New Directions in Climate Research

Two NSF-funded projects advance the conversation around climate change, media, and marginalized communities.

by Ed GreeneJena Barchas-LichtensteinElliott Bowen
Oct 31, 2023

Discussions of climate change often highlight the disproportionate impacts that excessive heat, fires, floods, and other volatile and unpredictable weather events have on historically and persistently excluded groups. Through drawing attention to the various historical, social, economic, and political injustices that make marginalized peoples especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, these discussions can present members of these groups simply as victims – that is, as people to whom climate change simply happens, and who are powerless to fight back.

Writing about this dynamic in the context of early childhood education, researcher Fikile Nxumalo highlights the prominence of "damage-based narratives" within stories exploring the intersections between race and climate change. As she notes, these stories are often full of "traumatizing visuals of Black people's suffering," and serve only to perpetuate the "ongoing dehumanization of Black people in an anti-Black world." Similarly, journalist and historian Nick Estes shows how governmental policies have often operated under "the logic that settlers can manage Native lands and lives better than Native people." Estes reminds us that "what's often downplayed is the revolutionary potency of what Indigenous resistance stands for: caretaking and creating just relations between human and nonhuman worlds on a planet thoroughly devastated by capitalism."

The view that Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, and other racialized groups are incapable of devising innovative, effective solutions to help their communities prepare for and respond to climate-related threats is deeply flawed. Indeed, the knowledge, skills, tools, and solutions created by members of these communities are revolutionizing responses to climate change. Building on this growing awareness, two new Knology projects are advancing understandings of how to center the communities most affected by climate change without buying into the deficit narratives that are often used to frame their experiences.

Black Representation: Authoring STEM Stories for Climate Risk Preparedness (BlackRep4Kids)

BlackRep4Kids addresses the lack of representation and inclusion of Black voices and stories in climate science literature for children. Though discussions of climate change in this literature have increased in recent years, there is a significant absence of Black visionaries, problem solvers, and climate scientists in this content – despite the disproportionate impact of climate change on Black communities. Taking its cue from the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force, which seeks to help young children "flourish in the face of climate change," BlackRep4Kids is grounded in hope and visions for action. Moving away from victimizing climate change stories that focus almost exclusively on Black pain and suffering, the project presents hope as a pathway to building climate preparedness, empowering young minds by centering Black knowledge, Black solutions, Black belonging, and Black dreams.

The organizing team of collaborators for BlackRep4Kidsincludes Knology, the Highlights Foundation, the National Black Child Development Institute, and the Association of Children's Museums. Drawing upon their different areas of expertise, these organizations will open a space where Black researchers and practitioners from a variety of fields (including climate science, developmental psychology, informal learning, and children's media) can come together to advance understandings of climate change's impacts on Black children, develop methods for incorporating STEM-related knowledge into children's climate change literature, and devise storytelling techniques that affirm Black life and nurture Black children's relationships with the natural world. BlackRep4Kids' specific goals are to:

  • Guide the production of climate science media that supports the unique needs of Black families and young children;
  • Equip Black families with the resources needed to help their children discuss, prepare for, and respond to a multitude of environmental threats;
  • Empower media creators to represent Black voices, visionaries, problem solvers, and climate scientists in children's literature;
  • Increase awareness about STEM careers and provide portrayals of the diverse experiences of Black families through children's storybooks, picture books, and audiobooks.

The centerpiece of BlackRep4Kids is a two-day unconference that will be held in Fall 2024. Prior to this event, project partners will work together to create a podcast series and a resource library, which will ignite conversation at the unconference and provide attendees with a shared foundation for building ideas about how to improve and increase Black representation in children's climate media. After the unconference, project partners will work together to create a practical, hands-on guide for Black authors, illustrators, publishers, and other content creators. The guide's goal will be to help Black media makers develop characters and story outlines for climate-centered media that speaks to the concerns and needs of Black families, provides age-appropriate STEM learning experiences to Black children, and contributes to ongoing climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience efforts within Black communities.

For more information about BlackRep4Kids, see our project landing page. And if you'd like to get involved with the project, please fill out this form.

Partnerships for Indigenous Climate Journalism

Indigenous communities are making incredible strides in climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation. This should not be surprising, for as our Indigenous colleagues remind us, "long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here [...] engaged in the creation and application of knowledge which promoted the flourishing of both human societies and the beings with whom we share the planet." They also highlight that engineering responses to the climate crisis must be an all-encompassing social enterprise. In the words of Kyle Whyte, "Many human societies—like the Anishinaabe peoples—have long-standing sciences, collective practices (such as agriculture and ceremonies), arts, and philosophies that seek to maintain moral relationships with ever-changing environments that lessen harms and risks to humans and nonhumans alike." Applying this perspective to STEM communication and journalism, Jason Corwin and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman call for STEM journalism that is rooted in "responsibility and reciprocity" rather than "human dominion over nature."

Unfortunately, news coverage of Indigenous people's responses to climate change often overlooks both their role as problem-solvers and their push for an all-encompassing approach to this crisis. Moreover, the coverage is frequently presented from a non-Indigenous perspective and framed around a narrative of loss – one built on stereotypes of Indigenous peoples "needing the help of White outsiders" rather than one that recognizes the expertise described above. Partnerships for Indigenous Climate Journalism challenges this narrative. Building on the recognition that these communities are "producers of knowledge whose agency in exposing and countering environmental injustices is crucial to understanding the threat that climate change poses," it seeks to replace the narrative of loss with one rooted in the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Toward that end, Partnerships for Indigenous Climate Journalism is building the first Indigenous climate reporting desk in the US within an Indigenous-led newsroom. A three-way collaboration between ICT News, PBS NewsHour, and Knology, the project will give Indigenous journalists a platform for putting the perspectives and reporting of their communities front and center in media coverage of climate change.

Through co-produced digital and broadcast segments that will appear in both ICT and NewsHour reporting, the project will interrupt some of the negative stereotypes that are hindering timely and effective climate action and open the public's eyes to a greater range of engineering and technological climate solutions. In so doing, the partnership will facilitate research and improved practices for sharing knowledge via STEM news coverage within and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Where ICT and NewsHour are heading up news production, the Knology team is in charge of the project's research. Throughout the project, the Knology team will be conducting research that deepens understandings of how climate coverage is currently framed and identifies strategies for more effective climate reporting.

Through a landscape study of existing news reports, we will examine what Indigenous and non-Indigenous publics are learning about climate problems, climate problem-solvers, and climate solutions. A particular aim of this research is to understand the extent of stereotyped knowledge about both Indigenous communities and engineering and to support news coverage that helps audiences update their knowledge. We are particularly concerned with two erroneous stereotypes: (1) that Indigeneity is incompatible with engineering and technological innovation; (2) that "technology" and "engineering" must be macro-level rather than place-based and locally responsive. After determining the breadth and depth of these stereotypes, we will begin testing the impact of ICT and NewsHour's co-produced content. Through an experimental study involving readers and viewers of this content, we will identify specific reporting strategies that can help news users look beyond these stereotypes and broaden their knowledge about climate solutions.

About this Article

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation's Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) funding program. BlackRep4Kids is supported by AISL award number 2314101. Partnerships for Indigenous Climate Journalism is supported by AISL award number 2314239. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Image by Elena Mozhvilo at Unsplash

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