This is one of a series of posts entitled Principles and Advice for Grassroots Climate Communicators, in which I share and reflect on a range of ideas within the field, with a view to helping grassroots activists and groups communicate effectively.
In this first post, I give an overview of the field as I see it. I go into more detailed consideration of certain questions in the related posts:
- Climate communications: the pros and cons of different ‘frames’
- ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions
- Politicisation: moving people into effective campaigning
- Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?
If what you are looking for is practical tips on what to do on the ground, you will find a host of them in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators.
You will find two appendices at the end of this post:
- Some questions for climate communications steering groups to consider
- Principal sources
- This overview and its companion posts have been written to help community-based climate groups to develop their communications strategy and practice. As well as providing a wealth of practical ideas, I also raise a number of dilemmas, the central one being how to engage people in talking about something that is difficult to grasp and which can be frightening to contemplate.
- A communications strategy should help you and your organisation to meet your organisational objectives, which therefore need to be clear. Your aims and objectives should be underpinned by an explicit theory of change.
- Climate-concerned groups have different objectives. A common aspiration is to promote behaviour change i.e. encourage the public to adopt low-carbon lifestyles. But individual behaviours are intrinsically linked with group and societal norms. The paper suggests a number of ways that climate communications strategies may be more effective in encouraging and normalising behaviour change, and helping people to have a sense of ‘agency’.
- To encourage any kind of social or cultural change, it is important to think systemically. But behaviour change in the context of global warming is especially complex. A major obstacle is the psychological phenomenon of disavowal. Grassroots communicators need to reflect deeply on disavowal and its implications, as well as to be aware of the tactics of climate deniers.
- Disavowal is due to a number of factors, including the human fear of facing up to painful realities, people’s attachment to established ways of life and the sheer complexity of global heating. Climate communicators therefore need to work not just with information, but with people’s values, attitudes and emotions.
- Because climate change can seem intangible and remote, climate communicators need to make the realities of global warming seem more salient and vivid to citizens, especially in developed countries, so that people can identify emotionally.
- When challenging misinformation, disinformation and denial, one helpful strategy is to explain the tactics of the denialists, drawing on the processes of critical thinking. Many members of the public also need help with understanding scientific process and risk assessment. Moreover, the climate and nature emergencies pose deep moral and philosophical questions. Climate communications therefore needs a multi-pronged approach.
- Different practitioners emphasise different frames through which to view climate communications, including information, persuasion, emotion and action. A list of different frames is included, along with examples of different extant initiatives. Skilled climate communicators will probably want to work in more than one frame, guided by the needs of their target audience. A learning approach is recommended with no one-size-fits-all rules.
- Over the last 20 years or so, a consensus has developed that climate communicators should seek to engage and motivate people without overwhelming them or triggering guilt or anxiety – what has been called a ‘gradualist’ approach. A list of the characteristics of the gradualist approach is provided, along with practical suggestions for communicators.
- Some researchers believe that appeals to fear can be problematic and should only be used in specific circumstances. However, the ‘emergency mobilisation’ approach emphasises telling people the truth about how urgent and severe the crisis is and challenging them to work through their fears. This is a live debate in the field; it can be summed up as seeking a balance between conveying urgency and giving agency. One approach is to think in terms of ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’.
- Despite the apparent divide between the gradualist and emergency mobilisation approaches, both camps agree on the importance of engaging citizens in conversations, and widening public engagement across society.
- The standard advice on messaging is to concentrate on a few, simple, succinct messages that explain to people why they should take action. Because climate change is complex, messaging may also be about informing, educating or stimulating critical and philosophical thought.
- Tailoring messages to the target audience is a basic principle of marketing and communications. Climate messages need to be considered in relation to different segments of the population, based on understanding of, and sympathy with, different people’s values, beliefs and needs.
- In terms of information messaging, it is important for climate communicators to convey accurately the relevant impacts of different sources of greenhouse gas emissions and which strategies are most likely to achieve significant reductions. Because only governments can pass laws to enforce such reductions, one view is that the most important thing for concerned citizens to do is to pressurise their political representatives. However, alternative voices claim that change needs to come from the ground up; to the extent that climate change is now on the mainstream political agenda, it has much to do with the impact of campaigners, and the power of highly visual direct action.
- Ideally, the government would provide a credible and committed national strategy that grassroots practitioners could help to communicate. The current UK government’s Net Zero strategy has yet to persuade the general population, however.
- There is a strong case for being creative and experimental in climate communications, because of the insidious effects of disavowal. It is not enough simply to convey information messages, we need to attract people’s attention and to reach into their emotions and motivations. Artists, including storytellers, may bring valuable skills and experiences.
- Creating spaces for people to meet and explore thoughts and feelings face-to-face, especially in supportive groups or communities, may be one of the most useful things to do. However, we now live in a digital age where many people in the general population are not only consumers but also producers in their own right. Community-based groups may therefore want to consider a co-production approach when developing innovative and attractive project ideas.
- On the other hand, there is some value in embracing extant initiatives rather than reinventing the wheel. Carbon Literacy is proposed as perhaps the strongest contender. However, it has its limitations which need to be recognised. Community-based climate groups should therefore think in terms of having a raft of initiatives, from quick, fun, no-strings, introductory, action-based activities, through to more formal courses such as Carbon Literacy and Carbon Conversations.
- It may be helpful to think in terms of a ‘ladder’ of engagement. In my companion post, Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, I have compiled a large number of tips, organised as a ‘ladder’ from first contact through to deep involvement: approach > engagement > rapport > conversation > messaging > empowerment > politicisation.
- At the end of this post, you will a list of questions to consider when designing a community-based climate awareness programme and communications strategy. If you are pressured for time, I suggest that you skip to that list.
In this series of posts, my aim is to share ideas of practical use both to strategic project planners and to practitioners on the ground. This first post provides an overview of current thinking about effective climate communications. As well as providing a wealth of practical ideas, I also raise a number of dilemmas – the central one of which is how to engage people in talking about something that is so difficult to grasp and which can also be frightening to contemplate. I suggest a number of solutions but you will have to make your own decisions based on your own values and your own situation.
It may help to know where I’m coming from. My background is in the theatre, teaching, counselling and training. These posts grew out of research I was undertaking for a PhD into creative approaches to climate communications (unfinished owing to illness.) So I am not an expert in media-based communications, although I have in the past managed a South Yorkshire wide communications strategy for an education programme. Ideally these posts would include more on topics as social media, the news media, the use of visual imagery and branding. However I did come across an excellent paper from a working climate communications professional, Mairi Dupar, and I have included a summary of her recommendations in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators. I highly recommend that grassroots communications practitioners read her guide in full.
I also want to acknowledge that I am clinging to the coat tails of the real experts in the field. Climate Outreach, for example, is a leading organisation, conducting research and producing a multiplicity of guides for communicating with particular groups.. You could, if you wish, skip reading my posts and go straight to its website. But Climate Outreach is not the only organisation out there; my review of the field aims to give you an introduction to the diversity of approaches, inviting you to consider the pros and cons of each. You will find a list of my main sources in Appendix 2 at the bottom of this post. Other references are given in the footnotes.
Purpose and scope
I have taken ‘communications’ to mean the quality of interaction with target audiences, across all activities, rather than only ‘corporate’ or media-based communications. In other words, these posts are primarily about the ‘engagement’ side of climate communications. The main reason for writing them is that, although climate change is now on the mainstream political agenda, we still have a long way to go in terms of engaging the general population – and without that engagement, the politicians will be limited in what they can do.
