Communicating climate change: tips for climate researchers

Candice Howarth (London School of Economics and Political Science), Harriet Thew (University of Leeds), Laurie Parsons (Royal Holloway University of London), Michael Mikulewicz (Glasgow Caledonian University)

Climate change scientists have an important part to play in supporting policymakers and the public to dispel myths, help identify solutions and galvanise the collective action needed to tackle the climate change crisis. In 2020, all eyes will be on the UK as it prepares to host the United Nations climate change negotiations “COP26” in Glasgow. As UK-based academics, we recognise the importance of this opportunity to build momentum from the ground up, mindful that the success of the previous landmark negotiations in Paris in 2015 was attributed in no small part to a groundswell of attention and action from the public.

On 15 January 2020, the Climate Change Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) hosted a day workshop on communicating climate research at the RGS in London. Welcoming a wide range of attendees from universities, NGOs, government and business across the UK, this event included presentations from leading experts in the science and psychology of climate change communication, as well as panel discussions with expert communicators from academia, policy and civil society. Below is a summary of the key hints and tips shared during the event to support you with this important endeavour.

How science can help make us better communicators

Sometimes what we think we are saying is not what the other person hears. Often the words we use to describe climate change are abstract concepts: 2°C, global temperature, global sea-level rise, etc. The same words can mean different things to different people. For example, for many climate scientists, 2°C is the boundary of dangerous runaway climate change but to others this is interpreted as slightly warmer weather. We can never assume an audience understands what we mean as we intend it to be understood. Fully explain the implications of what you’re saying in clear terms to your audience, checking for mutual understanding as you go along.

Remember that psychological distance is a barrier with climate change often perceived as a problem for the future or distant places. Begin the conversation by focusing on local scales to enable people to feel connected to the problem and compelled to engage in the solution. One helpful tip is to imagine Marge Simpson (an archetype of a caring mum and neighbour from “The Simpsons” cartoon) and consider whether Marge would understand and be persuaded by your message.

Fear without solutions is not an effective strategy. Decades of psychological research have concluded that ‘scary messaging’ must be personal and be accompanied by a solution to be effective (e.g. tetanus is horrible, this vaccine will stop you getting it). If not managed carefully, this kind of messaging can lead to apathy and denial. Try not to be a narrator of doom. Children in particular are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change and are affected by the climate change rhetoric. The narrative needs to remain positive and empowering without depriving messaging of authenticity. There are many things to be positive about, in fact about 80% of the world now lives in a country with climate targets. The ‘Fatalism litmus test’ gets messengers to move away from talking about how bad things are unless you are also offering a solution.

It’s worth considering insights from theRider and Elephant’ analogy. Our brains engage in at least two types of thinking: intuitive thinking (about 95% of brain activity) and our reasoning (the voice in our head which allows us to think about hypothetical things). Intuitive thinking can be thought of as an elephant, and reasoning as the rider. Rather than being governed by rationality, the elephant is shaped by our past experiences and controls our intuitive responses to messengers and messages. Therefore, to effectively communicate to different audiences, we need to speak to their elephants, i.e. to link as much as possible to their experience, making reference to things they already know and have already done.

Find your authentic voice. Discover who you are as a communicator (see Pielke’s The Honest Broker): pure scientist, issue advocate, science arbiter (e.g. sits between the science, communicating it) or honest broker of policy alternatives (e.g. offers a range of scenarios). You can also swap between these but it’s helpful to stick with one role at a time and match messenger to context.

Building trust between the communicator and audience is critical. Walk the talk and show the human face of science… your human face. Don’t be afraid to speak in the first person drawing on your own experiences.

Don’t assume shared values. Speak to what people care about and frame solutions in ways which fit with their past experiences of problem-solving. Understand your audience and think about which values match your research best. Schwartz’s 1992 values matrix shows that values matter when communicating climate change and considering them can help better frame arguments. Do they share your perspective? If so, engage with them in a way they can engage with others going forward.

A good message must engage a base of people (who are already interested), engage the ‘middle’ (persuadable people) and show the opposition to be the minority. Listening is as important as getting your message out so it is important to take responsibility for how you have been heard (which may be different to what you think you said) and to be aware of confirmation bias, where people are very resistant to information which doesn’t match their worldview and will seek evidence which supports what they already believe.

What policymakers want from climate researchers

Academics and policymakers are often seen as very different but in reality they often have a great interest and appetite to work together. Speakers reminded participants that there are real opportunities for productive relationships if academics can provide clear and straight-forward information.

Busy policymakers need short, digestible information that they can then use. Putting together a one pager in advance and sending it before meeting a policymaker can help you get more out of the meeting. Similarly, decision-makers often ask: ‘What does that mean?’ Be prepared to explain any jargon or technical information efficiently. Also be clear on your objective (e.g. a contact, a funding source, data) so that you can set clear, realistic expectations of what can be achieved.

The UK is widely recognised for having internationally acclaimed thought-leaders, and academics played a key role in putting in place the Climate Change Act. It is, however, a complex landscape and difficult to get research up the government departmental chain and flagged to the right people. Civil servants make submissions to Ministers themselves and must condense a lot of research. They may have 30 seconds with the Minister to tell them what’s relevant, what’s going on, what they should be looking at, so put your research in a language they can understand focusing on what the research is for, how can it help, how can it have an impact and how it links to other policy areas. Build relationships with officials across government as they will give you good advice on what information is needed and where. There is political mandate for climate change action now, so this is an opportune moment for researchers to share their research with policymakers.

Research can also feed into the United Nations climate change process. Government representatives in different negotiating blocks will use different information, so researchers should think carefully about who could best use their research. It is therefore important to identify UN Secretariat Staff and Parties (i.e. government representatives) who work on specific issues within the negotiations and to feed in research into different constituted bodies in an impactful way to influence the process.

Our speakers included:

  • Dr Kris de Meyer from King’s College London
  • Asher Minns, Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
  • Matthew Butcher, Head of Communications at the New Economy Organisers Network
  • Dr Joanna Depledge, Editor of the journal Climate Policy
  • Dr Denyse Dookie, Research Officer at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
  • Professor Tracy Bach, Focal point for the UN climate change negotiations research constituency
  • Dr David Viner, Principle Advisor for climate change at Mott MacDonald
  • Kevin Hunt, International Climate Change Stakeholder Engagement at Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
  • Richard Black, Director at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit

The workshop was organised by the Royal Geographical Society Climate Change Research Group (CCRG) for researchers across the natural and social sciences. The event aimed to support researchers to identify the key messages of their research, understand how different audiences respond to climate research, and to develop the skills and confidence to communicate findings and maximise research impact. With thanks to additional support from the Royal Geographical Society, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Priestley International Centre for Climate.