Fish tell the tale without tears

June 8, 2007

Dave Reay learnt the hard way that climate change can frighten kids to death. Here, he describes how he came to make the topic fit for a children's book

"When will I die?" This was the first question asked of me at last year's Cambridge Science Festival. It came from an eight-year-old girl. I knew then that my talk had gone too far. While the importance of successfully communicating climate-change science to the public, the media and to politicians cannot be overstated, few academics are trained in how to do it.

From our undergraduate days onwards, the focus of knowledge transfer in higher education is one of peer-reviewed publication. However, as we become increasingly adept at producing output geared to the research assessment exercise, there is a danger that we also become blind to our own jargon. Our paymasters have recognised this. Apply for a research grant today and, along with your pages of costings, CVs and justifications, you must explain why your bit of research is truly great in words a 14-year-old would understand. Many academics still loathe this section, yet I think it is a fantastic yardstick for the quality of the whole proposal. If you can't make the case for all those bundles of taxpayers' money within one readable page then it probably isn't as vital a piece of work as you think.

Writing my first popular science book, Climate Change Begins at Home, was challenging and rewarding: the jargon-killing I was doing each weekend helped me to understand the day job better. But the more I wrote on the future impacts of climate change, the more obvious it became that the generation of business leaders, politicians and homeowners that would inherit this warmer future - our children - must also be addressed. Buoyed up by the public reception to the first book, I launched into writing a pared-down version for children. I got things badly wrong.

On reading the first draft, my editor declared that most readers would have nightmares. Working with the projected impacts of climate change day-in day-out, one can become numb to the magnitude of the threat it poses and, as with my talk in Cambridge, I had failed to remember my audience. I needed to regress (this was worryingly easy); to go back 25 years and become the target reader.

Sticking my tongue between my teeth and viewing the book with the limited attention span and scatological sense of humour of a nine-year-old Dave Reay, the doom-laden clouds began to clear. There is so much that can still be done to mitigate climate change, and greater understanding of the science by the next generation is a crucial component.

But first there was how to explain global warming to my scabby-kneed self.

This is what I told him: Global warming is a story of thin fish and fat fish. On a sunny day, the energy coming down from the sun is like a huge shoal of thin fish. They can swim straight through the nets of warming gases floating in our atmosphere and carry on down to the ground. Instead of making a very smelly fish paste when they hit the earth, they can do two things. If the ground they hit is reflective, like when it's covered in snow, most of them bounce straight back into the sky, speeding back through the nets of warming gases and out into space. So what about the fat fish? Where the ground is dark, some of our high-energy fish don't bounce straight back into space. They stick around for a while, change shape (get fat) and warm up the ground in the process. This is why black things, like roads, get really hot on a sunny day, but white things stay cooler. Now, our fat energy fish try to head back towards space, too, but a lot of them are caught in the nets of warming gases. The thicker the nets get, the more heat energy in the form of these fat fish gets trapped, and so the hotter the planet becomes. And that's global warming.

By taking this rather schizophrenic approach one can better spot the jargon, excise the verbose and really start to communicate the science.

Furthermore, by making the science and the mitigation personal, it is possible to engage children with the issue rather than send them running from it. Too often, a future of catastrophic climate change is portrayed as unavoidable, something to which we adults have already committed our children. The truth is that they, and subsequent generations, are part of the solution to enhanced global warming, not just the inheritors of a bankrupt estate.

Dave Reay is Natural Environment Research Council Fellow in the school of geosciences at Edinburgh University. His children's book on climate change, How to Save the Planet , will be published by Macmillan early next year.

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