although no volunteer speaker reported an uncomfortable or hostile environment, conference organizers placed experienced speakers in situations where confrontations may have been more likely (civic groups as opposed to elementary schools). If volunteers expressed concern about giving presentations, we asked them to participate as mentors of students instead. We also encouraged speakers to share presentations among volunteers, and posted presentations when permitted.
We encouraged flexibility of scheduling talks, including options for days before and after the conference, and matched volunteer availability to speaker slots. In many cases, schools were flexible about days and times, but some lead time was needed. Speakers may need to be aware of surprises; in one case, one host wanted a 45-minute talk, but when the speaker arrived, another host asked that it be 30 minutes. Clear communication between speaker and host will reduce the number of such incidents, but not eliminate them. Conference organizers should gauge the size of the volunteer pool before contacting potential hosts to avoid overpromising the number of speaking slots. Transportation was less of an issue for volunteers at the NWCC: many attendees had cars, and some volunteers could walk to destinations. We utilized a local group to identify a volunteer driver to transport a speaker.
An assessment of the effectiveness of public outreach/inreach activity could be undertaken, time and effort permitting. Such an assessment may not need to be comprehensive. Instead, limited and targeted pre- and postactivity surveys that included questions from established surveys such as the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication could provide feedback about the impact of activities. In addition, such a survey could include questions designed to provide insights about improving activity in future conferences.
Our outreach and inreach activities reached 1,500 people in person and many others via publicity and media distribution who now have an increased understanding of climate change. The activities were successful at engaging the public on climate change for several reasons. Climate change experts were already coming to Coeur d’Alene for the Northwest Climate Conference, and many generously volunteered their time and effort. Many climate scientists are ready and willing to volunteer for such activities, and we were able to provide a mechanism to allow them to make an impact. Thus, there existed a pool of experienced and eager speakers whose travel to the location was already supported. Enthusiastic organizers, including locals with extensive networks that facilitated making connections, worked diligently to reach the public through a variety of avenues, both bringing the conference to the community and bringing the community to the conference. Although our effort involved multiple speakers, hosts, and coordinators, even one high-profile public event associated with a conference would raise public awareness of a critical scientific issue. Whether these outreach and inreach activities made a lasting impact remains to be seen, but we feel such engagement with the public is an important and needed action from climate scientists. We urge other conference organizers to incorporate similar activities in future meetings.
We would like to acknowledge the time and effort of the volunteer speakers and mentors and the hosts at the schools and civic groups, without whom this program would not have happened. We thank Wanda Quinn (University of Idaho, Coeur d’Alene) for her dedicated support in making connections. Thanks also to Polli Hamlin and Adrienne Cronebaugh of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance for their assistance, and to the many fiscal sponsors of the Northwest Climate Conference. We acknowledge the helpful comments of two anonymous reviewers.