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Will a podcast about climate change reach the audiences that need to hear it most?

The Adaptors
Season 1
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In desperate times, just how desperate are the measures we are willing to pursue? The stark implications of climate change are leading to no shortage of proposals. Should we drink water recycled from flushed toilets? Or try to generate electricity from massive artificial tornadoes? What if we could engineer humans to have cat eyes that are capable of seeing in lower light so as to reduce nighttime energy use? That last idea prompts Flora Lichtman to break stride and voice aloud what many of us are likely thinking: “Are you for real?”

Lichtman is the host of the podcast series The Adaptors, which explores innovative ideas for mitigating climate change. New episodes have been released about twice a month and have often been accompanied by a short video on the program’s website. The episodes vary in length but average between 10 and 15 minutes. There’s even an interactive component called “Climate Confessions,” in which listeners are invited to call in and reveal their personal struggles to be better stewards of the environment. The series, produced by Katherine Wells, just completed its first year with major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and now awaits additional funding for further episodes.


Lichtman is a veteran of the public radio program Science Friday and the coproducer of the brilliant Animated Life video series (1). Her style invokes a comfortable conversation with a friend: always informative but not overly reverent or scripted. While describing the sludge used to produce methane in the New York City wastewater treatment plant, Lichtman confides that “it smells…yeah…like you would expect, and although it looks probably like you would expect, too, I felt compelled to take a ton of photos.”

Episodes of The Adaptors are intrinsically stories about people. From conservation biologist Joel Berger, who carries photos of yaks in his wallet, to astronaut Cady Coleman’s frank discussion of wastewater recycling on the International Space Station, the series has done a fantastic job of finding compelling subjects to feature on the program.

The series frequently weighs in on complex and difficult issues, including the ecological and evolutionary implications of climate change, but it is at its best when the topics border on the implausible, such as when ethicist Matthew Liao proposes giving humans fur to help us cope with extreme weather.

And yet, despite the engaging nature of The Adaptors, it’s hard not to wonder who exactly is tuning in to hear about climate change on a regular basis. Both in episodes of The Adaptors and in interviews elsewhere, Lichtman has been quick to note the difficulties associated with winning and sustaining interest in climate change. True, those who are likely to read this review will no doubt enjoy the podcast, but talking climate change to scientists is like preaching to the choir. Yes, they’ll learn something new, but they already believe deeply in the tenets.

From energy-efficient “Earthships” to sex-swapping lizards, unusual adaptations to climate change take center stage in The Adaptors.© 167/BROOKE WHATNALL/OCEAN/CORBIS

From energy-efficient “Earthships” to sex-swapping lizards, unusual adaptations to climate change take center stage in The Adaptors.

Given that research suggests that those with partisan views on a highly politicized topic such as climate change are more likely to seek out information consistent with their viewpoint (2, 3), it follows that efforts like that of The Adaptors face an uphill battle in educating a broad audience. What would motivate someone to tune in when there are so many other options competing for their attention?

Time is running short on climate change, and resources for science engagement are limited. We must think carefully about whether such efforts are the best way to engage everyone. But given that we still need all the intelligent and thought-provoking information we can get on this topic, The Adaptors represents a clever, edgy contribution to the climate conversation.


  1. New York Times, Op-Docs, Animated Life; ww

  2. S. Knobloch-WesterwickB. K. JohnsonA. Westerwick, J. Computer-Mediated Communication 20, 171 (2015).

About the author

The reviewer is in the Ecosystem Fluxes Group, Laboratory for Atmospheric Chemistry, Paul Scherrer Institute, 5232 Villigen, Switzerland.