How do you get people to engage with climate change? Having a conversation about it is a hard sell at the best of times. As importantly (and this is where it gets tricky right off the bat), how do you get people to act?
These are the million-dollar questions for those of us working in climate communications. And, indeed, for climate researchers everywhere. As Sir Mark Walport, the UK government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, said: “Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. Politicians (and, therefore, policymakers) respond to the public. An engaged public, as the surge of concern over plastic pollution since Blue Planet II has demonstrated, can supercharge behavioural change, alter business practices and stimulate policy progress.
All of this needs to happen in record time on climate change. It’s not that the answers aren’t known. A vast amount of research has been done on the science of communicating climate change and some excellent organisations, groups and individuals here in the UK are working hard, often with limited resources, to promote it. However, to achieve the saturation necessary for large-scale public engagement, the approaches need synthesising: we need to evaluate what’s out there to be more effective and ambitious “out there”.
Our First Workshop
The NERC-funded Climate Communication Project aims to address public engagement with climate change in the UK by producing a ‘national infrastructure’ that will capture, boost and channel existing knowledge. The main output – a digital platform that brings it all together – will be a one-stop-shop for communicators, practitioners and researchers, providing up to date resources for evidence-based public engagement and the tools to deliver it.
The project team unites a host of experts in climate communication from academia and other research institutions to NGOs and charities. They came together for the first project partner meeting at the University of Leeds on 12 January 2018 to address some fundamental questions: who’s doing what (and how can we find out?); what topics, themes and resources should we be addressing, and what’s the best way to demonstrate confidence in what we do know about climate communications?
The six-hour workshop started with introductions and an ice-breaker: what was your first ever piece of public engagement? The exercise, which turned into “Confessions of a Climate Communicator”, showed the varied ways (humorous, messy, embarrassing and occasionally disastrous) project team members took originally to outreach. Nods and laughter around the room acknowledged early pitfalls and common themes: mistakes make valuable learning.
Tackling the Audit
The Climate Communications Project will undertake an audit of existing public engagement capability and capacity within the UK and the first task in the workshop was to critique a survey designed to do this. Team members tested the rapid-response online survey by filling it in themselves (on paper) and commenting on the questions, which besides determining information about organisations, also seeks to find out people’s views on public engagement with climate change and ask for successful (and unsuccessful) examples.
As well as feedback on the questions and design of the survey, members were also asked to identify individuals and organisations to audit, to suggest methods of distribution and analysis, and to provide their thoughts of ways to disseminate the outcomes of the audit, including the value of social media in this regard. You can find some of the suggestions on our evaluation of workshop one.
Synthesising Existing Research
The second objective of the project is to synthesise existing research on climate communications. For this, we broke into small groups to pool knowledge about main themes from psychology and social science on the subject, the areas of climate science of particular importance for communication and key resources, from books to YouTube videos and reports to influential authors. The scope of the task was part of the challenge – where do you draw the line about what to include? – and provoked a great deal of animated discussion. Very long lists of suggestions were compiled and common themes and issues emerged that made a productive starting point for the project.
The final workshop task also involved working in small groups, this time to evaluate a synthesis of statement by experts on the science of climate communication, a process known as expert elicitation. We were asked to study four statements and to examine and rank them using three different methods: a simple “traffic lights” system; using a grid of confidence statements relating to the degree of certainty attributed to the statements (a system used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and response scales. This likewise prompted vigorous dialogues around issues such as the definition of “expert”, the weighting of judgements in the context of the wider project and how to communicate them in a way that is accessible and of practical help to users of the eventual website.
Harnessing the Energy
The session ended with a brief chance to go over some of the talking points of the day, to discuss gaps in provision and areas for improvement as well as creating a continuing project network. Further suggestions for resources, topics, issues and contacts were captured and stuck (appropriately) to a map of the world etched onto the School of Earth and Environment seminar room glass. As the participants pulled on coats and said their goodbyes – some had very long train journeys home – the exchanges went on: getting the top UK climate communicators in one room and inviting them to download their learning was always going to be a lively affair!
The narrative around climate communications continues to develop and the debates will continue. Judging by the energy and engagement of the crack team of climate communicators that came to Leeds (and that wasn’t even the full complement – a few team members were unable to attend), the Climate Communications Project made a strong start to the process of auditing knowledge, mapping the science and marshalling the resources around public engagement in climate change.
Kate carries out all communications activities for the Priestley International Centre for Climate, external and internal.