Climate communications is a rapidly evolving field and I am not claiming that this is an exhaustive review of the literature. However, at this point in time (November 2021), I’m posting it as it is; the scope may widen as I come across more ideas. I expect to be adding/editing as time goes on. I’m aware that this overview could include more on corporate communications methods, for example, the section on behaviour change could be filled out further, and I want to think more about the place of rhetoric, verbal persuasion and motivational interviewing. Nonetheless, despite its gaps, I hope you will find these six posts are sufficiently broad to help you map out the terrain, formulate your own principles and arm you with plenty of ideas to put into practice.
I would be delighted to receive comments on any aspect of these posts. If you would like me to amend or add something to the text, do please send me your thoughts in the form of a sentence or paragraph that I could easily insert. I would, of course, credit you for your contribution.
These posts have been written in the context of a community-based climate awareness programme here in South Yorkshire. Although I have a background in working with schools, I have chosen not to look into school-based climate education here. However, I do refer to some ‘climate conversations’ workshops that I have run in a Higher Education context.
It might be useful to clarify what I mean by ‘strategic leaders’ in the text. I am assuming that in many community groups, there will be something like a steering group that takes responsibility for thinking strategically. For me, that means:
- looking to long-term outcomes
- considering how different strands of activity will relate to each other
- anticipating obstacles and difficulties and planning for them
- resourcing the project
- understanding how the project will complement the work of others in the field
In other words, I assume that at least some people in the group are committed to thinking beyond the delivery of current activities, focusing on maximising the project’s effectiveness over time – what will be done in roughly what order, using which methods – and why. A strategy is not just a list of upcoming activities. Similarly, a communications strategy isn’t just a list of how many press releases and tweets you will put out in the next month; it is a long-term plan for how you will engage with and impact on your target audiences.
Developing a written communications strategy
Please note that none of these posts is offered as a communications strategy as such; rather I hope they will be useful stimuli (or provocations) towards producing one.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NVCO) says the purpose of a communications strategy is “to help you and your organisation communicate effectively and meet core organisational objectives.” Community groups therefore need to be clear about what their high level aims are, as well as their day to day objectives, i.e. not only what you will do but why. What outcomes do you hope to achieve: understanding of the science of global warming? individual behaviour change? decarbonisation of your local industry? political engagement? etc. And then of course, you need to decide how you will achieve those aims and objectives – what methods you will use and why, and what your underlying theory of change is.
Some objectives relative to the group I am currently working with are:
- Disseminate accurate information about the climate emergency and its implications for people in our region
- Countermand misinformation (errors in understanding), disinformation (incorrect information deliberately promoted with the intention of deceiving) and denial (rejection of climate change science)
- Provoke discussion and reflection
- Persuade or encourage people to take notice and take action
There are communications implications for all such desired outcomes, whether face-to-face or remote. (One point is that, in writing a communications strategy, it can be helpful to tease out ‘action words’ that make the purpose and mode of each objective clear and compelling, as where I have used ‘provoke’ and ‘persuade’ and ‘encourage’ above.)
More fundamentally, your group needs to create or adopt an explicit theory of change which will guide you in setting your communications aims and objectives (including the language you use.) Climate Outreach’s theory of change is a good, clear example. They state:
“Our theory of change sets out why the work we do matters, and how we’re going to get from where we are to where we need to be… We’re convinced we cannot tackle climate change without broad-based public engagement… Technological advances as well as regulations, policies and laws are necessary for tackling climate change but these won’t work in the long term without the active engagement and buy-in of citizens. This informed consent for action is what’s known as a social mandate – and we believe it’s how real change happens.” (https://climateoutreach.org/about-us/theory-of-change/)
I think it’s important to bear in mind the different roles and powers of different authorities, agencies and groups. Nobody can do it all, and there is a big risk that community-based activists take on too much and burn out. In writing your theory of change and your long-term strategy, what is it that your group can specifically contribute?
Similarly, as an individual, you might try to identify your ‘activist’s sweet spot’. Here is my version of this model. Obviously, the sweet spot is the pink area in the middle. I have found this simple model very useful. Why would I slog away at something I’m actually not good at? Why would I keep doing something if it made me miserable or sick? Why would I set huge aspirational goals if there was no chance that I would ever meet them? Why would I keep doing something that wasn’t actually making much of a difference?
Climate Outreach’s theory of change is premised on its perception that the fundamental change needed is to bring about a new ‘social mandate’ i.e. they want to spread public awareness and thus gain support for political action. However a different set of theories you may want to look at are around behaviour change. Many community climate projects want to encourage low carbon behaviours, but how can they do that?
The closest parallels are probably with health education. Here are a few points from the literature that I think are relevant to developing a climate communications strategy.
There is a lack of agreement on the most effective approaches to behaviour change because the evidence is broad, the methods used are diverse and the assumptions made about science, knowledge and explanation vary considerably. Also, the interaction between individual and society is complex. Our habits are deeply rooted not only within ourselves but within a social ecology that normalises them. As individuals we may be consciously aware of some of those societal norms and we may be completely unaware of others, even though we observe them.
With regard to individual behaviour change, the “Theory of Planned Behaviour” (Ajzen 1991) is the most widely applied model in the field. One of its core concepts is ‘perceived behavioural control’ (PBC): PBC is a person’s perception of whether or not they can control their actions and is closely related to the concept of ‘self-efficacy’. To what extent do your target groups have, or feel they have, the power and ability to change their behaviour? To what extent do they believe that they have ‘agency’? To what extent do they actually have agency?
I would like to comment here about the ‘value/action gap’ that climate activists often talk about. What they mean is, even though people say they care about the climate, they don’t actually take action to reduce their own carbon footprints – or at least, not sufficiently large actions. (They say things like “Well, I always recycle.”) I accept that this happens but I find the concept of the value/action gap problematic. It implies some kind of dishonesty or selfishness on the part of our target groups and some kind of moral superiority on our own part. Social norms are incredibly powerful and we are all hugely constrained by them and by the physical infrastructure and the modus operandi of the society around us. Does that mean that individuals can’t make any changes? No. But it does mean that bringing people together may be a crucial part of any climate awareness programme; perhaps climate communicators will better help to create new social norms if they think of working in and with groups, so that people discover they are not alone in wanting to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.
Don’t some people need to set the trend, to be courageous, not to be afraid of standing out? Undoubtedly yes – and they do – but they always run the risk of being seen as freaks. A key word seems to be ‘normalise’.
Is there anything else that we can learn from the efforts of health educators to affect individual behaviour change? Glenn Laverack makes some relevant points, including some warnings about mistakes to avoid.
The assumption is that, before people can change their lifestyle, they must first:
- understand basic facts about a particular issue
- adopt key attitudes
- learn a set of skills
- be given access to appropriate services.
Health educators therefore use a range of techniques including interactive communication technologies, motivation, counselling, persuasion, influencing social norms and coercion. However, it is not clear that this approach works, despite it still being widely adopted!
One problem that Laverack highlights is that health promotion has often relied on pre-packaged, top-down programmes. These have not guaranteed a change in behaviour, he says, but have led to a “blaming of the victim” (for example, for drinking too much alcohol or continuing to smoke.) This can create feelings of mistrust between ‘expert’ practitioners and the public, further exasperated by changes in health messaging, for example, on the safe levels of alcohol consumption.
People resist ‘being changed’, especially when they feel patronised. Laverack warns against:
- didactic styles of communication
- inadequate audience segmentation
- inappropriate message content
- weak materials.
The art of health promotion is knowing when and how to use the science to produce a desired outcome, he says, but many practitioners lack the competence and confidence to achieve this in different contexts.
In summary, Laverack says behaviour change can be made more effective and sustainable if the following elements are included:
- a strong policy framework that creates a supportive environment
- an enablement of people to empower themselves
What can we pull out of all this to help with designing our climate communications strategies? Perhaps the following:
- Think in terms of groups as much as of individuals, aiming to ‘normalise’ sustainable behaviours.
