International climate negotiations are conducted in the language of headline numbers, such as global average temperatures and calculations of how many more gigatonnes of greenhouse gases remain in our planetary budget. These calculations are essential to setting targets and monitoring progress of different countries in meeting their obligations to international agreements. However, this technical and abstract language is not very useful for communicating climate change risks and policies to the general public. Communicating the policies for limiting warming to 1.5°C will need to draw on best practice and evidence from the social sciences in order to be effective.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the science of limiting warming to 1.5°C highlights the need for profound societal and behavioural changes. Areas of everyday life historically considered to be the domain of private individual choice – such as transport, diet and heating the home – may well be impacted by the policies needed for the 1.5°C target. There could be strong push back from the public if the strategy for communicating these changes isn’t grounded in evidence and practitioner experience. Simply telling people these changes are needed to limit warming to 1.5°C, or to avoid climate change, will not be enough to win broad and sustained public support. Instead the overall objectives of international climate policy need to be brought home to people.
There are two reasons campaigners and journalists use the language of targets and limits in their commentary on climate change. The first is that they are frequently responding to high profile international conferences, which are seeking to agree targets or policies for reaching target. The second reason is the belief that reducing the complexity of the science makes climate change easier to understand. Both these approaches to communicating climate policies to the public will need to change, in order to build an inclusive social response to climate change.
Climate change needs to be a more prominent element of media narratives, rather than being reported once every four years when world leaders come together to make agreements. Climate Outreach ran a series of workshops with the UK public in the month leading up to the conference in Paris from which the 1.5°C target emerged. Despite widespread media coverage in the lead up to the conference, researchers encountered almost no awareness amongst workshop participants of the impending conference, what it was trying to agree, or what the negotiations meant for them.
There is currently no strong evidence that reducing climate change to a series of numbers and targets will make the issue easier for the public to understand. In 2013, Carbon Brief asked the UK public how much global warming they thought was dangerous. The most popular answer was ‘don’t know’, and the average figure given by respondents was 8°C.
Scientists and communication practitioners should take cues from the growing body of evidence on climate change communication, which suggests that messages framed around greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperature figures are ineffective. These numbers are more meaningful to scientists than to members of the public, and fail to build a shared understanding of why ambitious climate policies are needed.
Rather than disembodied numbers, what is needed are stories which can work across the political spectrum, and speak to the values, concerns and aspirations we hold in common. There is already evidence on how to do this. The need to apply these principles consistently has become more urgent with the release of the 1.5°C report from the IPCC.
How can we encourage campaigners and journalists to adopt different ways of communicating the 1.5°C story? How can we persuade them to move away from a reliance on targets towards narratives that are meaningful and relevant for ordinary people?
What are the most effective ways of building new social norms around practices compatible with a 1.5°C world?How can the abstract story of dangerous climate change be brought down to earth, and made meaningful to the public such that positive support for 1.5°C policies can be sustained?
By Chris Shaw, Climate Outreach
Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.