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Climate and Community

By Nate Berg

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Jon Christensen’s passion is for people and how they understand and are affected by the environment.


Photo by Pete Bohler.

Jon Christensen moved around the U.S. and Europe as a child and attended high school in Spain and Chicago. He graduated from San Francisco State University and spent years writing about the environment for public radio and such publications as The New York Times. He then pivoted to academia, but his passion remained the same. Now an adjunct professor and journalist-in-residence at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, he combines research and journalism to communicate about ways in which to address environmental justice and adapt to climate change.

What prompted your interest in environmental topics?

Coming of age in Spain attuned me to cultural and language differences. I was fascinated by that. I kind of fell into environment journalism because it was growing at the time, and I was willing to travel far and spend the time to get good stories. I liked hanging out with people and trying to figure out what was going on in rural New Mexico, for instance, in the relationship between traditional Hispanic sheepherding and public lands and environmental demands.

If I had to pick one moment that sealed my interest in these issues, it would be when I was traveling in Brazil for Pacific News Service in 1989, covering a big gathering of environmentalists and indigenous people and rubber tappers in the Amazon, who were protesting deforestation and dam and road building. I asked one leader of a small community what he most wanted. He said an all-weather road to connect his community to the rest of the world so they wouldn’t be at the mercy of the traders on the river. That opened my eyes to the complexity of some of the issues that seem clear-cut in rhetoric.

Sounds like your interest is broader than just the environment.

My passion for the environment is really about people — their lives, how they understand the environment, what they want and how all of that is changing as the environment changes. I’m very interested in the relationships between people, ideas and nature, more than just the environment itself. I saw that people generally want to be connected to the world. They want the good things those connections bring, and they want them on their own terms. That passion has stuck with me and is at the heart of my research now.

I’ve always been concerned that these stories not be confined to one section of the newspaper or, in academia, to one discipline. Now is an exciting time to focus on this, because we’re in a period of experimentation in crossing disciplines. Concern with equity, with delivering benefits to historically underserved communities, is influencing policy and law at all levels. The concerns are being addressed in water, parks, storm water management, cap-and-trade and climate change. But we’re trying to assess what kinds of changes we see on the ground. California is a leader in this work, but the concern is global.

Describe your current work at UCLA.

My research focuses on questions of equity in access, funding and representation of the diverse communities of California. There’s a huge investment being made in climate change and water and parks and conservation throughout the state. But how do we ensure that the bottom 3 billion people — who have not contributed most to climate change but are likely to suffer its worst consequences — benefit from our investments? Diverse and disadvantaged communities in California vote disproportionately in favor of environmental measures and funding, so a lot of their leaders in the legislature are saying their communities need to see the benefits of these investments. That’s been a pattern for several decades, and it ties into the larger picture. If California is to continue its strong history of protecting the coast, protecting natural resources, conservation, leading in climate change globally, the movement needs to reflect the state’s diversity. I’m also interested in strategic communication and ensuring that people can make use of the research we do, the knowledge we produce.

You edited Bending the Curve, a report by 50 UC researchers on how to stop climate change. Does California have the solution?

I don’t mean to say we have perfect answers. This is still being tested and worked out, which is what makes it so interesting. Our research can contribute to understanding, forming and continuing to adopt better environmental policies, but only if we can also communicate that research in a way that it is useful. Nationally, the opportunities for productive conversation about climate change are not so great. But internationally, a pragmatic path forward is vital to the global conversation. This makes it interesting to be engaged with it in California, where our governor is making international connections. We’re all still trying to figure out how to reach carbon neutrality and climate stability by mid-century, hopefully. I think that goal is achievable. It’s very much in line with the California way. You keep setting your goals higher and moving toward them. You keep ratcheting down emissions and adapting, with everybody doing their piece of something.

You helped found UCLA’s storytelling-focused Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS). What’s so important about how we communicate about environmental issues?

At LENS, we do three things: We study the different stories that people tell about the environment, we create stories that haven’t been told in new media and genres and forms, and we execute strategic communication campaigns to turn research into useful tools. If all we needed were science and engineering, environmental problems would be solved. But it’s also about politics and culture and the stories that people tell about themselves, their communities and their nations.

Figuring out how to communicate is a vital part of this. You can try to pump as many facts as you want into people’s minds, but that won’t necessarily change their opinions, let alone their actions. Frames and narratives and values matter, and people easily incorporate new facts into the way they see the world. Telling a story moves them more than if you just give them the results and findings. And scientists are sometimes uncomfortable with this because it means talking about uncertainty, but actually it turns out that it might be more interesting. It triggers people’s curiosity when you bring them into the story of science.

What needs to change in the way we talk about addressing climate change?

We must tell stories about what’s possible, about how we can get to carbon neutrality and climate stability by mid-century. That’s the right goal to hopefully avoid even worse consequences. We need to help people see that they can take action individually and collectively. We need to provide incentives in order to share the effort more widely; a boutique thing is not going to make enough of a difference. We’re moving in those directions and learning how to do it more effectively.