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Let’s talk climate change: four tips for communicating about it

Written by Mairi Dupar


From 1-8 July 2018, London hosts its first ever London Climate Action Week: a showcase of the city’s world-leading businesses and institutions working on climate change and the Zero Carbon London initiative.

You may already be well informed about climate change. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed about what climate change means and what to do about it – both in the UK and in climate-vulnerable countries on the frontlines of its unpredictable effects.

To help people get together and have a conversation about climate change and sustainable solutions, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) has launched Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide.

This first-of-its-kind guide sets out practical steps and dozens of case studies intended to help you frame and communicate climate issues effectively to the public, government and business audiences, to step up ambitious action. It’s based on CDKN’s eight years of experience in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Climate change might seem like a complicated topic, but communicating about it doesn’t have to be. To energise public audiences, and engage with government and business leaders about creating a climate-resilient future that’s net-zero emissions, here are some of CDKN’s top tips:

Avoid making people feel powerless

Engage your audience to shape the future they want to see. People typically ask ‘how will climate change affect me and the areas of life where I have control?’ whether their sphere of influence is a household, a company, a community planning process or a major government programme.

Although the immediate answer may be: ‘climate change is now a crisis’, the last thing you want to do, as a communicator, is make people feel powerless. The equally important message is: ‘we have to act fast, and we can do it!’

The central message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C was that it is possible to limit average global warming to 1.5°C and avoid even worse damage to people and ecosystems if we act now. In matters of climate change, everyone is a stakeholder and everyone is a decision-maker with the power to make a difference. Make that the starting point.

Show, don’t tell

A lot of people say that climate change is a ‘new’ topic. That’s not strictly true any more. The case for action was made long ago, and there are now a large array of sustainable development practices that are low- or zero-carbon, help people cope with the changing climate, and improve wellbeing.

The greater challenge is to adopt sustainable solutions at scale. CDKN finds that demonstrating successful solutions first-hand – for instance, by bringing political and business leaders on witness trips, or explainingeffective technologies in public – grabs people’s imaginations and creates ripple effects faster.

If you can’t show first-hand, then demonstrating solutions through film can be helpful. Use film screenings to get people discussing appropriate solutions and ways to scale up climate ambition.

Use multi-pronged strategies

This principle of ‘good campaign thinking’ applies especially well to engaging politicians and the public on climate change. First, make sure the content of your communications is sound: combine robust science on climate trends, impacts and solutions with tailored local framing and knowledge. We describe a range of methods you can use to crowd-source content and involve citizens as storytellers.

When you’re ready to communicate your content more broadly, try to combine different styles and media formats such as images and multimedia, even theatrical and object-based storytelling, as well as written forms.

Don’t make assumptions about which communications tools fit which audience. Our guide describes how ‘serious fun games’ have been as effective as policy briefs to open conversations with policy-makers about climate change. Keep an open and creative mind, test your ideas with small audiences or focus groups, and be ready to leave your assumptions at the door.

Mind the messenger

The messenger can be as important as the message when it comes to climate change communications. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s important for people to hear good science from people they trust.

Also, be modest and be honest. Don’t assume that because you’re the chief executive that you should automatically be the one to brief the Prime Minister or the press. Again, think about where your audience is coming from and which spokespeople will resonate best with them.

The public debate about climate change needs to hear diverse, authentic experiences and to grow with new ideas. Even if you feel like you don’t ‘fit the mould’ of a climate leader, you should persevere. Anyone can be a champion for climate action and inspire millions of people – whether you’re established in the field or a young student – you could ultimately make it to the podium at the World Economic Forum or the United Nations and be a vital messenger in spreading the word to others.