Communicating climate change – an interview with Bob McDonald, Canada’s Chief Science correspondent


“Let me see if I’ve got this right.”

Interview by Lily Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet

Bob McDonald is the host of Quirks & Quarks, the award-winning science program on CBC. One of Canada’s best known science journalists, Bob has been presenting the program since 1992. Bob is a regular science commentator on CBC News Network, and science correspondent for CBC TV’s The National. Before joining Quirks & Quarks, Bob was the host of CBC Television’s children’s science program Wonderstruck.

Bob has been personally honoured for his contributions to the public awareness of science with the 2001 Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion, from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the 2002 Sandford Fleming Medal from The Royal Canadian Institute; and in 2005, the McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science from the Royal Society of Canada – completing the ‘triple crown’ of medals for science communication in Canada. In November, 2011, Bob was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Bob McDonald has been awarded nine honorary degrees – the most recent being an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Toronto, in June, 2015.


LY: In what ways is Canada being affected by climate change?

Bob McDonald: I’m concerned about climate change accelerating. Canada is experiencing a greater change because we are a northern country, so the implications for us are quite large. They’re not all bad but the negative ones can be worrying. On the good side it’s going to increase the growing season, and we’ll get more crops out of the land. But whether the ecosystem can adapt, whether our tree line can move north quickly enough, whether species can adapt to this, is a concern.

Glaciers are disappearing, some of the watersheds in the west are going to be impacted by that. I’m worried about water levels in the Great Lakes. I used to live in Toronto and I was a sailor there, so I’m concerned about water levels going down. I’m concerned about, from a biological point of view, the effect it will have on some of the migratory animals especially birds because they have to time their departures according to when food is available. If plants and insects are appearing at different times then the birds can be out of sync because they use forward time to decide when they’re going to move. The same concept applies to fisheries. Fish are being swept around, ocean currents are warming up. We have cold water species here like salmon that are very sensitive to change so we can be affected on just about any front you think of.

LY: What do you see as the biggest challenges on understanding the problem? Let’s start with perceptions.

Illustration: “Queen of the Sea”, on being expressive without speaking by Allaura Langford, Curve Lake First Nation for HazNet

Bob McDonald: There has been a very well organized campaign to cast doubt on the scientific method and spread either misinformation or misleading information and cast doubt in the minds of the public, so that there is a reluctance to accept the fact that this is really happening. That worries me a lot because in the scientific community there really is no debate about the change. The change is being seen by other scientists aside from climate scientists. Biologists are seeing it, chemists are seeing it, oceanographers are seeing it, the geologists are seeing it. Everybody who studies any aspect of the environment is seeing the effects of climate change. So the science is there but the public is still doubting it because of this campaign of doubt, and if the public doesn’t understand it then politicians don’t understand it either.

I’m disturbed that the policies in our current are swayed more industrial science rather than basic science. Environmental science has been cut back on many fronts, especially in British Columbia in favour of expediting the commercial development of our resources. So the incentive to change is not there without good education. Economically it seems easier to stay the same, but in the long term it may harm us more. So education is my biggest concern.

LY: When you talk about education what kind of levels of education do you think are necessary? Where does it start and what is the most efficient way of addressing this challenge?

Bob McDonald: Community leaders who are going to be dealing with this and making these very hard decisions. We need better science education among our young people so that they better understand these issues. And there are statistics that are showing that enrolment in what’s called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is falling off. Young people are more interested in becoming computer programmers or lawyers or doctors because there’s better money there, I guess. I’m not saying everyone should become a scientist, but at least have a good understanding of science at a young age, then I think we can do a lot there.

I think the media could do more as well. I do my best, but I’m just one guy. I’d like to see more science programming on television, more inspirational role models for young people. Thank God for Chris Hadfield. Look at what he did. Just by reaching out and communicating to the public he got people inspired. But who else is there? Young people can name ten movie actors or they could name ten people in the music business but can they name a scientist present or historically? No. Can they name the planets? Do they know that the earth is part of a galaxy? Do they know dinosaurs were around before humans? In many cases, they don’t. I’m concerned about fundamental science education for young people. And if you get them then, you get the adults later on. The adults are already converted; they already have their minds set. You gotta strike at them when they’re young. That’s why I’ve devoted a portion of my career to working with kids.

LY: Based on your experience on communicating have you seen any shifts in perceptions and attitudes towards climate change?

