Climate Communicators

Climate Communicators:  From left to right: Celia Fisher, Dr. Janel Hanrahan, Dakota Crane and Jeremy Sousa. 

For young people like Dakota Crane, Celia Fisher, and Jeremy Sousa, climatology students at Lyndon State College, watching the skies means coming down to earth, studying math and science—and bringing their passion about clouds, storms, and weather into conversations about climate change.

“Climate change communication, especially given America’s current political situation,” says Fisher, “is super important—because climate change will affect everyone in the world.”

Dr. Janel Hanrahan, assistant professor of Atmospheric Sciences, said the Lyndon State College (LSC) Climate Change Communication group started when two students approached her in 2014. The group has grown from five to 22 members.

“This group,” said Sousa, who comes from Seekonk, Mass., “has helped me learn how to effectively communicate climate change to non-scientists, and to convey why it is an important issue.”

“I was about 12,” he recalled, when a science teacher’s lesson on the different types of clouds, changed everything. From that day, said Sousa, “weather was always a passion of mine.”

In high school, Sousa learned about Lyndon State from a local meteorologist. A career in meteorology interested him, and he enrolled. After a summer internship in a news studio, he decided being a broadcast meteorologist (aka weatherman) was not his calling.

“I decided,” he said, “to turn my focus toward climatology. This is when I joined the Climate Communication group.”

Dr. Hanrahan’s “Climate Communicators” visited Danville High School last spring, when they also went to Burke Town School’s middle school, to Newark Street School, Concord School, and Lyndon Institute.

Maxfield English, the teacher who coordinated that visit to Danville School, recalled that students, “found it really interesting. We had some really good conversations about where things are heading, where we could end up. I think that with Dr. Hanrahan’s students being so close in age, our students took it a little more seriously. I’m appreciative that we were able to afford Danville students this experience.”

March 27, on a return visit to Danville, it was the entire LSC climatology class that planned to meet with middle school students. After two brief presentations, Hanrahan said, college students would sit down for conversations with small groups.

The purpose of school visits, noted Sousa, is not only to bring, “the complex issue of climate change…down to a simpler level, so that middle- and high-school students can understand it,” but also, “more importantly, to help students learn why acting on climate change is critical—and what they can do to get involved.”

Celia Fisher, born and raised on a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, had long observed daily weather patterns, when “a single storm, in the summer of 2006,” sparked her interest in studying weather. She recalled how that straight-line windstorm “took down trees across the area and twisted them into corkscrews. That damage almost looked like tornado damage. We were out of electricity for three-and-a-half days.”

By the time she was finishing high school, she planned to make researching severe weather her career. She chose LSC, where she is completing a double major in math and atmospheric sciences. One required course, Climate and Statistics, she said, “really opened my eyes.”

That course moved her to action. Despite her lifelong discomfort with public speaking, Fisher joined the Climate Change Communication group last fall.

“By joining,” she observed, “I have learned a lot about why we need to communicate the science, and how we should do that. I am much more comfortable now…with communication, especially communication of climate change.”

This past January, Fisher accepted Dr. Hanrahan’s invitation to become social media manager for The Climate Consensus, a college website (www.theclimateconsenus.com). Its goal, she said, is “to provide the public with engaging and scientifically accurate information about climate change.”

“Working on this project has taught me so much, not just about the science,” she said, “but about what people are interested in.” Getting a sense of what people click on, and share, on social media, Fisher noted, has taught her how to get information about climate change across to the general public.

For Dakota Crane, who made meteorology her career goal at the age of five, it’s been unwavering support from family and friends for her ambitions—in science and in softball—that’s brought her to LSC.

Crane recalled the day she talked with her stepfather. He understands, she said, that climate change is real—but wants still to use fossil fuels, because they are much cheaper.

“I told him about how, in the future under climate change, sea levels will rise, and millions of people will be displaced because their homes will be under water.” she said. “These people will become refugees—and, as we know, countries typically do not want to take in refugees, especially masses of people."

Crane believes this would create climate wars. People will want to move somewhere safer, but no one will accept them.

“I told [my grandfather] that all future generations will have to deal with this, and the world will not be a safe place,” she said. “He was surprised by this and said he had never thought of it that way. It was great to get someone to realize the seriousness of the situation, that it’s not always just dealing with the local weather.”

Her own weather focus had shifted away from the local quite early.

Weather always fascinated Crane, she said, especially extreme thunderstorms. At home during the summer months, she always was the one who watched from the windows, and owned many different weather books.

“As I grew older, I said I wanted to be a meteorologist., said Crane, “explaining what a meteorologist is, and telling people, ‘no, I’m not studying space, or meteors—and you will not see me on TV!’

She discovered LSC while contacting softball coaches, and learned how well known the atmospheric sciences program is.

“Sophomore year, we were required to take a climatology course that I was not looking forward to," she remembers. "However, by the end of the semester, I had read the entire book, cover to cover, and I was completely fascinated by the study of climate."

Around this time, the Climate Change Communication group was formed, and Crane was one of the first to join.”

That passion for studying and communicating climate change isn’t unique to Crane, Fisher, and Sousa, or to others in the Climate Change Communication group at LSC. The college, recognizing how important this work is to the rising generation, has created the climatology program. It’s one of the first in the nation, and will welcome its inaugural class this fall.

“We’ve had just amazing support from the institution,” said Hanrahan of the proposal that she, Dr. Jay Shafer, and colleagues put forward. Natural science departments—chemistry, geology, biology—are already covering climate change, she said: “It feels like a natural transition.”

“Climate change is really the direction of our field,” she said. “All atmospheric science students already take a full year of climatology. You have to be able to talk about how day-to-day weather is changing, and how, largely, the reason for that is that our climate system is changing."

With the new degree, students will be trained to go out and apply the science—as opposed to conducting research. The climate change degree will not lead to a Ph.D., but will prepare students to help bridge the gap between climate scientists and the general public.

Students will serve society in areas as diverse as business, education, insurance, and government—natural resource planning, for instance, and even policy-making. Varied science backgrounds within the program, she emphasized, will support this range of career options.

Those careers will be critically important, said Hanrahan.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a brand-new climate, in place of one that’s been in place for thousands of years—and, she emphasized, “this rate of change has never been seen” on earth before."

Yet the public, she noted, “has heard from Exxon,” not from climate scientists, who “haven’t done a very good job communicating with the general public.”

Lyndon State College’s atmospheric science department—which gave the Weather Channel Jim Cantore, and has also given Vermont the Eye-on-the-Sky guys: Mark Breen; Steve Maleski; and Lawrence Hayes, at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury—is upping the ante, Hanrahan believes, with good reason: “We’re not going to be able to address climate change unless we all get on board!”