Climate Activist or Climate Scientist?

Chloe with a group of people walking a relay down a canal path as part of a campaign called the Young Christian Climate Network Relay to COP27 that took place in 2021. It was raining and there are trees in the background.

There is growing pressure for climate change scientists to communicate their research. But there is also huge pressure from the sciences to do this without being an advocate or an activist. It is presented especially as an early career researcher that your scientific integrity is brought into question as an activist. 

There is power in our stories and in those who are on the frontline of the climate crisis. I say this from my position as a scientist working in climate change and health. Being confronted with hounding mortalities, illnesses, stillbirths and many other figures, I want to use my position and research to give voice to those who are underrepresented in climate change discussions. This includes both those who are marginalized but as well as the students studying and researching climate change. I only found my voice as an early career researcher through learning about activism. 

When I started as a PhD scientist, like many in my generation, I felt voiceless in a complex landscape of climate change and geopolitics. My main PhD supervisor at the time became one of the leading voices in hydrology and flooding in the UK through her science communication, and I wanted my research on heatwaves to exert the same influence and help people. This led me to participate in an activism training scheme with Christian Aid.

Christian Aid Campaign in 2020, to get the UK government to stop investing in overseas fossil fuel developments.
Christian Aid Campaign in 2020, to get the UK government to stop investing in overseas fossil fuel developments.
[Image description: Logo illustration of a Christian aid campaign called “Stop Fuelling the Fire” with a picture of the earth on fire and different ethnicities raising their hands in support.]

There is a huge overlap between what you are taught in traditional science communication and what you learn when designing a campaign. You have a target audience, and you communicate with them to inform them, in my case, about an aspect of climate change. Christian Aid taught me about the concepts of social movement theory, climate justice and climate finance. But it also gave me the confidence to present myself as a scientist, not an activist. I achieved this by embracing the change that activism campaigns led to—which was, at the time, the UK government agreeing to stop funding overseas fossil fuel expansion.

My specialist topic (not just if I was to go on the British TV show “Mastermind”) is heatwaves (which refers to a period of above average temperatures in a region’s warm season). My research shows that heatwaves and their impacts are underreported in the media, in policy, and by science.[1] I was determined to report their impacts because heatwaves are our deadliest climate change weather hazard but aren’t widely seen as such. 

My PhD supervisor had a significant influence on me, leading me to finding my independent scientific voice alongside learning about activism. However, when I first wrote about my research as a piece of science communication that has the aim of engaging with anybody, which was published by The Conversation, it was in response to one of her articles. I remember months later going on science communication training with a really good charity called Voice of Young Science and them saying “you should only write in The Conversation with your supervisor!”

At this same training, I remember asking BBC’s former Environment Editor David Schuckman, “Why do the media only ask for professors to do interviews?” and what he said was along the lines of “we don’t ask for professors—the universities usually present them, but what we want is the best communicators.” After this I posed the same question to my University’s press office and they said “sometimes organizations will only ask for those with titles.” Apparently, it isn’t black and white.

During my PhD, I didn’t just communicate heatwaves through public engagement and the media, which was one of the reasons I won an outstanding early career researcher award from my professional body. Behind the scenes, I was encouraging other research students to take part in science communication as well as engaging with the press office to try and improve the diversity of the scientific voice our University presented, including creating more opportunities for public engagement across career stages. 

Me on Sky News during the July 2022 heatwave, standing at the University of Reading atmospheric observatory.
[Image description: A still of a young woman on the Sky News channel surrounded by dry grass. There are buildings and atmospheric observation equipment behind the woman.]

Since my first article, I’ve been in over 100 international media outlets talking about heatwaves, including CNN, Sky, Reuters, and the BBC, some of which have been translated and disseminated all over the world. I’ve not been without my criticism like the Daily Mail Nappies Saga where they said I looked like I was just out of nappies and many other just bizarre experiences. But I’ve had an overwhelming positive experience with the international media in general, and the July 2022 Heatwave was a real turning point for most on how heatwaves were reported.

I’ve just finished a Climate Ambassador scheme with the charity Climate Outreach, which really helped refresh my science communication, and have moved to Austria and to a pretty different media and science landscape for my post-doc. Science communication remains a really important part of my scientific identity. 

Christian Aid. Prophetic Activist Scheme (2020).

Brimicombe, Chloe, et al. “Heatwaves: an invisible risk in UK policy and research.” Environmental Science & Policy 116 (2021): 1-7.

Brimicombe, Chloe. “Is there a climate change reporting bias? A case study of English-language news articles, 2017-2022.” Geoscience Communication 5, no. 3 (2022): 281-287.

Brimicombe Chloe. “Heatwaves are an invisible killer—and the UK is woefully unprepared.” The Conversation (August 20, 2020).

Cloke, Hannah. “Heatwaves often end with spectacular thunderstorms and lethal floods—but where and when they’ll strike is hard to predict.” The Conversation (August 13, 2020).

Voice of Young Science (2023).

Royal Meteorological Society. “Malcolm Walker Award.” Royal Meteorological Society (2022).

Poke Staff. “The Mail’s Dan Wootton trolled this climate researcher and their comeback was A++.” The Poke (July 20, 2022).

Climate Outreach. “Public engagement training for climate experts” (2022).

*Cover Image: The Young Christian Climate Network Relay to COP26 in 2021, engaging people across the UK with climate change.

[*Cover image description: a group of people walking a relay down a canal path holding umbrellas and campaign signs, with trees in the background.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Asmae Ourkiya.

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