As Chicago Adapts to Climate Change, the Need to Focus on Communication as a Structural Problem

Yesterday, the New York Times launched the first in a series of stories focusing on the challenges of adapting to climate change.  The feature profiled the city of Chicago which joined by New York has taken the lead among major municipalities already engaged in adaptation planning and initiatives.


As political leaders and journalists pay increasing attention to climate change adaptation initiatives, still overlooked is the role of the media and communication in this process.  To date, we have tended to think about climate change communication mostly as a message problem — either focusing tactically on how to explain components of the science, training scientists to be effective bloggers etc.

But beyond these tactical approaches, climate change communication is fundamentally a structural and institutional challenge that requires broader strategy and focused investment to manage.  In a city like Chicago, the media ecosystem in that city is in serious distress, weakened appreciably by the precipitous decline of theChicago Tribune.

It is unlikely that citizens and stakeholders in Chicago have the regionally-focused media and communication resources they need to effectively participate, plan, connect, and manage the threats posed by climate change.  In a commissioned white paper last year to the National Academies Roundtable on Climate Change Education, I outlined “three communication pillars,” initiatives that government agencies and foundations should invest in that would significantly bolster the communication infrastructure within a state, region, or city.  In a paper led by my colleague Ed Maibach, he outlines a similar view of climate change communication as both an individual and structural challenge.

As I reviewed in the white paper, three structural pillars to focus on include:

a) Carefully designed public meetings that provide social spaces and incentives for a wider net of citizens to come together to learn, discuss, plan and provide meaningful input on policy measures, government initiatives, and private and non-profit sector planning.

b) Digital news communities that provide independently produced news and information about climate change and energy tailored to the local and regional needs of an area such as Chicago and that provide a social media platform for aggregating local bloggers, news from other outlets, information from agencies and universities, and for discussion by citizens and opinion leaders.

c) The training and recruitment of everyday opinion leaders who can pass on information and resources to others and who can recruit their neighbors, friends and co-workers to turn out to public meetings, volunteer for initiatives, and take advantage of the resources available at the regional digital news community.

With each of these initiatives, past research provides a scientific grounding and understanding for their careful design and implementation.  Formative and ongoing evaluation will also lead to new knowledge and the increased effectiveness of these initiatives that can eventually be modeled and replicated across regions or municipalities.

In the National Academies white paper, after drawing on existing resources in a region such as universities, public media, and science museums and centers, I estimate the high end cost for funding these three types of initiatives at an intensive level at $1 million annually.

The money is readily available to launch such an initiative in an area such as Chicago, both from government agencies which in recent years are investing more than $20 million annually in climate change education initiatives and from private foundations which as I detail in the Climate Shift report invested more than $360 million in climate change and energy initiatives, but only a little more than a $1 million of this funding went to direct support for media organizations or projects.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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