Looking to YouTube to break down barriers

Hawaiian honecreeper

What do bees in Colorado, reptiles in Australia, and birds in Hawaii have in common? All are important parts of the biodiversity in their respective ecosystems, and all are being severely impacted by climate change. Biodiversity, a measure of the variety and variability of life on Earth, is a complicated topic to discuss, so providing examples contained within single ecosystems can help general audiences understand the importance of this topic on a global scale.

Connecting with these general audiences is an important part of breaking down the barriers between scientists and their communities, one of the goals of NCSE's Graduate Student Outreach Fellowship. Therefore, we gave some of our fellows the opportunity to partner with a well-known YouTube creator to develop evidence-based climate change content to reach their communities. Charlie Kilman created and runs the YouTube channel Our Changing Climate, which produces video essays on topics at the intersection of climate change and social issues. He worked with two of our 2020 fellows, Catherine Henry and Dieuwertje "DJ" Kast, to produce a video (see below) about the impact of climate change on biodiversity, in places like Colorado, Australia, and Hawaii, that premieres on YouTube on May 8, 2020.

Kilman, who studied both filmmaking and environmental science in college, started his channel in 2016 to raise awareness about climate change. "I noticed a lack of climate change content, particularly videos that were both accurate and easily accessible," he says. "I wanted to see that content out there. So I started putting it out there myself."

Our Changing Climate has covered climate change issues from environmental policy to supply chain issues, all with the goal of making complicated issues understandable in under 10 minutes. For climate change and other contentious issues, the videos with the most views are not necessarily the videos with the most factual information. As YouTube continues to increase in popularity, more people than ever are relying on the platform to stay informed and to guide their decision-making. That’s why it is crucial to make sure that YouTube has content that is both evidence-based and accessible, even to general audiences.

It is crucial to make sure that YouTube has content that is both evidence-based and accessible, even to general audiences.

While some people seek out climate change content on YouTube, Kilman also works to game YouTube's notoriously complicated algorithms to reach audiences who may still be unaware. "The titles and thumbnail images of my videos aren't always about climate change. One of my most popular videos, titled 'Why is Fjallraven [an upscale outdoor outfitter] so expensive?' doesn't talk about climate change in the title. However, the answer to the question is all about climate change." These techniques seem to be working. "People will write that they never knew about the topic before, but because of the video they are going to take action."

For Henry and Kast, collaborating with a YouTube creator allowed them to practice sharing their science in a novel format. Henry and Kast worked together with Kilman to write the script, then provided some ideas for the visual design of the video.

"I really appreciate that the fellowship allows me to apply my science communication skills in such a public sphere, while also learning soft skills like scriptwriting and video content management," says Kast. Since both fellows are well versed in the science of biodiversity, they had to carefully consider how best to distill their knowledge to be both visually compelling and understandable, while still conveying a nuanced argument. "We have the responsibility to communicate what’s important, for people to know about biodiversity," Henry explains, "and to decide what we want the take-home message to be." Henry's suggestion that the video's framing narrative examine how climate change affects flower pollination by bees was based on her work at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The team also wanted to emphasize the other ways that humans contribute towards biodiversity loss, through habitat modification and pollution. So they included additional case studies on the Hawaiian honeycreeper, a bird endemic to Hawaii, and the recent Australian wildfires to show the interaction of human decision-making on the natural world.

One theme that permeates both the NCSE fellowship and Our Changing Climate's videos is how social inequity exacerbates the human impacts of climate change. With regard to biodiversity, it's often tacitly expected that some of the most vulnerable human populations will shoulder, without credit, much of the responsibility for conservation and restoration. Kast was interested in amplifying the voices of those working hardest to develop local resilience plans and researched how different Pacific Islander groups have worked to preserve biodiversity in their areas. By sharing their stories, the team hopes to inspire the viewers on YouTube to take similar action in their communities.

The first collaboration with Our Changing Climate has been a huge success. "It's a fun challenge. It's empowering to be able to say yes, I can communicate science in this way," says Henry. NCSE continues to explore ways to reach people who don't necessarily attend science events, particularly in this moment of sheltering in place, and is excited that our Graduate Student Outreach Fellows have the opportunity to develop new skills in the process.

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