Over the last year or so, a group of us – including academics from NCAS and Leeds, Manchester Met and Cardiff Universities, as well as the climate charities 10:10 and Climate Outreach – have been taking stock of what we know about public engagement with climate change, and how to communicate about it in the most effective way.
The current funding for the ‘Climate Communication Project (CCP)’ – provided by NERC’s Engaging Environments programme – has come to an end, so it’s a good time to take stock of what’s been achieved so far, and where we could go next with this valuable set of resources.
There’s a lot we can be confident about
The CCP wasn’t the first time the question ‘what do we know about climate change communication’ has been asked. In fact, as we pieced together a set of 23 summary blogs on everything from the importance of crafting stories and narratives (not just facts and figures) in climate messages, to best-practice in visually conveying climate change impacts and solutions, it became clear that the social science of climate change communication is a mature, and increasingly robust field. Plus, there is now a great deal of expertise and experience from practitioners ‘in the field’ which complements the social science.
This sense was confirmed through two elements of the CCP that were new – an ‘audit survey’ of 200 climate change communication specialists, and an ‘expert elicitation’ meeting where we assessed a range of statements about different aspects of communicating climate change. A report published at the end of 2018 summarised the key messages from these consensus-assessing processes, and from the importance of connecting with public values, to a growing recognition of the need for scientists to ‘have an opinion’ on climate change (as well as communicate the evidence), it’s clear there is a lot we can be confident about.
There’s an appetite for engaging on climate change – but we need to get beyond the usual suspects
In a series of discussion groups with members of the public ‘beyond the usual suspects’ of the already-engaged on climate change (including faith and migrant communities), we found an appetite for connecting with climate change, but also a gap where community-oriented dialogue and engagement on climate change should be. Too much climate communication is still overly complex, abstract and technical, and tends to be aimed at (and consumed by) people who are already engaged.
By considering the needs of underserved people and places, we can support effective dialogue around this topic, and in doing so can inspire positive action against the negative effects of climate change on our planet and its people. There’s much more that can and should be done to engage communities, businesses, individuals and policy makers, and we need to make sure that communication on climate change – no matter which audience it’s aimed at – happens in line with the evidence base summarised and synthesised in the Climate Communication Project
Where next for the Climate Communication Project?
By design, the first phase of the CCP was focused on taking stock, assessing the evidence base, and identifying best practice for communication and engagement. The climate communication literature continues to grow and develop, of course, and like any body of complex (social) science, there are many areas where uncertainties and disputes remain. Is communicating the level of scientific consensus on climate change a priority for building public engagement? What’s the right balance between ‘hope’ and ‘fear’? We found differing views (and conflicting evidence) on questions like these.
But the encouraging levels of broad agreement around many other climate communication topics strongly suggests that the next steps for the CCP should be all about putting the research into practice.
Through training and mentoring for climate scientists, support for climate communicators, and the creation and development of relationships with diverse and influential individuals, communities, businesses and interest groups, the next phase of the CCP will be to translate the climate communication research we’ve synthesised into resources, events and a dynamic, contemporary infrastructure for public engagement with climate change.
This means engaging with diverse communities of interest – reaching out, for example, to musicians, artists and independent record labels, to connect climate change to the cultural spaces that most of us prefer to scientific forums. One excellent example of an artist (Jayda G) and her label (Ninja Tune) that bring the worlds of environmental science and independent music together is the JMG Talks series in London. Initiatives like these offer exactly the kinds of contemporary platform that’s needed to drag climate change out of the cultural margins and into the mainstream.
Through the combined activities and networks of the CCP team, this work has already begun – from corporates taking sustainability seriously like Ben & Jerry’s, or Wates Construction Group, to youth networks like Uprising, to organisations like the Women’s Institute, the CCP team will look for ways to shift climate change from a scientific to a social reality.
Funding that bridges the gap between research and practice
‘Boundary’ work like the Climate Communication Project exists somewhere between research and practice. NERC’s Engaging Environments programme has been a welcome diversion of ‘strictly research’ funds into a programme of public engagement (and congratulations to the OPENER project that secured three years of funding in the latest, and most ambitious phase of Engaging Environments). But programmes like Engaging Environments must be the beginning, not the end, of the story of how research councils channel funding and support for public engagement, communication and ‘boundary’ work.
With a societal challenge like climate change, the impact of research (whether science or social science) is as important as the work itself. We are all – as citizens, colleagues, funders – facing the same ticking climate clock.
In the future, perhaps in the spirit of renewed cooperation implied by the creation of UKRI, might NERC connect with other research councils – or even funders beyond the academic sector – to really throw some weight behind work in the ‘boundary’ space?