- Adopt approaches which enable people to empower themselves. Think in terms of increasing people’s ‘perceived behavioural control’ or ‘agency’.
- Appreciate that climate education is about more than just the facts, it is also about attitudes, skills, support services, etc. (I would include training here.) This means that your programme should ideally be multi-faceted.
- Develop good-quality materials. Beware of pre-packaged ‘top-down’ materials. (Instead, ‘co-produce’ materials in partnership with your audiences.)
- Consider different audience segments and tailor messages appropriately.
- Be very wary of any unintentionally patronising approaches or didactic messages.
- Support and train practitioners to develop the confidence and confidence to “know when and how to use the science to produce a desired outcome”.
- Call for and contribute to a strong policy environment that supports and gives credibility to individual and community-based behaviour change.
Contribution to social change/cultural shift
The climate and nature emergencies aren’t just a matter of making a few technological tweaks; they’re going to mean changes right across our society and economy. What climate communicators are therefore trying to do is to change the culture. How to do that is a huge question, far beyond my expertise. However, I will offer a couple of stimuli for consideration here, that may be useful for your communications strategy.
In Politicisation: moving people into effective campaigning, I include a section on ‘community organising’, based on Matthew Bolton’s book, How To Resist. The community organising approach is premised on the perception that human beings act out of ‘self-interest’. Consequently, community organisers/ campaigners are advised to start by listening to people in the community to find out what their self interest is. A recommended opening question is “what makes you angry?” Community organisers work with the community, on the above basis, to decide what it is that they feel strongly enough to want to organise around. In other words, campaigners are advised not to go in with the intention of pushing their own agenda.
This approach, which surely has some merit (realistic, grounded in experience) would appear to count out a bunch of outsiders coming into a community to tell people they should be cutting their carbon emissions! I note that one drama-based climate change project in rural Africa ended up making a performance about sexism and gender roles; the community wasn’t primarily worried about climate change at that time. In some similar work that I did in this country, supporting participatory drama projects in the community, several practitioners emphasised that the best work with the most impact happened after a long period of trust building, listening and learning. The question therefore arises: would your group count it a success if it contributed to community empowerment but did not actually achieve any decarbonisation – perhaps didn’t even get the community engaged with the climate issue?
Or does your group (and its funders) want to be very clear about your purposes, even at the risk of alienating some potential participants?
One project that perhaps offers a model to learn from is the Change 4 Life health programme. A key aspect of that approach is to see that the programme’s messages are visible and reinforced across a wide range of settings within the community, covering private, public and voluntary sectors. You might see a Change 4 Life poster not only in the doctor’s waiting room, but at the bank and the supermarket, and at the school.
This is an example of thinking ‘systemically’. Here in Sheffield, the Climate Communications Hub (the voluntary organisation I work with) produced a publication on this theme, Changing Systems, Not Just Lightbulbs, which looked at systemic change within universities, but is relevant to other settings too. The contributors identified four key aspects of a systemic approach to change:
- Clear messages from the top-down
- Strong engagement from bottom up, at the grassroots
- Links built across the system, breaking down silos
- The prototyping of innovative ideas, coupled with support for scaling the best ones up
No doubt your group is already working on the second of these points, but you might like to bear in mind the other three. A clear message from the top helps to give credibility. Cultural shift may be enhanced if the projects you initiate or support not only respect different identities but bring people of different backgrounds and persuasions together. And the best practical ideas may not come from us activists at all, but from within the community, and will have far more impact if you can enable them to be put into practice and go through a process of improvement and development.
The challenges specific to climate communications
All of the above are generic concerns to do with social change, whether in individuals or in communities. But there are number of challenges which are specific to climate communications. If your group shares an understanding of these challenges, it will help with the formation of an effective and strategic communications plan. These challenges include:
- Climate change as a ‘wicked problem’
- The phenomenon of psychological ‘disavowal’
- The history, and to some extent the on-going efforts, of denialists
- The unprecedented nature and scale of the challenge
I will briefly describe each of these problems.
Climate change as a ‘wicked problem’
In his seminal book, Don’t Even Think About It, Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall lists a number of factors that come together to make climate change particularly difficult for people to grasp – to make it what some call a ‘wicked problem’. In essence, climate change, especially for people in developed countries, has often seemed such a remote and abstract threat that it has failed to trigger our panic responses. We human beings evolved to jump and take action when we heard a sudden sound near us in the undergrowth, not when subtle changes were taking place slowly over time, miles above us or on the other side of the world. The table below lists some of the aspects of climate change that make it hard to engage with. Some possible solutions are shown in the right-hand column. The over-riding task of climate communicators can be summarised as: make the realities of global warming more salient or vivid to people, so that they can identify with it emotionally.
|Characteristic of global warming||Possible communications response|
|Distant||Find local relevance|
|Huge||Break global warming down into small components|
|Complex||Acknowledge the complexity but promote scientifically recognised levers for effective decarbonisation (e.g. reducing beef consumption, using public transport, insulating homes)|
|Slow moving and invisible||Help people to notice changes that are happening now|
|Intergenerational||Engage with young people whose lives are likely to be directly affected by rising temperatures|
|Challenges our way of life||Seek solutions that enable people to have a satisfying, if somewhat different, quality-of-life Ensure that the necessary transition to a sustainable economy is well-planned, well explained and that everybody’s needs are thought about fairly|
The phenomenon of psychological ‘disavowal’
There may be other reasons, as well as physical remoteness etc, why the populations of developed countries (which weren’t until recently experiencing the impacts of global warming themselves) were not engaging with the issue, even if they understood intellectually that it was a problem. They might simply not want to face up to it! Psychologists working in the field theorise that human beings are not good at facing up to painful realities. To some extent, we all prefer to live in denial of our own vulnerability (and ultimately of our own death.) They call this phenomenon ‘disavowal’.
I think it is important for climate communicators to grasp that, if people seem to be resistant to thinking and talking about climate change, that isn’t just obtuseness or ignorance on their part; it is actually an understandable survival strategy. This is especially so where people feel they have little or no agency to make any difference anyway. If they put it into words, they might say: “I’ve got enough on my plate, I’ve got no mental space to think about this. And anyway, what can I do about it?”
In one of my recent climate conversations, Janelle, an 18 year old undergraduate, said exactly this: “It’s never something I think about, especially today, with the pandemic, being at university, being with friends, thinking what job I will have. It isn’t in the forefront of anyone’s mind. There’s nothing to make us talk about it… And anyway, why should I take a 5-minute shower instead of a 15-minute one when they aren’t clearing up oil spills or repairing the damage they’re doing to the rainforest?”
(It is interesting to note that she also raised the question of equity, her scepticism that ‘we are all in this together’, as one politician famously asserted. The question of fairness is another one that climate communicators need to think about.)
Climate psychologists propose that the way to deal with emotional resistance or disavowal is to make safe spaces where people can look at their own feelings and share them with others. But can this be done on a large scale? One approach has been developed by Arnold Mindell in his ‘deep democracy forums’.
The history, and to some extent the on-going efforts, of denialists
The challenge of conveying accurate information about global warming to the world’s populations has been held back by:
- misinformation (errors in understanding)
- disinformation (incorrect information deliberately promoted with the intention of deceiving)
- denial (rejection of climate change science.)
But the current perception in the field is that overt denialism has had its day. The efforts of campaigners such as Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough, coupled with the increasing evidence of erratic and hot weather across the globe, including here in the UK, have finally put climate change on the mainstream political agenda. Surveys show that the majority of the population now accept that climate change is a reality. Commentators such as Adam Corner therefore propose that the emphasis should be shifted away from challenging the lies put out by denialists and placed instead on working for cultural shift. That might mean concentrating our efforts on widening understanding, building support for political action and helping people find things they can actually do.
