Climate Signals sign
Photo credit: Lisa Goulet.

Highway signs are ubiquitous, announcing delays or construction––words of caution and guidance. “Reduce speed” warns us to lift our foot off the gas pedal. “Road closed ahead” indicates the need for a detour. These signs, glowing orange, are public statements of caution and guidance. But what happens when a highway sign says: “Climate change at work” or “50,000,000 climate refugees”?

Climate Signals, a new exhibition by The Climate Museum in New York City, reinterprets traffic signals as starting points for conversations on climate change. Climate Signals presents unusual messages in unusual places: Rather than along a roadside, these signs are visible in pedestrian-accessible public spaces across the city’s five boroughs. Visitors now through November 6 will see flashing text on one of 10 11′ x 7′ message boards, the work of artist Justin Brice Guariglia.

A format that ‘triggers a heightened sense of alert’

“When you see a traffic sign, your pulse quickens a little and you know you have to be on the alert for a changing condition that could affect your safety,” said Miranda Massie, founder and director of the Climate Museum. “I think that that connection is a brilliant one to make: putting words about climate into a format that automatically triggers a heightened sense of alert and a need, urgently, to pay attention.”

”Putting Click To Tweet

Each sign is displayed in multiple languages to reflect the diversity of the particular neighborhood. Among the warnings that cycle across the screens: “La negación climática mata”; “No icebergs ahead”; and “End climate injustice”.

“A lot of past climate communication has relied really heavily on pushing data,” said Claudia Villar, the museum’s research & communications coordinator. “Research shows that hasn’t been the most successful way to talk about the climate problem.”

On topics as distant, global, and challenging as climate change, the human brain responds better to experience than to analysis. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,”  has shown how our brains rely on two processing systems: fast thinking that’s intuitive, experiential, and automatic, and slow thinking that’s deliberate, analytical, and rational. Projects that appeal to both analytical and experiential processing systems are more likely to stick.

“Information about climate change risks needs to be translated into relatable and concrete personal experiences,” wrote researchers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, publisher of this site, in a 2015 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science:

Following that approach, the Climate Museum aims to humanize and personalize climate change — in Villar’s words, to “show people why climate change matters to them.”

Personalize the issue to ‘show people why climate change matters to them.’

Targeting a broad cross-section of New Yorkers, the Climate Museum integrates partnerships into its development model. Although not yet having its own permanent space (a temporary space is to open this fall at Governors Island), the museum is coordinating events with organizations as diverse as Uprose, Yuca Arts, Bronx River Alliance, and the NYC Mayor’s Office.

Villar leads the Youth Advisory Council, a group that gives young New Yorkers a voice in the museum’s programming. Rather than dictating top-down what issues they should address, the museum actively solicits youth involvement.

A member of that council for two years is Aryanna Khan, 17. Born in Bangladesh, Khan witnessed climate change-intensified flooding firsthand. At age 10, she moved with her family to Queens two years before Hurricane Sandy struck.

The Youth Advisory Council allows teens like Khan to be heard. “In the very first meeting we were brainstorming ideas of how to make the conversation about climate change more accessible,” Khan said. “We were like, okay, maybe we could have something interactive.”

“The way to draw anyone to a movement is not through the statistics,” Khan said. “It’s not through the political banter. It’s through stories.”

Climate Signals aims to increase scientific literacy for the visitors by providing experiences. On October 6th, “Ask a Scientist Day,” each sign will be staffed by a climate scientist, available for all kinds of conversation.

“People think of scientists as this separate group that has secret answers,” Villar said. “Bringing scientists to interact with the public and just be human and have conversations and answer people’s questions – we thought that would be really powerful.”

Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, coordinated scientists from five institutions in the New York metropolitan area to volunteer with Climate Signals. These researchers represent several disciplines in climate science: sea-level rise, disaster risk reduction, green infrastructure, meteorology, policy, urban ecosystems, engineering, atmospheric science, and the carbon cycle.

The focus of Ask a Scientist Day will be on making climate science both accessible and local. “For interacting with folks in the community, [we want to answer] How does climate change affect us right here where we live?” Rosenzweig said. “Another frequently asked question is: What do we do about it?”

In an exhibition as much about language as it is about accessibility, Climate Signals serves as a starting point for conversations: a way of using language to draw people into dialogue on climate change––with climate scientists and also with each other.

“Climate change is a problem that is affecting all of us,” Villar said. “We need to include everyone if we’re going to be able to overcome [climate change] together.”

Devi Lockwood is a freelance multimedia journalist currently in a one-year master’s degree program in science writing at MIT.

Editor’s Note:  This piece was lightly edited on October 4, 2018, to eliminate a mistaken sentence.