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Communicating adaptation: new insights and practical guidance for public engagement

By Chris Shaw on June 25, 2019

Why is there so little conversation in the UK about how to adapt to the growing risks of climate impacts? This is a major gap in public engagement efforts that our recently completed training programme with the Women’s Institute (WI) Climate Ambassadors has sought to address.

In July 2007 our region suffered from extensive flooding. The town of Tewkesbury was particularly badly affected.

Adaptation has been a bit of a dirty word in climate change campaigning. Prioritising adaptation is seen by some as a ‘moral hazard’ because it means abandoning responsibility for limiting emissions of greenhouse gases (mitigation).

There now seems to be a shift in attitudes, and it is increasingly recognised that, whatever we do to reduce emissions, significant climate impacts are locked in. The new ‘moral hazard’ is the failure to communicate about adapting to these risks.

New project: Communicating climate impacts through adaptation

The project is funded by the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and is a model for providing practical, evidence-based guidance for public engagement on climate impacts.

The goal of this first stage of the project was to work with the WI Climate Ambassadors to develop a set of resources and ideas they could use to engage their members in conversations about how to adapt to the growing risks of climate change. Much of the guidance and resources provided are useful for anyone wishing to communicate climate impacts and ways to adapt.

The reluctance to talk about adaptation means there is an absence of leadership around communicating climate impacts. The WI are powerful peer communicators, with 220,000 members in over 6,300 Institutes. They are well placed to play a significant part in broadening public engagement with climate change risks.

In 2016 the WI decided to recruit Climate Ambassadors: WI members who felt passionately about climate change and wanted to campaign locally within their communities. There are now over 100 Climate Ambassadors, who engage with their MPs and wider community on the issue of climate change.

Training workshops with Women’s Institute Climate Ambassadors

We designed and ran two training workshops for 80 WI Climate Ambassadors, in Manchester and London.  WI members like to be active, rather than listen to a lecture on climate science. So the workshops were a chance to explore together different activities that Climate Ambassadors could lead, which would both improve awareness of climate risks and provide members with actions they can take that will make a difference to people in their community.

We took a practical hands on approach to the task, focusing on what WI members could do about the growing risks of flooding, heatwaves and drought. This approach, dealing with tangible and visible issues, makes climate change feel immediate, substantive and relatable, whilst providing actions people can take that will make a difference to their lives.

These are all important components of an effective climate communication strategy, but often difficult to achieve with climate mitigation messages. After all, it is easy to grasp why planting trees in the local watershed may help reduce the impacts of flooding downstream. It is much more difficult to see how car sharing will reduce flooding.

The resources we produced are a Communicating Climate Impacts guide (including tips on effective communication, ideas for activities and guidance on running a successful event) and a slide deck on the science of climate risks, for Climate Ambassadors to use for engagement activities with WI members.

Next steps

We will be returning to the Climate Ambassadors in six months to follow up with them about their experiences of using these resources to engage WI members with climate impacts.

This is the first chapter of a process which is going to be vital to get right, as we face the prospect of needing to not only limit emissions, but also limit the harm people will suffer from the changes already under way.

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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