VIEWS: Stories will change minds, not another terrifying statistic

Managing and understanding climate change will be critical to the sustainability of all industries, communities, and ways of life. At the core of this challenge, is science communicators, who carry the heavy responsibility of ensuring their extensive research and studies of this field are accurately communicated to the public.

In this interview, Dr Linden Ashcroft shares her experiences as a climatologist and her views on how the field is changing.

  • What originally sparked your interest in climatology and how has that interest evolved over time? 

I was originally fascinated by the weather—the drama of thunderstorms and heatwaves, and how weather affects our everyday lives. But at university I became more interested in studying the bigger picture: How are these dramatic events changing over time, and what is causing those changes?

As I learnt more, I realised that climatology is also the study of how our planet is connected. For example, the idea that the ocean temperatures off the coast of Indonesia can influence the rain we receive in Victoria is amazing to me!

  • How did you start your career in climatology? 

I started my career like many researchers, by doing an Honours research project. I studied cold days in Melbourne and Perth, and how they are associated with weather patterns that start out over South America. I tried a few different things after that, including training as a science communicator, before coming back to university to attempt a PhD. This time I was looking at Australia’s past climate, using old weather observations and archives to piece together our climate history.

  • What do you believe is the role of science communicators on issues like climate change, during a time when there are still varying views on what the issue of climate change is and how it’s evolving?

Oh, what a question!

We do need trusted science communicators to present scientific facts and uncertainties clearly. But it’s conversations and stories that change people’s minds on an issue, not another graph or terrifying statistic. Political affiliations and existing beliefs play a much bigger role in people’s opinions on climate change than whether or not they understand the greenhouse effect. So we don’t just need science communicators, we need all communicators to talk about this issue. The role of all of us is to have rational and honest conversations with each other about what we understand, what is unclear, what we’re scared of and how we can minimise the amount of warming to which we are committing.

  • How have you seen discussions around climate change evolve among climatologists in the last five years? 

My colleagues work incredibly hard on complex and depressing issues. At the start of my career I saw a lot of energy being put into proving the existence and size of human-induced climate change. But we have well and truly moved on from this. The discussions and questions being asked now are about how extreme weather events are going to change in a warmer world, and what it will take to keep us at a relatively safe level of warming.

  • How do you think the role of climatologists in addressing climate change will evolve in the next five years? 

I believe we will see more climatologists working with scientists from other disciplines to answer cross-disciplinary questions. This is already happening but as the reality of climate change becomes clearer, the need for climate understanding is going to stretch into all fields, from economics to health to building design. I also think the next generation of climate researchers are graduating with strong communication skills, making it possible for them to share their science with a wider audience than ever before.

About the expert

Dr Linden Ashcroft grew up in country Victoria on the lands of the Yorta Yorta people, and is a lecturer, climate scientist and science communicator at the University of Melbourne.

Her research uses the past to help us prepare for the future, exploring the climate of Australia using historical documents and weather observations.

She is a regular on the science show Einstein A Go Go on 3RRR radio in Melbourne and a Science and Technology Australia Superstar of STEM.

Her career highlights include working with a farmer in Armidale to rescue his grandfather’s weather diaries, presenting videos on climate science for the Bureau of Meteorology, being part of the winning team for the 2014 Eureka Prize for Interdisciplinary Research and having her writing selected for the 2019 Best Australian Science Writing anthology.

Image description: Headshot of a woman from the elbows up wearing a red jumper and blue collared shirt. She has shoulder-length hair and is sitting at a table. On the table sits two old scientific books that are open, as well as an old scientific instrument. There is a bookshelf in the background. The woman is smiling.