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Would some climate change emojis make communication easier? ?

By Chris Shaw on June 1, 2016

Did you know there is a ‘disappointed but relieved’ emoji? And I found that out after just the briefest of searches, so I am sure there are plenty of emojis that are even more nuanced in the emotions they embody.

Emojis arose to meet a very specific need – the difficulty of communicating what you really mean through the  written word. Is it possible emojis could, by filling the emotional gap, also help people connect more deeply with climate change messages?

Communicating effectively is more difficult than ever

Emojis are a response to a world in which it seems increasingly difficult to find the time to talk and listen to each other. Today, when we have more ways of communicating than any other time in history, we often fail to connect meaningfully and effectively. Perhaps it is precisely because we have more ways of communicating than any time in history that we fail to communicate effectively. You may well be familiar with stories of people who have used text messaging to break up with a partner. The media reacts with outrage at news of companies announcing mass redundancies by email. And few of us would think to let someone know about the death of a close relative via a Facebook status update. So somehow, instinctively, we all know that for the really important stuff, it has to be face to face.

How we are helping scientists become effective climate change communicators

This is the backdrop against which Climate Outreach are building the capacity for people  and organisations to talk about the profound implications of climate change. The challenge is not just that it can be difficult to find the time to talk, but also that climate change is a tricky topic to broach. We often find ourselves working with people and organisations in areas such as energy efficiency who feel anxious about raising the subject of climate change at all. These difficulties were very much front of mind during a project we completed earlier this year for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) –  the world’s largest general scientific society.

The  AAAS has established the Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science to train scientists in how to communicate climate change, whether in public talks, media interviews or presentations. We were commissioned by the AAAS to curate a library of materials the scientists could draw on to use in their communications. After meticulously trawling across reams of research we drew together the best of the best insights for how to use language and which videos, photographs and other graphics to use in order to support effective communication, both ‘in the room’ and for communicating through social  media and other remote channels. We carefully categorised the resources according to the type of audience they would best work with and according to what the communicator wanted to achieve. The materials were then divided into i. communicating climate change (the science)  and ii. communicating what can be done about it (the policies.)1

When it comes to climate communication, it is about more than just the right words or images

A key criteria for the project was to only include materials which had been tested and shown to be effective. As colleagues at the AAAS explained, they were well aware there is not a large body of tested climate change communication materials available which can be recommended without caveat. Our research confirmed those assumptions. In addition, even the best resources for communicating  climate change can only ever be one part of a more complex process. Whether it’s a video, headline or graphic, on its own it is not likely to transform a sceptic or disinterested person into a paragon of low carbon virtue. As our Research Director noted in a recent article, the value of these materials comes not through using them in ‘‘one shot’ advertising messages, tweets, or behavioural nudges, but through using the most effective language or images as a tool for starting a conversation’. Using the right materials matters, because starting a conversation with someone on terms they are comfortable with is the first step to building – and sustaining – their engagement.  Which is why we took the decision to provide the AAAS with a  comprehensive report alongside the library, to ensure users could take account of the conditions which shape the effectiveness of the materials.

What emojis did we recommend to the AAAS?

As you can probably guess, if you have read this far, it is not likely climate change emojis  would  break through the barriers to effective climate change communication. In the end, what is needed is a conversation. The time-consuming, sometimes awkward, sometimes messy business of talking. Surprisingly, even though we seem to prefer brief text messages to talking and listening, whenever we  at Climate Outreach hold a conversation with members of the public we invariably hear from participants just how much they enjoyed having the chance to sit down and talk with other people about climate change. We see people really warm to the subject as the conversation proceeds. That  is the power of talking. This is an important lesson for anyone looking to build engagement with climate change. As the science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin notes – “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer.”2 And it is for that reason we continue to help people have conversations about climate change and why, for the time being at least, we have no plans for developing climate change emojis.

1: This division revealed an interesting but unanticipated pattern. There were a far greater number of  visual materials for the science category, and a larger number of language resources for the  policy side. Upon reflection we may have foreseen this pattern –  after all politics is the realm of language, debate and argumentation whereas climate  science is associated with the pictorial representation of  impacts and graphs  of  rising temperatures etc.

2: Le Guin, U. (2004). The Wave in the Mind. I am indebted to the website for their insightful analysis of this book

One response to Would some climate change emojis make communication easier? ?

  1. The message of just starting the conversation here seems like a really important one. I have a friend who does climate communications in Truro and just asks people how they think climate change will affect them and what they think we should do about it. She does this with people of many different backgrounds and she maintains that people always seem to meander towards reasonable solutions to this problem and that they own the solutions that they come up with. Many of the solutions are owned by us in the environmental sector with “green” stamps all over them and I think that this causes people to disengage.

    Starting the conversation in a way that you can ensure that at carrys on seems the most important step in communication on many issues.

    Check out her website, she’s a consultant in climate change in Cornwall.

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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