USC faculty, students attend climate change conference

When Wändi Bruine de Bruin began researching, she focused on psychology and behavioral science, studying risk decision-making and communicating with people to help them make informed decisions. As climate change became an increasingly pressing issue and Bruine de Bruin observed its severity, she aspired to frame her research around the damage threatening the environment in a way that everyone could understand. 

This research was presented at the 26th “Conference of Parties,” Climate Change Conference, hosted in Glasgow, Scotland. Held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, with 40,000 people attending from across the globe, the conference intended to find ways to avert climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the world. USC faculty and students were present both in person and virtually at the conference, many of whom worked on studies related to climate information and lasting effects of climate change. 

Bruine de Bruin virtually presented her findings that focused on communication and the public’s understanding of climate change terminology.

The project was supported by USC Dornsife Public Exchange, a Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences organization that connects research projects to the United Nations.

“My main message to climate scientists, climate journalists and climate communicators is to use everyday language and explain what you mean,” Bruine de Bruin said. “If [they] must use those difficult terms, explain what they mean in the context of climate change … for people who want to better understand climate change.”

Bruine de Bruin’s study found that the average person does not understand climate change jargon as well as experts assume they do, even if the terms seem simple. Bruin de Bruin’s report intends to help scientists, journalists and policymakers classify environmental science in simpler terms to enhance the general population’s understanding. 

Bruine de Bruin created an additional guide posted on The Conversation, a digital news publication, that defines typical climate change terms for those listening to the conference or trying to educate themselves about environmental problems.

“[My research team and I] were anticipating that some of the terms would be difficult to understand, but what was surprising was that even very commonly used words [were not understood],” Bruine de Bruin said. “We actually found that all of the words we tested led to some confusion, even [what participants ranked as the] easiest term of the eight that we tested, ‘abrupt change.’”

Bruine de Bruin was not the only USC staff member observing the conference.

Shannon Gibson, associate teaching professor at the Dornsife department of political science and international relations, selected four students to attend a five-day retreat at the Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island to track COP26. The team focused its research on the effect of coronavirus, protests and grassroots activities on conversations surrounding climate change.

Gibson said she believes that civil society’s influence has redefined the public’s views on climate change. 

“[Protests] serve a purpose, too, which is to show that, as much as the United Nations is seen in a very positive way by the majority of countries and people out there, there is a question of their legitimacy and their effectiveness for us to get climate change deals that match pace with the ecological changes that we’re dealing with,” Gibson said.

One of Gibson’s students, Kirian Mischke-Reeds, a senior majoring in international relations and the global economy, said there have already been protests as large as 100,000 at the conference advocating for further action.

“[There have been a] large amount of protesters in Scotland, there have been demonstrations, there have been activists, there have been people doing more radical things like chaining themselves,” Mischke-Reeds said. “A lot of the action has been in the street and on social media but muted back compared to previous years.”

Some environmentalists such as Gibson believed that the coronavirus pandemic would make people more aware of the problems in politics, economics and the environment. Gibson she believes that the coronavirus’ emergence would encourage people to specifically acknowledge the links between health concerns and environmental degradation, but she found that this connection was not as prevalent as previously believed.

“Climate change and new pandemics go hand in hand; this threat of zoonotic diseases and things like that,” Gibson said. “I had hoped and thought that the health perspective was going to be more prominent. And as we’ve talked to colleagues that are [at the conference] today, we’re finding that it’s not. We don’t see that much mention of these health concerns as they relate to climate change.” 

However, Murad Jah, a senior majoring in environmental studies, said there was more civilian mobilization and passion surrounding this years’ conference.

“Studies and things have changed, and I feel motivated with this COP,” Jah said. “I think that comes a lot from the media presence. With everything being online, we’re more attached to our phones, we’re attached to voicing our opinions online because you can’t go to class.”