Communicating climate change

Communicating climate change – is this the change we need?

Humans are greedily swallowing Earth’s valuable resources, producing vast amounts of waste, toxins and greenhouse gases with no sign of stopping or slowing down. Scientific evidence about global warming and the adverse impact of human activities on climate change was established decades ago. Yet, the present-day earth is smouldering with heatwaves, wildfires, floods and frequent hurricanes. While climate change issues have secured visibility in mainstream media through various natural disasters, are the descriptions of this reality delivered through the popular press, research pieces, science journals & government regulations good enough to stress the urgency of mitigating climate change?  It’s hard to believe that for a significant proportion of the world’s population, climate change is still seemingly inconsequential. While global warming is directly impacting the health and environments of all species, the modern world appears to be living in a constant state of denial & bizarre positivism, naively waiting for someone else to take action.

The consequences of climate change may not be immediate but the steady decline of the environment due to human activities is bound to hit back hard in the coming years. Humans can prevent this environmental catastrophe, but the wake-up calls so far have been futile. Why isn’t this taken seriously seems to be the question? The answer may not be so straightforward.

Resistance to climate change – why is it taking so long to sink in

Two factors bear prominence here.

First is the way in which scientific evidence is communicated that has an impact on how people perceive climate change. The sustainability world is forever entangled in examining complex scientific data, producing facts and analysis that are hard to comprehend & graphs that no-one really gets. As an example, consider the below image published by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) in its recent report on global warming-

IPCC special report

IPCC special report

The chart illustrates a predictive model projecting how global temperature will increase going forward by taking the factors – cumulative emissions of CO2 & future non-CO2 radiative into consideration.  However, the complicated nature & intricate details in the graph make it hard for a layman to decipher and such data will easily be overlooked by people with little technical knowledge. This illustrates the point that more information does not necessarily mean better understanding or agreement, something that the scientific world has consistently failed to recognise. And though scientific consensus has become stronger over time, public opinion has shown very little movement.

Second, is the way in which individuals perceive climate change and its seriousness. Human psychology dictates that people tend to filter information in a way that affirms one’s already-held beliefs.  Melting icebergs and extreme weather conditions are a by-product of climate change, but because people view issues through their unique lens, the diversity of opinions on these issues are unparalleled. So, people who believe that climate change leads to warmer temperatures would pay greater heed to supportive data such as heat waves across Europe as an example. Whereas sceptics would be more inclined to believe any transient news that confirms close to normal sea levels and disregard any such news that would support the contrary.

Clearly, convincing people about the reality of climate change is no less convoluted than the actual issue of climate change.

To use science as the basis to raise people’s awareness and to inspire action, it is imperative that going forward scientific communications be simplified, personalised, be made jargon-free and in line with current communication trends.

It is perhaps time to move past the boundaries of conventional thinking and to be creative with ideas to reduce our environmental impact. Now is the time for change.

Today’s arsenal

When it comes to effective communication, language is a powerful tool.  Messages that are engaging & thought-provoking, and that can inform, instruct, and inspire will encourage action.  History is proof of how the world’s most effective communicators were able to galvanise the masses to win wars, bring in revolutions, secure women’s rights, and foster growth & innovation through the power of language & communication.

The Sustainability industry exists within the same constructs and should take cues from the power of messaging.  David Attenborough’s programme ‘The Blue Planet II’ – which aired in the final months of 2017 is one such example that ensued an unprecedented revolution on plastics pollution. The show unveiled with its striking underwater life footage the shocking impact of excessive plastic waste on sea life. But more importantly, the documentary aroused a sense of urgency that no other event in the past had done.

It delivered a  compelling message of hope & how mankind can make a difference, its gravity expressed in David Attenborough’s closing speech –“Surely, we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and of all life now depends on us”.

The programme was indeed a quintessence of powerful communication that hinged on simple and inspiring language addressing environmental challenges and encouraging people to take the right steps.

Breaking the norm

The successful impact of The Blue Planet II underlines the importance of embracing current age communication trends such as storey telling, visual graphics and social media. The saying – ‘A picture speaks a 1000 words’ aptly supports the case of using visual communication as an effective way to convey complicated and text-heavy data. Social media, on the other hand, has transformed the way people share news and data. Research shows that over 300 million people worldwide spend more than 5 hours each day on social networks and about 200,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. Although the use of infographics and videos have increased in recent years, climate change advocates are yet to fully leverage the potential of modern communication tools.   With a clear need for more simplified, engaging communication this is where the scientific community should up its game – instead of swamping people with piles of evidence, they should focus on how to effectually present evidence. But the task of becoming effective climate change communicators shouldn’t be limited to just environmentalists and scientists but should also include governments, individuals, NGOs, and enterprises as well.

But first – know thy audience

Given that climate change, at least in part, is rooted in human behaviour, the first step toward establishing effective communication would be to know one’s audience. This includes identifying who they are and understanding their underlying beliefs, values and emotions.

Without a good understanding of one’s target audience, even the most powerful messages will fall on the deaf ears.

