July 25, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

What is a climate change communicator to do?

In a recent article, social scientists claim that a rhetoric of deadlines to urge action on climate change is ‘dangerous’. While I agree that it might be dangerous to get into a situation where you extend deadlines forever if you cannot achieve them, setting no deadlines at all may make it difficult to talk about climate change or global heating and its impacts, as it leaves people with only a vague horizon to aim for, one that can easily recede into infinity.

In another recent article, a social scientist claims that strategic messaging, or framing your message in view of your intended audience, might not work on a grand scale. It might, perhaps, work at a small scale, namely in the context of a conversation or dialogue, “but there are no magic messages capable of overcoming strong beliefs (however poorly informed) or converting someone to your side.”

I totally accept that conversations are a good thing, much better than indoctrination, but what do you do in them? Stress the the reality of climate change? Tell people about the dangers of climate change? Highlight that there is a consensus about the reality and the dangers of climate change? Talk about time frames and time limits? Tell some people that they would be richer by investing in renewables? Tell other people that if they want their grandparents to survive the summer, they should think about where to move them? (Of course, you should also listen to what your conversation partners have to say!)

Climate change communication contestation

All these communication/conversation activities would be preconditions for people to be persuaded to act on climate change – if that’s what you want to do. However, you might just want to inform people instead. But all these things are contested, some strongly, others not so strongly, some for good reasons, some for not so good reasons, by social scientists: deadline messaging, consensus messaging, strategic messaging, danger messaging, persuading, educating and informing, etc.

Wherever a climate communicator turns and looks for help from social scientists, they find themselves confronted by warning signs. Is there a danger that this may lead to climate change communication fatigue and gradual silence on the part of communicators? What would that mean in a context where the signals of global heating are becoming ever louder, where, in a sense, human messaging is gradually being superseded by climate change doing the messaging itself?

If that is the case, we’d still need human communicators though, wouldn’t we, to discuss options and scenarios, local and global issues, risks and benefits, trends and trade-offs, and, indeed, the science and the politics of it all? So where would these communicators come from and if they did where would they go for advice about how best to communicate?

Climate change communication advice

I suppose they might go to those who study and practice climate change communication and learn from it. In the United States they may go to the Yale Programme on Climate Change Communication or the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

The Yale Programme has an interesting definition of climate change communication as “about educating, informing, warning, persuading, mobilizing and solving this critical problem. At a deeper level, climate change communication is shaped by our different experiences, mental and cultural models, and underlying values and worldviews.”

I also found a climate change communication guide published by the University of Columbia. And I bet there is more.

In the United Kingdom climate change communicators who still want to communicate might go to the Climate Communication Project and Climate Outreach.

In Germany they might consult Klimafakten or to read information produced by research institutes in Hamburg or Berlin, for example.

I am not so sure about France, but I found this, which gives some advice on climate change communication influenced by English-speaking climate change projects….

And I bet there are other resources in other countries….Here is something in Portuguese, for example….and in Chinese…..

Climate change communication and unicorns

Climate change communication is difficult and complex, but it would be a shame if those who want to engage in this activity feel too frustrated to do it; if silence replaced conversation and communication.

The problems faced by communicators of climate change are compounded by the fact that we now live in a world where education, knowledge and critical thinking are being replaced by unicorns, flying pigs and fairy tales. There is therefore a great temptation to just withdraw and shut up in the face of all the obstacles encountered when trying to speak. This would be a shame.

Image: Unicorns, Bill Benzon, Flickr

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScience Communication