However, the climate scientist Michael E Mann warns that the denialists have not totally given up. Their rhetoric may now be more ‘green’ but behind the scenes they are still trying to slow the transition down. One of their tactics is to assert the continuing role of fossil fuels, e.g. for producing ‘blue’ hydrogen. Another is to sow doubt about the possibility of change. They are, he says, promoting ‘inactivism’.
And denialism has not totally left the stage, it may suddenly rear its head in the middle of any climate conversation or debate. Climate communicators should therefore know what the main traits of denialism are and have a toolkit for dealing with them. John Cook has produced a number of accessible works both in print and online to help here: he proposes that we ‘inoculate’ audiences by explaining the denialists’ methods to them, including: employing Fake experts, arguing using Logical fallacies, setting Impossible expectations of climate scientists, Cherry picking the evidence, and spreading Conspiracy theories. (FLICC)
Cook draws on good practice in what is called ‘critical thinking’. When climate communicators want to disabuse a person of some misinformation or disinformation they have come to believe, they not only need to be tactful and emotionally sensitive, they also need to know how to guide people through a critical thinking process. I agree with Cook that practising and teaching the basics of critical thinking is an important part of climate education. Moreover, that thinking process needs to include critical examination of the motivations and ideologies of those who deliberately oppose action to eliminate fossil fuels.
The unprecedented nature and scale of the challenge
Another difficulty for climate communicators is simply that the human race has never before encountered a challenge on this scale and although the literature is awash with suggested solutions and blueprints, we are all living in a state of uncertainty. The risks that we face are calculated by scientists based upon their observations and the models that they use to predict future trends. Communicating these risks to the general public can be tricky, especially as many of us don’t have a good grasp of either scientific method or risk assessment. Most of us are statistically illiterate and the media consistently fails to communicate statistics effectively. (For example, journalists rarely mention the ‘base rate’ of a particular phenomenon, so when they say ‘raging fires cover a thousand square miles in California’, we have no idea whether that is a typical or an exceptional figure.)
Climate communicators therefore face the challenge of explaining the science in an accessible way and helping people to understand and assess risk.
And they (we) are also potentially leading our audience towards philosophical, even religious questions, such as: what is the purpose of human beings? what is our role on this planet? how much control do we have over our own futures? Arguably, therefore, there is a place for philosophical and spiritual reflection in our climate communications portfolio.
The different frames employed in climate communications
Because climate change is multifaceted – almost all encompassing – there are many different ways to look at it and climate communicators and campaigners tend to select a particular ‘lens’ or ‘frame’ through which to look at it or to focus their activities. A ‘frame’ is essentially a way to simplify a complex phenomenon, perhaps claiming that such and such an aspect is at the heart of it, or is the best way in to understanding it or affecting it. Frames commonly used in climate communications include the ones below. I have put them in a table with the main assumptions underlying each frame on the left and an example of a practical application on the right. (For a more detailed consideration of this topic, please see my post Climate communications: the pros and cons of different ‘frames’.)
Frames used in climate communications
|Frame with its core assumption||Examples|
|Information: People need to know the facts about global warming in order to appreciate how serious the situation is.||The Carbon Literacy Project proposes that every citizen should have one day’s training covering the basic facts of global warming, tailored to be relevant to the specific audience.|
|Persuasion: people need to be persuaded to face the issue and take action, either through some kind of reward or through appeals to their deeper values and identity.||Climate Outreach proposes that climate communicators research the interests, values and needs of particular communities, and try to link climate action with what matters to them. At a commercial level, advertisers are increasingly using ‘green’ language and imagery in order to persuade people to buy their products.|
|Conversation: human beings aren’t atomised individuals, we form our views through dialogue with others.||Carbon Conversations is a six session course designed originally for community settings. The participants explore the facts and their feelings about cutting their carbon footprints through conversation and enjoyable games. I myself have run a simpler version, called Climate Conversations, focusing down on teaching skills in listening and constructive argumentation. In the political arena, hope for the future have developed a model for the constructive lobbying of MPs, based on the Non-Violent Communication approach (NVC).|
|Emotion: on the one hand, climate change raises strong negative emotions which block people’s engagement (‘disavowal’), so the way forward has to include confronting those emotions; on the other, it is positive emotions that motivate people.||The Active Hope approach involves running workshops where are people are taken on an emotional journey, facing up to their repressed fears, expressing their grief and working through to ‘seeing the world with new eyes’.|
|Reason: although it may be limited, human beings are capable of reason; the climate crisis raises both profound philosophical questions and challenges us to think logically and strategically.||Grace Lockrobin and other ‘community philosophers’ are running events online, in communities and in schools that support and challenge participants to think about environmental issues critically and philosophically.|
|Choice: the climate crisis confronts us with difficult choices, including technical, moral and political.||David McKay and Mark Lynas ran an event at the Showroom Cinema where they challenged the audience to think through the difficult choices that will be need to be made if renewables are to replace all fossil fuels.|
|Storytelling, Imagination and the Arts: Human beings don’t live by logical arguments, we live by myths and stories – about our own lives, about our societies and about the meaning of our lives – and we are moved by images. Art is a fundamental part of who we are. If you want to reach human beings you need to stimulate their senses and imaginations.||Community artists draw on a wide range of art forms to connect with people’s subconsciouses, personal icons and imaginations. Michigan University runs an online course in Storytelling for Social Change. Marshall Ganz and others run workshops to help activists discover and/or write their own story as social change agents.|
|Action: a surfeit of words is off-putting to many, they would rather be drawn into doing interesting things and by acting they will feel both purposeful and hopeful. Activities which help people to ‘fall back in love with nature’ maybe particularly effective.||The Transition Town movement focuses on practical activities such as growing organic foods that can draw people in. Trees for Life takes groups out into the woods to learn forestry skills and also hold dialogues away from the stresses of urban life.|
|Empowerment: the problem isn’t knowledge or understanding, the problem is people feeling that they can do nothing about it, so climate communicators should focus on giving people the tools and skills they need to change things.||Many Transition Town projects teach practical skills, especially relating to working in nature. The Carbon Conversations course includes auditing your own energy use, travel and purchases, and supports participants to develop practical action plans. My own Climate Conversations courses teach skills in listening and dialogue.|
|Motivation: people need appealing visions, encouragement, inspiration and other rewards such as enjoyment in order to want to engage with what can otherwise seem a daunting task.||The Active Hope approach aims to inspire people by taking them through a challenging but liberating emotional process. Many writers have produced books full of good ideas and lively imagery for young people and for adults. Extinction Rebellion has stated its aim to promote a ‘regenerative’ culture to reduce the risk of burnout amongst activists.|
|Leadership development: climate communicators should place the emphasis on those most likely to lead the transition to sustainability, the others will follow.||Former US Vice President, Al Gore, has created the Climate Reality programme which trains people up as climate leaders and communicators, especially young adults.|
|Political mobilisation: commentators frequently emphasise that the biggest obstacles to change are a lack of political will and/or vested interests. Moreover, individuals and communities have limited power to change the wider society, so people need to understand the need for political action.||Environmental activists continue to campaign in various ways, increasingly seeking to attract attention through eye-catching creative actions. Historically, they have tended to come from the left of the political spectrum but increasingly activists in the centre and centre right are speaking up (e.g. the Conservative Environment Network.) Hope for the Future is promoting a conciliatory approach to lobbying. Community Organising is one of many approaches to grass roots political engagement.|
|Emergency mobilisation: the situation is perilous and the emphasis should be on communicating urgency and generating absolute determination across society, akin to mobilising a society for war.||Climate Mobilisation and Extinction Rebellion seek to draw the general public’s attention to the need for urgent and radical action.|
The frames listed above are generic. We could add to it specific sectors or needs, such as health or food. Where the general public does not respond to the rather abstract concept of climate change, it may respond better to a frame that is clearly of immediate personal relevance. For example, a group of General Practitioners in the UK have formed Greener Practice to draw the attention of both their colleagues and their patients to the healthy co-benefits of sustainability, such as ‘active travel’, meaning walking and cycling – helping people stay fit whilst also reducing road pollution and carbon emissions. (https://www.greenerpractice.co.uk/)
Which of all these frames should your group focus on?