Messages crafted to meet the needs of specific audience segments are more likely to be read, understood, and remembered than generic ones. To give an example people may be more incentivised to use solar power panels if the reduction in their energy bill is made the key message as opposed to reducing their carbon footprint.  Audience segmentation has played a central role in targeted messaging, using marketing principles to help sell ideas and behaviours that benefit society. Since climate change is not something on everyone’s priority list, creating and delivering such messages should be based on the behaviour, goals and objectives of one’s target audience.

Who is talking about climate change?

Many of us remember Al Gore, not by his failed presidential bid in 2000, but by his contributions in raising global awareness around global warming. Al Gore is one of the most visible environmental advocates on the planet, having won an Academy Award and a spate of other international awards for his incredible, culture-shifting documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. In 2016, Leonardo di Caprio’s in his Oscar’s speech said–“Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating”. 

These words touched millions of people across the world. A YouTube video of this speech was viewed more than 11 million times, following high levels of sharing, liking and commenting on social media. Celebrity endorsement is a powerful way to draw attention to social problems.  A message when communicated in a manner that is understandable, pertinent and supported by a key influencer – will win people’s attention and affirmation. The above are just two examples of the few celebrities who continue to stand up for the environment.

While celebrities have an essential role to play in influencing people’s actions, at this point, when humans need to speed up and take urgent measures, the overall efforts seem languid.  The success of the past campaign may encourage more celebrity action in the future. Let’s aim this happens before the world gets a lot hotter.

What are the big players doing?

Is the UK government on track?

In 2017, the UK government put together its 25-year environment plan including a pledge to eliminate plastic waste by 2042. This policy, however, has been criticised for its ambitious but limited insight on tackling climate change. The government has been slow to act on single-use plastics and reducing air pollution, and efforts to encourage action from businesses and the public have been sketchy. The government has supported businesses with grants and funding for implementing energy efficiency measures, but companies still lag due to the high costs of making a change and the lack of immediate results.  The government will, therefore, need to create greater awareness to educate businesses to foresee the long-term benefits of sustainable practices. Targeted communication channels, personalised messages, inspiring videos, informative guides can all be used as sources to shape the publics thoughts and actions. Finally, greater efforts should be made on educating pro-environment behaviour that may include encouraging citizens to use public transport over personal vehicles & to correctly dispose or recycle plastics.

Are businesses communicating well?

With a growing consumer preference and a demand for eco-friendly products, businesses are under pressure to demonstrate sustainable practices.  While businesses have started acting up and despite the nearly deafening corporate roar about decarbonisation, public confidence remains feeble. In most cases, customers are overloaded with inconsistent information and have little understanding of the real impact.  As the relationship between businesses and customers gets more critical, the importance of communication as a mechanism to embed transparency, authenticity and trust is taking centre stage. Few leading brands have grasped this concept better than others, for example, the international sandwich chain Pret A Manger, launched an initiative in 2018, offering 50p off on coffees for customers who used reusable cups – this campaign created a wave of optimism as people throughout the UK took to social media, commending the movement that encouraged both sensible uses of coffee cups and savings on coffee consumption. It also unveiled a sense of contentment from the green initiative supporters on the corporate world’s seriousness about sustainability. The campaign’s success demonstrates people’s eagerness to help and advocate sustainable practices.  And since brands have constantly inspired and influenced behaviours, this is yet another momentous opportunity towards collective change.  Will brands be able to keep up to this is something to wait and watch.

Additional resources: What does the IPCC’s latest Special Report mean for SBTs?

How can we be a part of this change?

As residents of the digital era, all of us have an important role in creating a shift in thinking and behaviour that can help build a better world. With the growing popularity of social media platforms as communication channels – our ability to network and influence people has drastically increased.

Individuals can now effortlessly engage the world and initiate dialogues voicing their concerns and thoughts on issues such as climate change, carbon emissions, non-degradable plastics & food waste.

Digital power is one of the greatest advantages our generation has, providing the power to build a global community and share expertise, knowledge and experiences that can create awareness and instil education at an individual level. Raising concerns through communities such as blogs will help us to identify, assess, debate and mitigate climate change issues. Many popular sustainability blogs exist because of an individual’s personal motivation, desire and passion to make a difference – the message that every one of us can make a difference needs to propagate further.  One such noteworthy example is Bea Johnson who created Zero Waste Home when her family decided to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Her stories and experiences have motivated a growing community of users to live simply and take a stance against needless waste.   Social media with its tremendous reach is an effective medium to deliver messages to the masses.

So what should we do?

The key to spreading climate change awareness is to ensure that people feel both a personal connection and a desire to take corrective action without becoming overwhelmed by the scale of the issue.

Though environmental scientists are highly regarded, their published materials using scientific language tends to be exclusionary – we’ve got to find ways to refine such material before they are made accessible to the public. By using strong influencers (such as Al Gore & David Attenborough) one can connect effectively with any audience. These influencers have started the climate change conversation by using clear language and examples that their audience is likely to be familiar with. With an issue as complex as climate change, people need to be educated of not only the problems but the available solutions and the part they can play. Finally, most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs. Keeping this in mind we must structure our messages to narrate a compelling story, showcasing the human face behind the science.

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