A little over a year ago, the Earth Institute launched a new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability — aiming to spot, refine and share tools and tactics that cut through the noise and distraction that seem to dominate the online communication environment.
The prime focus from the start has been spreading and deepening the capacity of journalists and other communicators to foster progress on the climate crisis, conservation, and creating resilient, inclusive societies. And that was before the pandemic explosively intensified our mission.
Yes, 2020 was a year of devastating loss, disruption and online stress. A blizzard of emergent terms like “doomscrolling” and “Blursday” even made it impossible for the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary to stick to their tradition of choosing one word of the year. But a global communicative community, including our network, is working hard to make information and connectivity matter a little more each day.
We began by building a Columbia-wide network to foster interdisciplinary connectivity and brainstorming around climate and sustainability communication. (You can still join us!) We convened artists, scientists and journalists in informal mixers and collaborated on events exploring new paths to effective climate change communication. The New Climate Story was one result.
Working with colleagues in the communications department at the Earth Institute, we bolstered online resources and ran workshops fostering scientists’ capacity to connect with the public and policy makers.
Dale Willman, a veteran public radio producer and journalism trainer who’d worked from South Sudan to Sumatra to South Florida, joined us in early March to build a Resilience Media Project helping reporters and editors convey paths to resilience in place of covering news as a series of unfortunate events.
Then came the ultimate unfortunate event.
Starting on March 12, as normal activity was shutting down, we dove into our screens and emerged with a host of programs and partnerships that have since markedly spread Columbia’s reach and capacity to foster sustainability-focused conversations and news coverage.
Here are some highlights.
The Earth Institute Live “Sustain What” series
We launched a video webcast, Sustain What, aiming to drive constructive global conversations on pandemic policy and efforts to stem the “infodemic” of dangerous disinformation around the public-health and economic crisis. We chose Streamyard, a tool that requires no signup and sends the video discussions live to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Mixing experts from Columbia and around the world, we quickly broadened the range of subjects to include climate, deforestation, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities, and paths to better national and international strategies that can move the world from chronic crisis response to preparedness and risk reduction. We collaborated with dozens of partners, both around Columbia and outside, in sessions on climate law, next steps for climate journalism, navigating simultaneous disasters, building better global data surveillance to cut future pandemic risk and much more.
Amid the relentless news flow, we realized that we and our audience deserved a weekly break, so Sunday morning sessions became focused on “arts and hearts” — convening a rich mix of famed and hidden talents in poetry, music and visual arts. Guests have ranged from Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the songwriter Dar Williams to the Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña and environmental essayist Terry Tempest Williams.
We ran a special “Earth Stanzas” poetry session with the Center for Earth Ethics and the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and even hosted an on-screen performance of a climate-fiction play, “Other Than We,” telling of humanity’s last-ditch efforts to create a successor species with more sustainable traits than H. sapiens.
Strategies for Thriving Online
Monday sessions have focused on the initiative’s core mission — building the capacity of sustainability-minded scientists, scholars and citizens to thrive online despite the challenges. We kicked that effort off by bringing together some of Columbia’s most innovative and courageous communicators:
These sessions can all be explored on the Thriving Online Youtube playlist.
Through about 140 Sustain What webcasts so far, we’ve build relationships with more than 200 guest experts from around the world and reached more than 430,000 viewers.
We’re eager for your input on ways to refine and amplify this effort. Please send feedback here.
Fostering Media Innovation for Resilience
As the pandemic struck, Dale Willman’s Resilience Media Project quickly pivoted from planned visiting fellowships to running online workshops. More than a dozen programs have been produced, connecting more than 1,000 journalists with resilience experts, relevant sources of data, and representatives of at-risk communities.
Topics have ranged from designing a more just and resilient economy and uncovering the inequality of U.S. health care to steps journalists can take to stay mentally healthy while covering stressful topics such as a pandemic.
The journalism project is also expanding its reach into other languages. We partnered with the Climate and Land Use Alliance to produce a webinar for Spanish-language journalists on Indigenous and community management of tropical forests. This partnership will expand in 2021.
To fight Zoom fatigue, Willman has experimented with ways to make webinars more impactful, using live scenario role-playing and other techniques. He also collaborated with Google in a workshop exploring a new set of Google tools for journalists.
Fighting Online Abuse
As we build a bigger community of scientists and scholars communicating with the public on tough issues like climate change and pandemic policy, we have to give them the tools and techniques necessary to withstand online harassment.
There was a great response to an early Thriving Online session on online harassment defense with Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital safety at the authors’ and writers’ group PEN America, which has published an invaluable “online harassment field manual.” To sustain momentum, Willman is planning a pair of workshops in late January with PEN and ihollaback, a global group aimed at ending harassment. It is our hope to obtain funding to make this pilot program available across the campus.
We built an online learning module helping a worldwide network of female reporters identify and cover local factors creating vulnerability to climate hazards like chronic flooding and coastal storms. The network, Global Press, is an award-winning operation that trains, supports and publishes work of more than 100 female journalists from Mexico to Zimbabwe to Mongolia.
The climate-risk reporting tutorial was translated into five languages this fall and more than 40 journalists have taken the training so far, said Cristi Hegranes, Global Press’s CEO and publisher. Stories will start flowing in February and you’ll hear about them on our Sustain What webcast. This Inclusive Climate Journalism Project was supported initially by the Heinz Family Foundation, and has enormous potential to expand.
Connective Tissue for the Climate School
The sustainability communication network was the first of what will be a growing array of Earth Networks funded to foster sustained inquiry and innovation around urgent climate and development challenges. We have and will continue to nurture connections among individuals and centers focused on communication innovation for sustainability and climate progress, from all branches of the Earth Institute to the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Journalism School, the School of the Arts and Center for Earth Ethics. This connectivity will become ever more valuable as the interdisciplinary architecture of the Columbia Climate School emerges.
In January we’ll launch a weekly “Green Room” online open house to foster crosstalk and help individuals or teams devise or refine communication components of research projects. We also now offer up the Sustain What webcast platform for hosted “friendly takeovers” by student teams or faculty when learning needs to spill into the wider world. Watch a couple of great examples here and then get in touch.
A Team Effort
We benefited tremendously in the first year from three marvelous interns drawn from Earth Institute-linked graduate programs. First, Brighton Kaoma harnessed his experience in environmental radio in Zambia to develop online youth radio and audio reporting workshops with Haein Shin and Radhika Iyengar of the Center for Sustainable Development. Learn more via the Pod of the Planet podcast, “The Young and the Radio”:
Kaoma, a 2020 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program, is now doing consulting for the World Wildlife Fund.
Harris Engelmann, while pursuing his Master of Public Administration degree, helped build our fundraising strategy. Now, Xantal Tejada Herrera, a Master of Sustainability Management candidate, is organizing our work flow and, drawing on her Guatemalan heritage, helping develop Spanish language programming.
Finally, we’ve benefited enormously from frequent collaboration with the communications crews at the Earth Institute, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Center on Global Energy Policy, peers in public health and medicine and Columbia’s main communications office.
We’ve also benefited from the first direct donors to our communication project and hope others join them. Get in touch here to learn more.
Now let’s take a breath and then dive in together through the turbulence and promise ahead.
To help renew your energy, here’s Nathan Farrell, a senior in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, singing “What a Wonderful World“: