Getting the Story Right

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Beth Karlin ’99 studies and shapes how environmental information is conveyed to the public.

Because so many people get their scientific knowledge from movies and television, Beth Karlin ’99 works to understand and influence how environmental information is conveyed to the public.

Karlin is research director at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, which studies the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world. Its Hollywood Health and Society Program works to educate show runners on topics like climate change and then evaluates whether the projects had an impact.

“It’s much harder to get storylines about climate change out to the public than it is for health,” Karlin said. “While it may be true that this is a harder topic to fit into a prime time storyline than HIV/AIDS or drunk driving, we’re trying to figure out what we can do about it. This is too important to throw in the towel. We’re listening, analyzing and working on solutions.”

Karlin has also started her own research institute, SEE Change, which aims to solve sustainability problems by bringing together academics, practitioners and evaluators to work with clients on strategy, implementation and evaluation of behavioral programs. The institute was born out of the fact that Karlin saw “huge potential” for the role of social science to help address pressing social issues, like climate change.

“We definitely need to replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy, but behavior matters, too,” Karlin said. “Engaging people to make their homes more energy efficient has the potential to save up to 300 million tons of greenhouse gases per year—twice the annual emissions of all three Scandinavian countries combined. We’re not bad people, we’re just busy, and energy is often invisible in our daily lives. Psychology can help provide insights on how to make energy more visible and to inform people about actions that could save us money and will make us feel good about doing our part collectively.”

Karlin was a psychology major at Redlands and after graduating worked as a teacher and counselor. In her mid-20s, she became interested in the environment during a stint teaching young people at an outdoor education school in Massachusetts. Not only did she show them how to see the world differently, but her newly discovered passion changed the course of her career. “I knew this was what I wanted my life to be about,” she said.

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