The purpose of these posts is to throw that question back to you – both your steering group and the comms practitioners on your team. Each of the frames has its merits but also its downsides. Probably, as skilled climate communicators, we would want to work in more than one frame, in order to maximise our effectiveness, but we need to be led by consideration of our audiences and our high-level aims and objectives.
Taking a learning approach
My key recommendation to grassroots climate communicators is to embrace a learning approach; to try out different messages and approaches with different audiences, give time to evaluating them, think critically about both successes and failures, and adapt practice accordingly. A fundamental principle seems to me that there are no one-size-fits-all rules. Before engaging in any piece of climate communications, we should ask ourselves the ‘question word questions’:
- WHO is my audience?
- WHAT do I want to communicate to them?
- WHY? What result do I hope for? (Behaviour change? Policy change?)
- HOW? What content, vocabulary and tone would be most persuasive for the recipient(s)?
- WHEN and WHERE is that communication likely to be best received?
- WHO would be a good person to make that communication?
Are there any common threads that run through all these different approaches? I would argue that a consensus has developed in the field about the typical elements of what you might call ‘audience-friendly’ climate communications. I refer to this as the ‘gradualist’ approach, a term used by the activist Margaret Klein Salamon to distinguish it from her own approach, which emphasises emergency mobilisation. The central concern of the gradualist approach is to engage and motivate people without overwhelming them or triggering guilt or anxiety.
Characteristics of a gradualist approach to climate communications
|Relational||Understand that communications are two-way; approach people with respect and curiosity; listen well.|
|Positive||Lead with solutions and benefits; emphasise that the fight is winnable.|
|Action oriented||Tell people what they can do to make a difference; invite them to join in activities.|
|Local activities that make a difference to the global challenge||Enable people to see that taking action is worthwhile and has an impact at both scales.|
|Enjoyable||Make the activities easy, fun, intriguing.|
|Simple messages that connect with daily life||Give key facts only, not too much data; explain the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions simply.|
|Tailored to specific audiences, local cultures and local needs||Bring the climate and ecological emergencies ‘close to home’; understand and use language relevant to people’s identities, beliefs and values.|
|Be sensitive to gender and other protected characteristics||When communicating with different audiences, recognise that people have different interests and needs and some are struggling with discrimination or disadvantage which affects their perceptions of what is important and what is possible.|
|Peer-to-peer / trusted messengers||Facilitate grassroots dialogue; seek out and encourage as ambassadors people who will be trusted by the particular audience.|
|Make science meaningful||Tell appealing human and animal stories; use interesting visuals; translate scientific language and use no acronyms.|
|Use attractive images and other creative forms of communication||Appeal to the senses; attract people’s interest; stimulate their imaginations and leave vivid memories.|
|Inoculate against misinformation and denial||Address misinformation and denial head on, explaining how to spot the tactics commonly used. A related project is to explain the psychology of climate ‘disavowal’ so the people understand why this topic is often difficult to engage with.|
The gradualist consensus also warns against:
|Presenting oneself as a cliquish, politically ideological environmentalist||Eschew stereotypically ‘green’ or leftist imagery and vocabulary; reach out to all types of audience, emphasise the universality of the emergency and seek to identify ‘communal’ values shared across the political spectrum.|
|Employing fear-based appeals, other than in specific conditions||Some researchers claim that fear-based appeals only work as a short-term method of attracting attention for those already on the path to changing behaviours; when they depict a significant and relevant threat; and when constructive responses to the threat are also identified.|
This latter point is an on-going bone of contention. Activists such as Margaret Klein Salamon completely disagree with the idea of avoiding fear messages. It may be that your group’s top priority is not to alienate your target audiences. But Salamon and her colleagues in organisation such as Extinction Rebellion do have a point. They say that the gradualist ‘keep calm’ approach has not led to sufficiently wide engagement and commitment. They say that difficult feelings can be worked through; in fact, as Greta Thunberg has said, we really should be panicking! They point out that responsible governments haven’t dealt with the coronavirus pandemic by avoiding information that might scare people, nor did the Allies pretend that the Nazis were not a serious threat in World War II. In fact, they say, we should be raising the alarm loudly, demanding a ‘World War II type mobilisation of our entire society’ and making that the central message of all our communications.
Balancing urgency and agency
This debate is about the balance between conveying urgency and giving agency – a tricky balance that needs to be achieved in both shorter and longer communications, both informal and formal. Audiences need to be sensitively guided to face the seriousness of the situation, and the feelings that may bring up, but also to learn and practice ways that they can make a genuine difference and feel renewed hope. George Marshall advises that, wherever possible, climate communicators should “place negative information in a narrative arc that leads to a positive resolution.” Another working idea we have been exploring in our own Climate Communications Hub is to have at hand a list of examples of ‘good news’ (to boost the spirits of those feeling hopeless) and ‘bad news’ (to shake people out of complacency or ignorance.)
I think we should take on board what the researchers say about when fear appeals work and when they don’t, but perhaps we could distinguish between ‘fear appeals’ and truth statements. We might feel especially justified in having a more confrontational attitude to people in power, for example. They are still human beings, still prone to disavowal like the rest of us, and I understand the value of Hope for the Future’s conciliatory approach, premised on building a good working relationship, but they are also people who have accepted responsibility and perhaps, sometimes, we should hold their feet to the fire.
Even with this apparent divide between the gradualist and emergency mobilisation approaches, it seems to me that a number of shared concerns emerge, e.g.
- the importance of engaging citizens in meaningful conversations
- the importance of telling the truth and countermanding disavowal and denialism
- the importance of balancing urgency with agency
- the need for sensitive, knowledgeable and skilful facilitation with individuals and groups
Another shared perception is that much wider public engagement is needed – for at least two reasons. Firstly, the society-wide political and economic changes that we need can only be put in place by governments. But, as Sheffield politician Paul Blomfield has emphasised, MPs are elected to represent their constituents’ concerns; if their constituents are not pestering them about climate change it is hard for them to prioritise taking action on it. But secondly, and more profoundly, the changes will not be possible without widespread public support; no government can order radical change from above if the people do not understand the reasons why and see the benefits to them individually, and to their communities.
What should your group’s key messages be?
I have to note that as just as I came up to writing this section, I took a break to attend a webinar with the celebrated novelist, Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement has been very influential in terms of the arts and climate change. I asked him the question how to balance urgency and agency in climate communications and he took exception to the question. Climate change is absolutely not an issue of communications, he said, everybody knows about it! And writers and artists shouldn’t be seen as communicators of messages. Climate change is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us as a species. Everybody has their own point of view and should be able to express it.
I interpret this as meaning that the existential crisis we face is of a completely different order from, say, health education, that I have referred to here. Ghosh’s perspective adds weight to those who say that the main aim of our engagement with our audiences should be to facilitate philosophical reflection. I’m reminded of another artist, Alistair McDowall, who wrote a play simply called ‘X’ in which the characters, confronted by the realities of climate change, gradually lose the power of speech. One critic interpreted this as the only truthful response to a crisis that exceeds anything that we have ever before put into words.
