Communicating climate change: righting past wrongs
The IPCC special report on 1.5 C made it crystal clear: the next few years will be the most crucial. With our actions from now on to 2030 we have the chance to either arrest global warming to a reasonably safe level (namely, the 1.5 degree warmer than pre-industrial levels) or press the accelerator on the crisis. The practical pathways to a carbon-neutral and thriving society are within our reach, but as time is short the effort required will be “unprecedented”. That’s why “every choice and every action” will matter.
At the special IPCC event at COP 24 in Katowice, the Chair of the IPCC called for an escalation in global climate action. I have never heard a disruptive call-to-action coming from a panel of distinguished scientists, and this was extremely powerful to watch. Each viable option to limit to 1.5 C requires everyone’s engagement, but how do we do this? How do we reach all the many people still unaware or uninterested? Resonating across the crowded rooms of the conference, a solution to this long-standing dilemma of inclusion reached many ears: communication is the missing ingredient.
The story of past failed climate change communication is fascinating: the reality of human-made climate change is a fact established since the late 1980s, yet the public only started to be involved properly in the discussion in the beginning of 2000s. This initially led to a lot of early distrust and ‘climate skepticism’ amongst groups of people. However today statistics from developed countries do show that a large majority of people believe the science and are convinced that not only is climate change happening, but that it is also a huge threat. Despite this ‘acceptance’, only a minority takes personal action. (See this example of a survey in 2018).
So, why do we live in this divorce between knowledge and action? At a workshop on constructive journalism – targeted at young journalists and wannabe communicators like me - we tried to tackle this question.
We first looked into how information about climate change has been historically presented by mainstream media. It boils down to a long list of ooops! The narratives have numbered quite a few: for example ‘every little counts’, the polar bear-extinction argument or catastrophism. A prominent example of the latter is Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. The trailer of which, can be easily mistaken for the Hollywood film “The day after tomorrow”. The images of natural disasters are just too big for people to handle and imagine as their reality. We are left puzzled and powerless.
All in all, the main reasons behind past communications failures appear to be the following two: “it was doomy and gloomy, while providing no accessible solutions” and “it felt distant, because was never about the people”.
So what do we need to do to remedy these past failures? There are three main things which were suggested as ways of engaging and empowering audiences:
1. Stories about people matter. Telling stories in the context of human experiences will help to make it more relevant and grab people’s attention.
2. Pairing information with action. Just presenting negative facts will make the reader feel discouraged and powerless, but by pairing information with action, the whole picture changes. It’s important to providing people with both scale-matching solutions to the problem (e.g. transition to renewables to cut global emissions) and individually achievable and immediate actions (e.g. using reusable coffee cups), help to empower and engage.
3. Make it pervasive. Climate change will impact on us all, so by including it more in everyday discussions about everyday things, we will make it more real and less of a taboo subject to a lot of people.
The formidable leap we are about to take requires the understanding, help and collaboration of us all. We cannot underestimate the role of a well informed and active local community in addressing this human-caused yet human-solvable global livelihood crises. Good communication and engagement between us all will help us to drive effective global action.
"We must make it a lot simpler for people to act climate-friendly, and we need to tell better stories that create a longing and a vision for where we want to go for a low-carbon society: it's fun, it's smart, it's more conducive to human interactions. And finally, we need signals so we know that we're actually bending the curve, so we know that we're doing something personally relevant."
P. E. Stoknes*, in an interview in 2016.
*P. E. Stoknes is a is a Norwegian psychologist, author of the book “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action” (2015)