Bob McDonald: People are beginning to accept it more because they’re seeing it. They’re seeing it happen. We’re seeing the more extreme storms, we’re seeing the hotter summers, we’re seeing the lack of ice. And the changes in attitudes do seem to be happening at a grassroots level. People are trying to buy greener products and invest in alternative energy but it is very slow. It is not coming from the top down it is coming from the bottom up. I am seeing a more positive attitude, but the voices of those who are trying to confuse the public are still loud but thankfully the science is getting stronger. I just hope that it doesn’t become “Oh I’ve heard all that stuff – what can I do?” That worries me. Apathy worries me.

LY: How do you overcome that public apathy? What are some communication strategies or what are some of the mechanisms that can be used to overcome that statement of “well, we’re headed nowhere – it’s happening anyway”?

Bob McDonald: I’m really hoping that it will not become crisis management. That it won’t get to the point where we realize: gee, this Titanic really is sinking, I guess we’d better get off. Sometime I think that’s what is going to happen. We’re just going to say “Alright, if we can’t stop the warming then how are we going to live on a warmer planet? How are we going to change the way we live?” Humans are very adaptable I mean we’ve been through changes before. I just worry about our numbers increasing, if we don’t get our population under control then where’s the food going to come from? Where’s the water going to come from? Where are we going to live?

LY: The guest on your recent episode who talked about global population was remarkable.

Bob McDonald: Yes, and he talked about how our economic system is based on growth, and if we’re going to reduce the population then how do you maintain an economy on reduction? But he said it’s not impossible to do, just that we need to rethink how we do things. It comes down to just doing things differently. Not doing something different, but doing the things that we do differently. Does that make sense? Like, we don’t go back to the trees, we can still have vehicles and furnaces and all that, but find other ways to turn wheels and other ways to keep ourselves warm. There is no shortage of energy on planet Earth. It falls out of the sky every day. We just have not put our focus on technologies to capture the other forms of energy that are there because we’ve been spoiled with the stuff we can just dig out of the ground and set fire to. And we’re capable of that.

I’m actually an optimist and I think we have the smarts, especially in Canada. I think we have the engineering know-how if you put good solid research into alternative forms of energy. I’d like to see a challenge put out. If we’re going to fight climate change and get ourselves out of fossil fuels.What if we had a challenge that was similar to that X-Prize that that company offered to go into space (a few years ago)? Here is the challenge: you take a container that is the same size, the same dimension, and the same weight as a tank of gasoline in a full sized car. Take the gas tank and make another container that is exactly those dimensions and weight and contains electricity instead of gasoline. And it contains as much energy as it would if it was full of gasoline and move that full-sized car down the road at 120 kilometers per hour for 300 kilometers.

Such a container does not exist. We do not have portable electricity. Our batteries are still in the stone age. And when you think about it, the engine that we have in cars right now that burn gasoline only use a little bit of that energy to turn the wheels. They only use about 20% of the energy in the gas to turn the wheels; the rest is lost through heat. We’re throwing away 80% of the energy that is in the gasoline in the car. Throwing away 80%, yet look how fast and far we can go on that. Give me a container full of electricity and throw away 80% of it and still have enough to do all of that. Give me something that has as much energy as gasoline does, but it is electricity and can be filled up in a few minutes. Let’s work on that.

Let’s work on a super battery that can store electricity. One that’s not made of lead or sulfuric acid but something else. We don’t have it. So there’s the challenge. Kennedy said let’s go to the moon. They didn’t know how to go to the moon before he said that – they had to invent it. Let’s find a way to store energy and run a clean car that has an electric motor in it instead of a gas motor. That’s just one tiny little step that we could do.

We need to think very realistically about that, it’s an evolution not a revolution. People think, oh my God, we need to give up everything we have; when there’s a revolution people get hurt and there’s usually chaos afterwards. But evolution is when you take what you have and you evolve it into something better. Ok, let’s take the system that we have and just make it cleaner and more efficient. We’re capable of that. If we really put our minds to it, I think the changes could happen very quickly.

LY: So you think this incremental change would be enough?

Bob McDonald: The North American auto industry changed in the 1970’s overnight from big cars with V8s in them and chrome everywhere to small cars with little engines that went a lot farther on a tank of gas. The technology can change; we know how to do that. Because there was an incentive, we had to, it was crisis management: “oh my God, there’s no more gas what are we going to do?” I just hope it doesn’t come to crisis management for the climate. With some foresight and a little bit of science education maybe common sense will prevail instead of economic greed.

