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Clear and dynamic visuals are important when presenting climate change science

The recent global climate anomalies — raging wildfires, destructive floods, and scorching heatwaves — have accentuated the ever-growing concern about climate change. As discussions and debates intensify, the crux of the matter remains: How can we effectively communicate the complexities of climate change science to the masses?

A recent study, led by Steph Courtney and Karen McNeal and published in Geosphere, offers a compelling perspective on this subject. Both experts in their field, with Courtney specializing in science education and communication, their focus is on the impact of data visualization in portraying climate change.

Communication over complexity

Courtney believes that while scientific excitement is inevitable, it doesn’t always resonate with many outside the scientific community.

She emphasizes, “Your communication goal is more important than how cool you think your graph is.” Her statement underscores the significance of tailoring scientific communication to cater to diverse audiences, ensuring comprehension and evoking concern.

Reimagining the IPCC graphs

Their research revolved around redesigning three graphs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.

The objective was to assess the redesigned graph’s usability and understand its effect on viewers’ perceptions of scientist trustworthiness and climate change risks. This, they believed, could directly impact the viewers’ knowledge and their subsequent actions towards climate change.

The research was methodically executed with multiple rounds of user testing, encompassing surveys, eye-tracking techniques, ranking tasks, and interviews.

Balancing aesthetics and credibility

While the usability of the redesigned charts was comparable to the original, the redesigned versions were perceived as more trustworthy. One revamped design even heightened users’ concerns about climate change.

Courtney addresses a prevailing misconception stating, “Pretty is fine. Understandable and attractive graphs can be trustworthy.”

The research showed that while viewers preferred familiar figure formats, even minute deviations from standard charts posed confusion. Color coding emerged as a powerful tool, enhancing understanding and bolstering the chart’s credibility.

Moreover, while explanatory texts aided comprehension, it was cautioned that too much text could lead to visual clutter. This overshadows the message behind the climate change science.

Small changes, big impact

What’s noteworthy is that the research predominantly incorporated subtle changes to the graphs to pinpoint which alterations were most effective. Despite the subtlety, some revisions substantially enhanced the graphs’ impact.

Courtney stresses, “Little changes that take just a bit of effort can make the science more accessible and meaningful to people. Communication is not the only barrier in addressing climate change, but it is an area we can stand to improve — and it is worthwhile.”

Looking ahead, Courtney anticipates future research to delve into more ambitious graph modifications, based on climate scientists’ foremost priorities for public comprehension. With plans to share her findings with the IPCC, Courtney’s work is poised to influence their subsequent assessment reports.

In summary, as the world grapples with the looming challenge of climate change, ensuring effective communication becomes pivotal. As this research demonstrates, sometimes a clearer, more comprehensible graph could be the catalyst for change, urging individuals to act.

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