Communicating climate change: where next?
First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business on 09.07.12.
As the dust settles on another disappointing international sustainability summit, many who work on the myriad of issues around climate change and sustainable development are taking stock. And for those who are involved in promoting public engagement with climate change, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that times are tough.
The enthusiastic, hopeful – almost urgent – buzz of public awareness and expectation that existed five years ago has long since transformed into a low, background hum. There has been no weakening of the scientific evidence that climate change – attributable to human activity – poses a range of serious risks. But there has been some weakening of the social consensus that is essential for meaningful action to minimise these risks. While claims of a collapse in public opinion are exaggerated, there is no denying that scepticism about the nature and seriousness of climate change has increased – rather than decreased – in recent years.
Where public opinion about climate change could once be characterised as a state of mild concern, it has now become an amiable – or even disinterested – shrug. The more sophisticated analyses of trends in public opinion point to a clear link between the priority with which politicians and the media have treated climate change (linked to the economic crisis), and the weight it is assigned by members of the public. The issue has moved from centre stage to somewhere barely visible in the wings. Is it any surprise people have stopped paying attention?
Climategate – the illegal release of private emails from the University of East Anglia – has also been critical, but not for the reasons most people assume. It did not have a widespread impact on public opinion – but it has almost certainly created a reluctance to engage among climate scientists and other science communicators. Anyone who puts their head above the parapet knows that they may be subjected to a barrage of criticism.
This is a difficult time to communicate about climate change. But communicate about it we must – because it isn’t going away. So what are the priorities?
There is an urgent need to re-build the confidence of scientists to talk about their work, and its implications for society. This means working with early-career, emerging scientists who are passionate about their work and want to share it. Media-savvy, down-to-earth scientists don’t just emerge out of the ether: they need to be trained, supported and rewarded for being willing to engage beyond the ivory towers.
We also cannot ignore the ideological roots of a great deal of climate change scepticism. It is too simplistic to say that climate change scepticism is a product of political conservatism, but there are clear and consistent links between conservative views and elevated levels of uncertainty about climate change, and the Tories are easily the most sceptical of the three main parties.
Why are political conservatives more likely to downplay the risks of climate change? One possibility is that climate change has simply not been communicated in a way that resonates with conservative values and beliefs. Whereas those on the left can see obvious co-benefits in taking action to tackle climate change (initiatives to tax big polluters, for example, inevitably mean targeting the wealthy), there has so far been little for right-leaning folk to identify with.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are policy solutions – and ways of framing the problem of climate change – that sit more comfortably with a conservative perspective. It is here that the business case for climate change – green jobs – is most likely to be effective. But there is also an urgent need to identify the conservative values – perhaps security and belonging, or an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world – that chime with arguments for tackling climate change.
Finally, the NGO community has to find innovative and original ways of approaching the subject with an increasingly jaded audience. The era of big asks may be over: dashed on the rocks of international summits that failed to deliver on their promises. That doesn’t mean that climate change campaigning is a lost cause – but it does mean that campaigners need to ditch the language of catastrophe and the images of polar bears, and engage with the public in a way that speaks to their everyday values and concerns.
Underpinning the entire challenge of public engagement is the need to ensure that climate change communication is trialled and tested using rigorous empirical research, that the latest academic evidence on communication is synthesised and disseminated to the people who need it, and that bridges between climate scientists, social scientists, and climate change communicators are re-built and nurtured.
Without a focus on better communication, the danger is that the gap between the scientific and the social consensus on climate change will continue to grow.
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