But here we are, all doing our best to contribute to the cultural shift that we hope will enable us to prevent terminal catastrophe for human civilisation! So I will continue with my communications tips…
Tips for messages
The standard advice on communications, reinforced by gradualist climate communicators, is to concentrate on a few key messages. I would suggest that behaviour change messages should:
- be simple and clear
- be scientifically sound
- seem realistic/feasible
- make sustainable behaviours seem easy and the ‘new normal’
- be encouraging
- appear fair
- address disavowal (seek to make climate change salient and relevant)
- promote communal values and/or be tailored to specific groups
- communicate both urgency and agency
- seek to provoke critical thinking and dialogue
- be aligned with your organisation’s long-term strategy
- and ideally be imaginative too.
In terms of information messages, your group might consider producing a ‘crib-sheet’ of key information – perhaps sorted into ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’. We discovered when practising and facilitating climate conversations through the Climate Communications Hub in Sheffield that people often felt insecure about their level of knowledge, so we provided them with a little ‘cue card’ to help them to structure their conversations, backed up with an information sheet. In the light of the messages that your steering group wants to make central to your programme, it might be a profitable task to set the team to produce some resources such as this.
Give clear messages about the most effective actions for ordinary citizens to take
Messaging in the context of the climate and nature emergencies is not a simple matter. A climate message could be said to be a short, compelling statement that persuades citizens to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is relatively straightforward when we are aiming to promote specific behaviour changes. However, we know that the climate and nature emergencies are complex and our messaging is complicated by needing to break through the insidious, multilayered veils of disavowal and denial. So our climate messages may also be about informing, educating, encouraging or provoking thought. And even when a person is reasonably well-informed and reasonably – or even passionately – committed to taking action, there are many questions about which kind of action would be best to take.
It is said that the test of a good political message comes when a campaigner can give a concise, persuasive reply to the question, “Why should I vote for you?” With specific decarbonising behaviour changes, there is a clear parallel. We need to have succinct, persuasive replies to such questions as: Why should I drive less? Why should I eat less meat?
But we might also need answers to questions such as: How do we know for sure? Why should I be bothered if no-one else is doing it? If this factory closes down, where is a man in his 50s like me going to get a new job? Isn’t it all too late anyway?
How you answer such questions will, of course, depend on who you are talking to. Tailoring your messages to different audiences is a basic principle of all comms. It is nothing new to point out that people have different values, beliefs and priorities in life, and that we all belong not only to the dominant culture that surrounds us but to particular sub-cultures and social groups. One of the criticisms often thrown at environmental campaigners is that they/we tend to be middle class and left wing and, as such, insufficiently sympathetic to the interests, needs and priorities of people who are working class and/or on the right. Once again, Climate Outreach has led the field in this country in looking at messages that might appeal to different segments of the population, and with different class, political or faith allegiances. In Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators you will find a summary of their research ‘Britain Talks Climate’ in which they describe seven segments of the UK population and how best to approach each of them.
So I don’t think it is up to me to decide what the best messages for your group to focus on would be. I think that is a decision for you and your partners, in consultation with climate scientists, based on your analysis of the social groups you want to reach.
However I will make a few general comments about climate messaging to provoke discussion. (Please note that deciding what messages to focus on is a separate matter from deciding how to convey them.)
Because so many people are confused about it, one thing that seems crucial is to convey accurately the relevant impacts of different sources of emissions and therefore the most impactful actions that ordinary people can take. Very commonly, when asked about climate change, people will quickly talk about recycling, for example. Whilst recycling is an important aspect of developing a circular economy, it will not bring about significant reductions in carbon emissions. The urgent task is to rapidly reduce the greenhouse gases that are being pumped into the atmosphere, preferably to zero. I see four main strategies to achieve this:
- Drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the biggest polluters, such as the energy, cement, steel and beef industries.
- Change the infrastructure around us, such as transport and buildings, moving away from systems that produce greenhouse gases.
- Maximise carbon sinks. Call for radical conservation and restoration policies for natural carbon sinks, as well as exploring the possibilities of carbon capture and storage through artificial means.
- Persuade ordinary people to change their behaviours in ways that might be small in themselves but would make a big cumulative difference if everybody did them.
All four strategies will have more success if governments take the lead. We need massive structural changes if we are to get from ‘two-planet living’ to ‘one-planet living’ and only governments can pass laws to make emissions reductions compulsory and to create a ‘level playing field’ for businesses. They can also set up systems that will incentivise change (such as taxing carbon emitting industries or providing subsidies to encourage householders to insulate their houses and cut their energy use.)
Because MPs who want to take action on climate change say they can only do so when they have enough constituents pestering them to do so, and they need a ‘social mandate’ in support of new sustainability policies, two further candidates for ‘key messages’ to ordinary citizens are:
- put pressure on your MP and local councillors to pass laws that require or incentivise reductions in greenhouse gas emissions;
- set an example in your own lifestyle and encourage family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to follow suit.
Many books and websites recommend specific actions that ordinary citizens can take to cut their personal carbon footprints. My own list of the six most impactful actions, in addition to political action, that people can take, in order of ease of application, is:
- Switch your energy supplier to one that uses only renewable energy
- Turn your heating down to 20 degrees or less
- Eat less meat and dairy foods (or none)
- Drive less; walk and cycle more
- Fly less or not at all.
- Better insulate your home (if you own it)
However, Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition) at the European Climate Foundation gave me a different list when I interviewed him in 2014. He saw individual behaviour change as a distraction and said the most important changes to get people to support were strategic, e.g.
- Get out of coal
- Accept new technology (e.g. wind farms)
- Divest pensions from fossil fuels
- Learn about the relative impacts of different sources of emissions
Allott was strongly of the view that climate communications should “emphasise the citizen role”. We should aim to empower people to know how to contribute to the big changes needed and then ‘do their bit’ in behaviour change as a “fun, communal, bonding, guilt-free activity”. I think there are important caveats for grassroots planning and messaging here.
The authors of one of the papers that I describe in my post Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning? propose that messaging should be seen as part of a larger ‘narrative’ that promotes a coherent strategy for decarbonisation. In other words, the development of a sound strategy comes first (ideally from government) and the narrative lets everybody know about it and gets them excited about contributing to it.
But what if the government or local authority hasn’t produced a convincing strategy or doesn’t seem to be producing a convincing implementation plan? Completing this post in the fallout from COP26, such questions seem only too relevant. One thing that we are trying to do as constructively as we can, here in South Yorkshire, is to contribute to the development of such strategies and plans. But I think that we all know that the pressure needs to be kept up on our elected representatives and being helpful and conciliatory may not communicate the necessary urgency. We come back to the importance of political campaigning and direct action, and to Margaret Klein Salamon’s challenge to gradualists: “Start by telling the truth, loudly and all the time.” Like Allott, she emphasises the systemic nature of the problem and calls for a “World War II scale transformation of the economy and society.” That’s the scale of change we need, not just a few more people having meat-free Mondays.
The case for being creative and experimental
Climate scientists have often struggled to convey the complexities of climate change. The case for adopting creative approaches has been made briefly in the table of ‘frames’ above and it is considered in more depth in my post Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning? In essence, creative and arts approaches can enhance engagement by appealing to the senses and emotions; they can be intriguing, enjoyable and memorable, especially when well planned and facilitated. They are perhaps sometimes seen as an amusing enrichment of standard campaigning methods.
But the case for their employment in this context is stronger than that: climate messaging and motivating needs to reach into people’s subconsciouses, to weave its way into different traditions and cultures, to transcend despair and inspire with magnificent hope.