LY: What are some of the main communication challenges and barriers you’ve come across?

Bob McDonald: Clarity. Just being very clear about it so that it’s in a language that the public can understand. The other is to not be alarmist about it, just be clear. As soon as we become alarmist, it starts to get polarized and it becomes good guys and bad guys. If we’re just clear about it: “here’s the problem, here’s the situation, let’s do something about it”.

LY: Can you go back throughout the interviews among the many interviews that you have done and remember a way when it was communicated more eloquently and received positive public feedback? Is there one interview that really stands out? One thing I’m hoping to get out of this interview are tips for climate scientists who are struggling to communicate this in a clear and concise, digestible way?

Bob McDonald: I interviewed Dr. John Smol for the show from Queen’s University, and he studies lakes in the Arctic. He’s a very clear communicator where he [explains] tracking the changes that are happening in the Arctic so he’s very good, and of course Andrew Weaver is wonderful I’ve talked to him many times.

LY: What are the components of communication? Is it being a good storyteller?

Bob McDonald: There are a lot of good stories that do not make it onto our program because people are not good storytellers. It is about story telling. That’s what we do in the media, we tell stories. And science stories are no different: there are characters, there’s a scene, action, tension, it’s all there so you tell it as a story and it’s got to be compelling, interesting and frankly it has to be entertaining. It doesn’t have to be fatalist. It doesn’t have to be alarmist. It can be just straight up: here’s a good story. We also, on our program, we tend not to do the really big topics. We won’t do a show on climate change that’s too broad. We focus very tightly. We stay with, here is one scientist who’s done one thing and you can put it into a broader context yourself but here’s this one story. So focus is important for us.

One of my phrases that people have come to know me for is when I say “let me see if I’ve got this right”. When I say that during the program that means the scientist just said something that hurt me. I need to be able to spin it back in a language that I can understand. So I’m always looking for some kind of image or analogy or even try to say it more concisely – take what they just said in several minutes and say it in one sentence. And there’s an art to that, to capsulize it all and review it and say: here’s where we are right now, I understand that – let’s move on. That’s important.

LY: How does the program survive without you?

Bob McDonald: It’s the science that survives, not me.

LY: Some of my questions are about immediate impact and personal behaviour. Do you see any of the impacts of climate change in your region?

Bob McDonald: They’re complaining about the cooler weather, but that’s weather not climate, so I don’t really know. We certainly see it up north and they talk about it. They can see the shift in the fisheries and also the birds that depend on those fisheries. The change is very obvious in the north. Down here in the city, other than longer summers and shorter winters…

I was kind of discouraged when I was living in Toronto because the city had an energy crisis. They needed more electricity within it, because the city was growing so fast and everybody was buying all their electronic gadgets. They built two gas fired generating stations within the city itself and I was disappointed that they went to fossil fuels. One of them was right in my own neighbourhood. There was a resistance to windmills on Lake Ontario and that kind of bothered me. Not as much as I’d like to see.

LY: Have you changed your personal behaviour based on your knowledge?

Bob McDonald: I don’t own a car. I get around by bicycle in the city. When I leave the city, I ride a motorcycle so I try and burn as little fuel as possible. Unfortunately my job does require that I travel, other work that I do, but when I travel I’m always talking about environmental issues and trying to educate young people so I feel like I’m spreading the word. I have low flush toilets in the house. Gas heat, which is a little bit cleaner. We have composting here. I try to leave as small a footprint as I can.

LY: What are some of the components of Canadian community, the way you see it, and how is that potentially going to be affected by climate change?

Bob McDonald: We’re going to have to think about the design of our cities because at the moment we have large suburban areas where people commute to the downtown. And we could switch to a more European style where you have a village lifestyle, where you can get what you need within a short distance of where you live so you don’t have to drive as much. I have problems with big box stores and huge shopping malls that are all based on the car. That’s how our cities we designed kind of have a California model for cities in Canada that depend on a lot of driving, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to try to localize where our food comes from and the other things that we need. So we’re not spending so much time in a car. That’s something I’d like to see different. And I’d like to see other ways of generating our electricity that doesn’t involve coal or natural gas.

LY: What are some Canadian emblems that could be used to communicate this issue?

Bob McDonald: A melting glacier.



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