The challenge of communicating unwelcome messages

Mitigate more. Adapt now. Be afraid. Feel guilty. Pay up. Change everything.

Few people want to hear these messages, yet they have been at the heart of the most successful communication campaign ever. Over the span of a couple of decades, the world has become aware of the risk of climate change. A multitude of channels, scientists, politicians, journalists, civil servants and campaigners – even some celebrities – have helped make it a global concern. Opinion polls the world over show unequivocally that people have heard of and are worried about it. Then, in December 2015, heads of state signed the UN Paris Agreement with the goal of keeping temperature rise well below 2 °C.

This awareness-raising is a huge success story, but what comes next? Deeper engagement, motivation and agency to respond? A few years before the Paris Agreement, I was writing the communication plan for a multipartner EU-funded project called HELIX, which used new and complex mathematical simulations to show scientists, policymakers and public the impacts of 2 °C, 4 °C and 6 °C  of warming.

The results of HELIX confirmed that a temperature rise greater than 2 °C brings risk of severe drought, heatwaves and major floods in many regions, along with serious declines of biodiversity. In many cases, these are considered beyond preparation.

As an evidence-based communicator with unwelcome climate messages to relay, what did I do? How did I react to the prospect of becoming a narrator of doom? Having the luxury of EU funding, I ran a workshop to ask other experts. They were leading researchers, psychologists, public sector and private agency communicators, artists. I thank them for their insights.

Working together, we found that people:

  • Use denial strategies to suppress anxiety. By denying facts, no emotion needs to be felt. This is relevant to all of us: we all prioritise what to worry about, all of the time. If I were to accept risk data, I would not ride a bike to work every day.
  • Have maladaptive coping mechanisms. They accept unwelcome messages about climate change but blunt aspects of the science, or our emotions, to reduce the cognitive impact. This, too, is something that applies to all of us, all of the time, and we may use several different strategies to cope. For example, we may use distancing – set our own timeline to remove a compulsion to act. Perhaps this is part of the reason why future dates are highlighted in various scenarios and a newer approach is to instead assess the impact of specific levels of warming levels.
  • Employ diversionary strategies. These are minor changes to behaviour, or single actions or decisions people use to reassure themselves that a response has been made. (Has anyone spoken to you about plastic straws recently?) It is a childlike hope that a super-hero in the form of a responsible adult, the government, or some techno-fix such as biomass carbon capture and storage will fix it all for us.

However, we need to work towards adaptive coping. This involves acceptance of change and loss rather than resistance. It is recognition of climate science, its meaning, and the emotional response it provokes. It might even be compared to mourning. People and cultures have to pass through various stages in a sequence that is not at all smooth or linear; we go back and forth and around denial, grief, anger, engagement and acceptance in the roundabout journey to adaptive coping.

We therefore also assessed how we can use knowledge of natural denial mechanisms to improve science communication, and came up with the following:

  • Be honest about the worst-case scenario. This is accurate communication of risk-based decision-making, not attempted prediction of the central tendency. Present the full extent of climate risk. You might be surprised to learn that, despite media headlines, the impacts of high levels of climate change are relatively unstudied and uncommunicated.
  • Mitigate to 2 °C but adapt for at least 4 °C. Policymakers in particular are nervous about considering scenarios beyond 2 °C lest it induce fatalism that would lead to a lack of effort and ambition. But, in doing this, they are employing one of the coping strategies outlined above. And, since 2015, the threshold has been moved down with many people now failing to talk about warming beyond 1.5 °C. This is a communication mistake.
  • Use your audience’s language. This is obvious but worth flagging – jargon is exclusive. Preparedness and resilience engage sustainability professionals better than the abstract concept of adaptation. Risk works well when talking to business professionals who are already experts at making successful decisions based on uncertainties. Terms such as operational performance, asset management, commodities, security of supply, workforce health and wellbeing, have far more impact in the relevant sectors than the phrases scientists use.
  • More dialogue, less debate and no campus lecturing. Be a friendly communicator who recognises emotions, loss and the need for active hope. This helps people come together to learn, to deliberate and to respond both individually and collectively. And, never, ever, host what you are calling public engagement on a university campus. Or present as if you are. You need different venues – public safe-spaces that enable trust and processing – whether you are talking to citizens or policy people. Where exactly did the panel discussion come from? Have you ever felt enlightened by one of those?

In summary, communicating the science of climate change calls for us to be more than narrators of doom, to promote a more active hope, realistic goals, imaginable paths and a meaningful role for the individual in the collective response. We need new, more dialogical, forms in our toolbox – along with different venues.

Of course, ideally, this level of engagement would be facilitated by skilled teams. And so the next stage of HELIX was to work with Climate Outreach to devise and offer training in the science of climate communication for early-career researchers.

You can train yourself in the science of climate change communication using the Climate Outreach online workshop. If you and your colleagues would like more tailored face-to-face training, do please get in touch.

You can read the paper that came from the workshop, The Challenge of Communicating Unwelcome Messages of Climate Change, here.

Asher Minns

Asher Minns is the Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, he is a specialist in communication, and began his career with an apprenticeship in radar.

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