If your group contains practitioners with artistic attitudes and skills, it may deepen your impact to work with them. Even if you don’t have such people to hand, you might consider adopting a deliberately experimental approach – taking an action research approach. None of us knows exactly how to bring about the sustainability transition. We are all on a learning journey and it might be most productive to recognise that explicitly, to identify a number of ‘enquiry questions’ relevant to your context, e.g.
- What can we do that would really interest and engage people in such and such social group?
- Would it improve our messaging to bring in a story-teller?
- How could we use visuals to put our key messages across? What if we did a film project?
- Is there any way we could tie this in with the street dance festival?
- Could we learn a trick or two from Bake Off?
- How can we make a safe space for people to talk honestly?
- Who’s going to put together a great playlist for that event?
Hopefully, by identifying some enquiry questions, taking a chance on a range of creative approaches, and monitoring what you learn in the process, you will accumulate knowledge and improve your climate communication skills. You could even make it an explicit aim to contribute to knowledge beyond your own locality, to develop innovative materials and processes, monitor the impacts and record them to share with others. (If you decide to go in this direction, you may want to work in partnership with an academic researcher.)
In Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning? I offer a number of different perspectives on creative forms of communication. One perspective that is discussed concerns engagement and education for the video-games generation. Although I myself believe that nothing is so powerful as face-to-face communication, and that the best community outreach is based on actually wearing out some ‘shoe leather’, I may be out of date. Both the restrictions of the pandemic and the habits of the digital generation suggest that grassroots climate communicators might want to deliver parts of their programme through digital projects. Stephen Duncombe points out that we now live in the time of the ‘prosumer’, where ordinary citizens are making their own creative works and developing their own enterprises. Perhaps your group should be supporting people in the community to develop their own creative projects, rather than imposing your own (no-doubt lovely) ideas upon them?
That said, there is something to be said for embracing existing approaches to climate awareness and education, both in terms of not reinventing the wheel unnecessarily and in terms of synergising with others in the region and across the country in a shared project to promote a ‘new normal’. If your steering group decides that it does want a standardised element to its programme, Carbon Literacy would be the strongest contender, in my view. I like to describe it as something like ‘getting your First Aid’. It appears to be gaining in profile and popularity all the time. It has been extensively tried and tested. While it specifies, in the Carbon Literacy ‘standard’, the core information that it wants everybody to be taught, each organisation is explicitly encouraged to adapt the information to appeal to their particular audience; it thus has a strong backbone but also permits flexibility.
The Carbon Literacy Project, who coordinate the programme, have now produced a template that makes designing a one-day carbon literacy course considerably easier. They appear to be open to the idea of various possible permutations and might even be willing to accredit a course that was run through creative activities or activities out in nature, providing the focus remained clearly on the core knowledge specified.
However the programme does have its limitations. Although the term seems to have acquired currency, some community activists don’t like the name because they think it smacks of school and might put some people in the community off. The concept of one day’s training (or equivalent hours) is brilliant (because that level of time commitment seems feasible) but the reality is that it isn’t long enough to embed the knowledge, to talk through questions and doubts or to work out realistic personal action plans. In comparison, Carbon Conversations (a different programme) allocates a longer time (six two-hour sessions), and seeks to touch more bases – information about different aspects of our carbon footprints, action planning, time for discussion, time to process feelings, all in the solidarity of being in a group. But the trouble with Carbon Conversations is that in my experience, it is quite hard to recruit for; it looks too daunting, I think.
Giving people the best chance of developing climate awareness probably means having a raft of interventions and offers, starting from quick, fun, no-strings introductory activities, such as you might offer at a festival in a park, through to more formal courses such as Carbon Literacy, extending into something more like support and practice groups (e.g. Carbon Conversations) and even beyond that to academic study modules or practical training in environmentally-friendly trades.
Based on my experience of running a pilot Climate Conversations course at the University of Sheffield in 2020, participants (once through the door) welcome being given the time and support to learn and practice new skills. You need both information-based curricula and skill-based courses that enable people to put their knowledge into practice. It’s not just knowing the facts, it’s acting on them, in context.
Tips for climate communications practitioners working on the ground: a ladder of engagement
In this post I’m taking a helicopter view of climate communications. For detailed suggestions for practitioners, please see Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators. There you will find a rich smorgasbord of practical suggestions as well as examples of different approaches, with multiple references and sources. The emphasis is on gradualist principles which I have organised under six roughly chronological but overlapping headings. I was thinking about the process a person might go through with a campaigning group, from when they first encounter you through to (perhaps) becoming a committed activist or leader themselves.
- Approach: be clear about the intentions and values that run through all of your communications
- Engagement: get people’s attention / invite them in
- Rapport: connect / build a relationship
- Conversation: listen and learn
- Messaging: deliver reliable information appropriately / persuade
- Empowerment: inspire and enable people to take action
- Politicisation: support people into campaigning
I strongly recommend that grassroots climate communications practitioners read that companion piece and use it as a practical resource to keep dipping into. Strategic planners may find the above stages useful to bear in mind, too, alongside segmentation of the population, when designing their programme.
Appendix 1: Some questions for climate communications steering groups to consider.
Here are some questions you might like to consider when designing or reviewing your climate communications programme. I have ordered them according to the ladder of engagement mentioned above. (Some of them may make more sense in the light of the companion posts listed at the top of this paper.)
|0. Your own gut responses to reading this paper|
|What stood out? |
As you read through this paper, which things struck you as useful?
Which things did you think were wrong or irrelevant?
What questions arose for you?
|1. Approach: be clear about the intentions and values that run through all of your communications|
|Aims and objectives. |
What specifically (and realistically) does your group want to achieve? What/who do you want to look, sound and act different in 5 years time?
In terms of comms, what do you want to communicate to whom?
Theory of Change.
Which climate comms approach (if any) best aligns with your Theory of Change?
To what extent will your group be seeking to convey/impose its own strategy? To what extent will you be leaving community partners to set their own priorities and choose their own methods? How could you ‘co-produce’, rather than impose?
Values. What will be the values that underpin your programme?
Impartiality. A possible risk of setting out to respect the values and opinions of different community groups is relativism i.e. one opinion will be deemed to be as good as another. How impartial will your group be? Will it be frank about holding certain values and promoting a particular political or economic strategy?
Does your group plan to adopt a particular approach?
Do you buy my idea that working in groups should be central if you want to build solidarity and create a ‘new normal’?
Research. Does your group wish to advance learning in the field? How will it learn from its projects? Will it have a formal research strand? If so, does it need to have some academic partners on-board?
|2. Engagement: get people’s attention / invite them in|
|Arts and creativity. |
Will these be central to the your approach? Or is there some other distinctive USP that the programme will have?
Practical skills. Might there be a strand of your programme that is action-based, teaching ‘how to do it’ technical sessions and/or developing a team of technical advisors (e.g. how to insulate your home)?
Working in nature. Is this an approach that your group wants to encourage – or even make central?
Digital versus face-to-face. Will your programme include a digital strand, not just for the delivery of your own messages, but to engage the video-game generation in creative projects?
Emotions. Some psychologists in the field are convinced that the only effective way to counteract disavowal is through making safe spaces for people to face up to the deep emotions that impede their engagement. Is that an approach your group would want to explore? If so, how could it be set up and how could people be drawn into willing participation?
Alternatively, if, like me, you see the logic but question the practicality of this approach, how could emotional sensitivity and support for eco-anxiety be built into your practical work? What are your safeguarding responsibilities here?
