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Don’t Change the Goal, Change the (Communications) Plan: Improving how we communicate about climate change

June 24, 2019
By: 
Anton Holland
President and CEO
NIVA Inc.

No matter what your position is on climate change and its risks to the environment and society, one thing is clear—we’ve been missing the mark when it comes to communication. How can something so important where there is 97% consensus among scientists, lead to one of the most challenging communication exercises in modern times? Why is there still a lack of meaningful agreement among policy makers and the public on core elements? We’re in the grip of an existential crisis, yet there are people still arguing about whether polar ice really is thinning or if global warming is caused by solar fluctuations.

One exception is the recent Canada’s Changing Climate Report, which demonstrates the need to develop and disseminate clear, relevant, and accessible communications that have a tangible impact on citizens and decision-makers.

The need for better strategies, tactics, and tools has never been more urgent. Climate change impacts on Canada are outpacing the global average. We are already experiencing some of the consequences, which will only get worse as the situation progresses. And yet we still get sidetracked by debates on the most basic assumptions that have long been established as fact. Time is running out to implement communication strategies that can successfully reach various audiences, while explaining scientific complexities and uncertainties, long timescales, as well as a spectrum of risks, impacts, and outcomes that apply to different stakeholders.

We must first acknowledge that climate change presents us with a very unique set of communications challenges that must be overcome. Research and experience in climate, environmental, and risk communication provides little guidance on how to engage effectively with diverse publics and decision makers in the face of long-term degradation of humanity’s life support system. As a result, many climate change communications are failing to connect, with messages and methods often not responding to the needs and motivations of their target audiences.

Common approaches to communicating climate risks tend to make them seem far away in both time and space. This feeling of distance is directly implicated in how individuals will consider whether something is a risk or priority to themselves, their families, and their local communities. We tend to respond to things that will affect us directly and ignore what we see as "somebody else's problem.” Using narratives that can localize risks and evoke an emotional response is critical, especially when trying to motivate a skeptical audience to take action.

To be successful, these climate change communications need to be designed around building trust and understanding, not only with those who will most directly feel the impacts, but with everyone along the continuum. It will take more than one technique to reach the myriad of audiences that have a stake in this, whether they know it or not. In addition, to make informed decisions on complex issues like climate change, policy makers must receive information that engages, educates, and motivates them to act. In all cases, this entails applying audience-centered plain language principles, high-impact visual content, and stories that capture and maintain interest. While it is unavoidable that a complex narrative must be conveyed, we can do a much better job of this by focusing messages around smaller and simpler chapters.

Something that also tends to be forgotten or simply ignored is that climate-related communications are received very differently by different audiences who often hold highly contrasting perspectives on the subject. Related messages often fail to address the fact that some of the information that needs to be communicated can assault the core beliefs of many people. For example, if you believe that the strength of the economy in Western Canada is built largely on the prosperity of the oil industry, messages about the necessity of a low-carbon future will almost certainly be rejected. Approaches to communications must be redesigned to address these core beliefs in a constructive manner, as well as to counter harmful misinformation campaigns, creeping skepticism, and plain old ignorance.

Effective communication is offensive, not defensive. It is so much easier to get out in front of misinformation and misunderstandings through the ongoing development and deployment of simple, consistent messages and engaging narratives. When seeking to achieve a breakthrough with a misinformed or skeptical audience, it is important to not dismiss their views outright or demean their learned experience – this simply will not work. Finding a way to reach these individuals where they are is essential. You need to make what you are saying relevant to their worldview and important to them and those around them. Otherwise, you will never get past the rigid walls they have built around their convictions.

Finally, communicating effectively to the public about climate change takes more than just hard facts. Hold outs are not likely going to be persuaded by a stack of statistics, charts, and pre-packaged speaking points. What they will respond to is a compelling account about how the things that mean the most to them are going to change for the worse if nothing is done to prevent that change or lessen its impact. You might not be able to reach everyone, but your best bet is to appeal to the core human tendency to focus on the personal and local problems that affect us now and in the foreseeable future.