Over the last three decades, reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it increasingly clear that wide-scale societal and political changes are required to ensure a sustainable, resilient future. Such transformational changes are reliant on a strong platform of public support, and highlight the growing role that climate change communication has to play.
To develop UK capacity for climate change engagement, The Climate Communication Project and Climate Outreach have published a new report which takes stock of the current climate communication knowledge base, and sheds light on how to engage audiences with climate change more effectively.
The report brings together insights from around 200 UK researchers, academics and practitioners who specialise in climate engagement, as well as NGOs, journalists, artists, and campaigners.
Through an ‘audit’ survey of UK climate communications practitioners and a one-day ‘expert elicitation’ workshop (modelled on the process the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses to reach its conclusions), The Climate Communication Project set out to unpick some important questions:
What should be the aim of engagement on climate change? What principles should underpin the way that engagement is carried out? And, crucially, is the science of climate communication settled?
The report acts as a ‘barometer’ for the current state of UK climate engagement and provides best practice recommendations for anyone who wants to engage the public with climate change. This is the first time an exercise like this has been carried out, and now the findings are available to read in Climate Communication in Practice.
This new research illustrates that there is no single reason motivating climate change communication, but instead a cluster of factors influencing how engagement on climate change takes place.
The survey results also show that around a quarter of practitioners are highly active communicators, typically carrying out twelve or more engagement activities per year. And we observed clear agreement among climate communicators that while robust scientific evidence should be at the heart of climate communication, this doesn’t mean scientists can’t advocate for policies or use evocative communication methods.
However, given that many climate communications activities typically still use the old-fashioned ‘speaker-listener’ lecture-style format and target the general public quite broadly, there is also a need to ensure that we are moving towards the sorts of recommendations presented in this report. While communicating the climate science clearly and accurately is of fundamental importance, climate communicators can do so much more to engage people, and win over hearts and minds.
So, to mark the publication of this report, we’ve picked out three ways to step up climate communications practices:
Resonate with your audience: position climate change as part of everyday life
Prior to engaging, if possible try to find out what the audience already knows. What are their values, beliefs and attitudes? Once established, build and tailor engagement around these insights. Connect with what matters to your audience, using shared language and if possible bring in trusted, credible communicators who are more able to connect with the group’s interests.
Make the engagement activity personally relevant and familiar, showing how it will affect the audience directly (for instance, making links to human health, politics, and everyday activities). Taken together, our report makes the case for a shift towards more specialist, targeted engagement, beyond broad engagement activities based around a general public audience.
Be engaging and build balanced optimism: focus on dialogue and co-production
Hold people’s attention, be concise, get to the crux of the communication quickly and crucially, make it interesting. Practitioners we heard from recommended using captivating visuals, stories, narrative, humour and other creative forms of engagement to build a sense of optimism about tackling climate change. We propose using ‘balanced optimism’, which recognises the scale of the problems we face, but which also emphasises the ways we can overcome them.
Two-way dialogue is also crucial. This means learning together, and avoiding preachy, ‘didactic’ communication (in other words don’t set out to ‘teach’ the audience, and don’t be coercive).
Catalyse change: nurture agency and empowerment
It is entirely appropriate for communicators to inspire their audience to do something actively about climate change. Where possible, you can help the audience to realise what they can do themselves and realise key actions they can take. Encourage a sense of control and efficacy (that is, the confidence to take actions and to see which actions are effective). Catalyse individual and collective level changes, and boost political engagement around climate change.
These are just three of the key recommendations. The report uncovers many other useful ways to improve your climate communications practice, as well as insights into what makes an event a success or failure, and ‘lifts the bonnet’ on climate communications, revealing the areas of disagreement amongst practitioners.
The report is a useful step towards shaping a better communications landscape around climate change, but much work is still needed. There is a clear need to build up the infrastructure and capacity around climate engagement, and evidence that communication practitioners can learn more from the likes of artists, journalists and campaigners who made up a smaller proportion of the pool of practitioners we heard from in this research.
[Note: Percentages reported in the graphics above represent the views of the climate change communications practitioners who contributed to our survey. See the report for full details of the survey findings].
Niall is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath, where his research focuses on the psychology of communicating climate change impacts and adaptation. As part of his PhD, he is participating in a research internship with Climate Outreach.