Training and outreach. Does your group want to have a training strand in its programme, training up community-based communicators?
|3. Rapport: connect / build a relationship|
|Segmentation. Which population groups within your area will you target and why? Which comms approach best suits each target group? |
Authentic/trusted messengers. How will you find and nurture ‘trusted messengers’ for different target groups?
|4. Conversation: listen and learn|
|Critical thinking, philosophy and political literacy. |
Does climate education not challenge us all to think outside of our particular boxes, reflect deeply on our arguments, and question familiar political tactics? Will your group have a critical thinking and/or philosophical strand?
Will it seek to engage people in discussion about different political ideologies?
Will it encourage them to think about difficult choices – technical, logistical, financial, organisational, social, political, etc?
Might it even be part of your mission to explore different forms of participatory democracy (such as Citizens’ Assemblies)?
|5. Messaging: deliver reliable information appropriately / persuade|
Which frame(s) does your group want to adopt/focus on, and which not, and why?
Information. How will you teach or disseminate key climate knowledge? What will be your key facts and messages? Will they be specific to your geographical area? Do you need to have some scientific advisors on-board?
Balancing urgency and agency, the ‘good news’ and the ‘bad news’. How will this be achieved? Might it be helpful to run workshops and/or training to explore how to achieve it in practice?
Does your group want to run an explicit Carbon Literacy programme? What are the pros and cons? Or something else in that vein?
|6. Empowerment: inspire and enable people to take action|
|Leadership training. |
One option would be a programme for young people; might that be something to consider?
|7. Politicisation: support people into campaigning|
|Political campaigning. |
Are you a campaigning organisation? Do you aim to influence those in power? If so, will there be a communication strand with that focus?
Is it your aim to politicise people?
What do you think of the Community Organising theory about starting from people’s self-interest and anger?
How would you present the aim of politicisation to funders who want to avoid ‘political’ groups? Could you be ‘impartial’ but also encourage active citizenship?
Appendix 2: Principal sources
This paper and its companion pieces draw on a number of documents and/or webinars and websites. Please see the originals for more detail than I could include here. The main sources were:
- Bolton, Matthew. (2018.) How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power. London. Bloomsbury Publishing. See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35668862-how-to-resist
- Simon Bushell, Simon; Workman, Mark; Colley, Thomas. (2016) ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’. Briefing paper No. 18, The Grantham Institute at Imperial College. See: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/grantham-institute/public/publications/briefing-papers/Towards-a-unifying-narrative-for-climate-change-Grantham-BP18.pdf
- Corner, Adam and Clarke, Jamie. (2017.) Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement Oxford. Palgrave.
- Duncombe, Stephen. (2007.) Dream – Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy. New York. The New Press. See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/253775.Dream
- Dupar, Mairi. (2019.) Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide. Insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Downloadable from: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Communicating%20climate%20change_Insights%20from%20CDKNs%20experience.pdf
- Markowitz, Ezra; Hodge, Caroline; Harp, Gabriel. (2014.) Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication.Eco-America / Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University. Downloadable from: https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ecoAmerica-CRED-2014-Connecting-on-Climate.pdf
- Marshall, George. (2014.) Don’t Even Think About It. New York, Bloomsbury Publishing. And personal notes taken from attending various workshops and lectures led by Marshall.
- Salamon, Margaret Klein and Gage, Molly. Facing the climate emergency, how to transform yourself with climate truth. (2020) Gabriola Island. New Society Publishers.
- Salamon, Margaret Klein. (2019.) Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: Introducing the Climate Emergency Movement. Downloadable from: https://www.theclimatemobilization.org/resources/whitepapers/leading-public-emergency-mode/
- Webster, Robin et al. (2019.) The #Talking Climate Handbook. Downloadable from: https://climateoutreach.org/resources/how-to-have-a-climate-change-conversation-talking-climate/
- Confronting the Climate Crisis with Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD – 2020 podcast with Rich Roll. See: https://www.richroll.com/podcast/margaret-klein-salamon-535/
- Beyond optimism or doom: How can we communicate the need for urgent climate action? XR Scientists webinar April 7th 2021 https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=1529752523895978&ref=watch_permalink
Further points were drawn from the sources references in the footnotes to the various posts, and include:
- Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communication by Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley (2017) https://oxfordre.com/climatescience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228620-e-386?__prclt=9mz3Yntu
- Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition), European Climate Foundation. Personal interview 2014. https://europeanclimate.org/member/allott/
- Communicating Climate Change During The Covid-19 Crisis: What The Evidence Says (Climate Outreach 2020) https://climateoutreach.org/reports/communicating-climate-during-covid-19/
- Willis, Rebecca. (2020) Too Hot To Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change. Bristol. Bristol University Press.
Some observations come from my own experience delivering climate education activities, such as Carbon Conversations and climate conversations courses. Some of the specific guidelines around climate conversations come from collaborative work undertaken within the Climate Communications Hub in Sheffield.
 Dupar, Mairi. (2019.) Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide. Insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Downloadable from: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Communicating%20climate%20change_Insights%20from%20CDKNs%20experience.pdf
 More detailed guidance can be found in my post Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators.
 I think this concept originally came from Joanna Macy.
 I have taken these points from two documents: (1) Behaviour change: the principles for effective interventions (NICE 2007): https://study.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/NICE%202007%20Behaviour%20change%20the%20principles%20for%20effective%20interventions.pdf; (2) The Challenge of Behaviour Change and Health Promotion by Glenn Laverack (2017) https://www.mdpi.com/2078-1547/8/2/25. I have quoted freely from both, rather than observing academic standards of reference. For further advice, see Behaviour change: general approaches (NICE 2007): https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph6/resources/behaviour-change-general-approaches-pdf-55457515717
 This is one of the core principles of the Carbon Conversations approach, which is described in more detail in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators.
 I am sure there are useful models to draw on within the field of ‘community development’, that I don’t know about.
 I am aware that more research is going on into behaviour change methods, including the language that activists can use to enhance motivation. For a quick overview of the different factors that may be involved in promoting behaviour change, take a look at the behaviour change wheel here: http://www.behaviourchangewheel.com/
 The guide can be found here: https://www.carbonneutraluniversity.org/zero-carbon-university-guide.html A short supplementary paper explaining the relevance of systems thinking can be found here: https://www.carbonneutraluniversity.org/uploads/5/0/7/2/50729279/embracing_systems_thinking_and_complexity.pdf
 Mindell, Arnold. (2002) The Deep Democracy Of Open Forums. Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc; Charlottesville.
 Mann is also critical of any climate campaigner who appears to be promulgating a disaster scenario, calling such people ‘doomists’ and accusing them of spreading defeatism when they should be building optimism and determination.
 Documents such as The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change and Laudato Si, written by the Pope, assert that their faiths call on human beings to be stewards of nature.
 Keith Allott is critical of activists and campaigners who “do things” but don’t know what result they want to get! See: Politicisation: moving people into effective campaigning
 My list of ‘gradualist’ tactics is largely based upon two sources: a speech given at the World Symposium on Climate Change Communications at Manchester University in 2017 by Adriana Valenzuela from the Action for Climate Empowerment programme, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; and ‘Connecting on Climate Change’, a very useful guide produced by Eco-America in 2014. For further references please see Appendix 2 below.
 Fear-based appeals are discussed further in my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.
 George Marshall – presentation to the Climate Communications Hub, Sheffield, November 2017.
 One version of our cue card for climate conversations can be found in my post Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, where I also say more about different types of message. A useful reference for key information messages is the document produced by Extinction Rebellion Scientists, Emergency on Planet Earth – Overview & Key Facts:
 The two agencies leading on Carbon Conversations training in the UK are: http://www.carbonconversations.co.uk/ and https://www.surefoot-effect.com/carbon-conversations-community.html