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Time for a climate communication audit

By Adam Corner on October 16, 2017

Every Sunday, in Bogota, main roads are closed to vehicles. Cycling is an obvious, aspirational solution with multiple climate and societal benefits but should be used to illustrate stories correctly and not over-used as a lazy metaphor for sustainability at large.

New ‘Climate Communication Project’, funded by NERC, will focus on building capacity for public engagement in the UK

Over the last decade, the level of interest in climate change communication has grown rapidly – there’s now a huge number of people, organisations and institutions involved in the theory and practice of public engagement.

In part, the enthusiasm for public engagement has come from the realisation that without significant and sustained public support, technological and political progress on decarbonisation and wider sustainability goals is fragile. The reversal of domestic progress in the US following the election of Donald Trump (not to mention the withdrawal from the UN Paris accord) shows what can happen if there is not a robust, and bi-partisan platform of public support behind climate and energy policies.

From a subject that was at the periphery of academic research, there are now thousands of peer-reviewed papers (and even an entire Oxford Encyclopedia dedicated to the topic). Many campaigners used to take it for granted that their approach to public engagement was the right one, but the importance of connecting with the evidence base on communication is now widely acknowledged.

From our perspective at Climate Outreach, the growing interest in public engagement is crucial, and something we’ve been advocating for. The evolving social science of communicating climate change is just as important as the climate science that tells us what the problem is in the first place.

But as the research base has developed, and the number of organisations developing practitioner expertise on climate communication has grown, it is crucial to take stock, to assess where there is strong, reliable agreement on strategies and techniques, and where there is more debate.

We’re pleased to say that this is exactly what we’ll be doing alongside the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds University, and a range of academic and practitioner partners through a newly funded NERC project titled ‘The Climate Communication Project’. Taking our cue from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Reports, we’ll be bringing together leading experts on public engagement to evaluate the climate communication knowledge base.

We’ll also be mapping public engagement capacity – primarily in the UK, but with an eye on the international picture – to get a clearer sense of ‘who is doing what’ on climate change communication.

The point of this exercise is not simply to become better informed about the state of climate change communication knowledge (although that is a worthwhile goal in itself), but to use our learning to create an online resource for communicators to use in their work, as well as identifying the potential for collaboration across different organisations and institutions working on public engagement in the future.

It’s a mark of the maturity of the field of climate change communication that a project like this is required, and we’re very happy to be working with some great partners to develop a resource than can act as the basis for student learning, doctoral training, and practitioner campaigns, all with best available evidence base on effective public engagement.

By Dr Adam Corner

After studying the psychology of how people reason about new evidence, and why they do or don’t change their beliefs, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards climate change. Adam joined Climate Outreach as a Researcher when the organisation was still young, helping to grow the Research team and build long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations).

As the organisation has grown, Adam’s role as Programmes & Research Director now includes working with academic partners, campaign strategists and funders to ensure that Climate Outreach delivers on its mission of building the social mandate around climate change.  An accomplished and widely-published author, Adam wrote Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, with Jamie Clarke, and his research and writing has appeared in academic journals, reports and briefings, and international media commentary. Adam also writes about music – including the increasing connections between music and climate change – for UK media, and can occasionally be found lurking behind the decks at pubs and parties in Bristol.

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