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Time for a climate communication audit

By Adam Corner on October 16, 2017

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

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.

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

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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