Crookes Professor Sean Holman (right) with Writing student Sandra Ibrahim

Recent climate-related disasters—from heatwaves and wildfires to floods and hurricanes—make it clear that we need to prepare for climate change, while also trying to prevent it. Journalists and scientists must work together to do that. By improving media coverage, the public can make the best decisions possible about the most pressing problem of our time. To help support this work, humanitarian and political activist Wayne Crookes funded a professorship in Environmental and Climate Journalism in UVic’s Department of Writing through a gift of $1.875 million.

Sean Holman, who assumed the role in September 2021, says the power of the professorship is the marriage of both teaching and research. It allows him to “involve students and members of the broader community in this research in very direct ways, so that they can take action on climate change.”

Establishing a baseline for good climate coverage

One of Holman’s first accomplishments as Crookes Professor was to co-lead the first ever Canadian study comparing perceptions of climate change coverage in three groups: journalists, climate scientists and the public. The resulting Climate Coverage in Canada Report was published in November 2021, shortly after the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The report offered recommendations for how climate change reporting could be improved, including how scientists and journalists could better work together.

“Until now we haven’t had a baseline to establish what good climate coverage should look like,” says Holman. “Now, as a result of this survey, we are getting a better idea about what climate scientists would like to see in the news media and how they would like the media to reflect the scientific evidence that surrounds climate change.”

Climate Disaster Project

Crookes’ gift extends beyond the professorship to fund other research and outreach initiatives such as the Climate Disaster Project. In the project’s manifesto, Holman writes: “We are already losing countless lives and livelihoods to climate change. That means we are all climate disaster survivors. But we don’t see ourselves in that way, so we feel alone in our experiences.”

The project brings together students at UVic and several partner universities to collect and share the stories of people who have lived through climate change-related disasters. Those stories will be published and broadcast by the project’s media partners and then added to a publicly available memory vault. The vault will also serve as a launchpad for investigative solutions journalism projects about climate disasters and a virtual gathering place for anyone who has experienced them. APTN  (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) aired the first set of stories highlighting the work of the Climate Disaster Project on June 3.

So much of the narrative about climate change has been around ‘can we stop it?’, without acknowledging that it’s happening. The hope is that by creating these stories, we can build community, and by building community, we can create hope.”

—Sean Holman

Trauma-informed journalism

UVic student Sandra Ibrahim participated in the project through her undergraduate writing class. To prepare for interviewing climate disaster survivors, students in the class learned trauma-informed interview techniques and practiced them with each other. This way of interviewing relies on gradually building trust between the interviewer and interviewee. Practices such as informed consent, providing interview questions in advance, sharing transcripts after the interview and self-care are built into the process to help the interviewee feel comfortable and confident in sharing their story.

For Holman, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the donor-funded professorship is teaching a course that combines classroom experience with a pioneering real-world project. “I’ve always wanted to be able to teach this kind of transformative course, a course that doesn’t just have an effect inside the classroom, but also outside the classroom—and is grounded in both research and social change.”

Reflecting on the class, Ibrahim says: “One of the things Sean said that I’ve taken to heart is, ‘What if the truth was a gift?’. What if sharing pain, insecurities—or grief, in my case—what if sharing that was a gift, even if it makes us feel vulnerable?”

Shifting focus

Holman believes the project could create a perceptual shift for those sharing and hearing stories. For example, for students in his class, the collective realization that they weren’t alone in their fears about the future helped foster a sense of community. Ibrahim described the process of sharing in community as “absolutely healing. It may not solve the problem of climate change, but it solves the problem of loneliness and despair and grief about climate change.”

Perhaps that’s the crux of why Crookes’ visionary gift is so important, not just to UVic, but to the world. It permits the sharing of truth—a truth belonging as much to one individual as to humankind. It shifts the focus from data and temperature percentages to empathy and shared experience, from the enormity of prevention to the reality of adaptation.

All this would never have happened without Wayne Crookes. It was his visionary concern for the humanitarian cost of climate change and his belief that society can be mobilized around this experience that made this possible.”

—Sean Holman

—Sarah Tarnopolsky

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