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The IPCC climate impacts report is here – now how do we engage people with it?

By Rafi Robin on February 24, 2022

This piece was written by Rafi Robin and Nuri Syed Corser

The new IPCC report is alarming and authoritative – but it won’t communicate itself. To maximise its impact, we must learn from evidence-based climate communication.

A damaged, submerged area is seen after flash floods in Sunamganj, Bangladesh.

With extreme weather battering Europe and the UN warning that wildfires are likely to significantly increase by 2050, the stage is aptly set for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC is the UN body tasked with advancing knowledge of climate change) to publish its latest report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

The report summarises the latest scientific understanding of impacts, adaptation and vulnerability – the most comprehensive review since 2014. It goes into further detail on attribution of extreme weather to climate change, regional impacts, and elements of justice and equity. 

If last year’s IPCC report on the scientific certainty of climate change was a ‘code red’ for humanity, then this one tells us what living in a code red world may look like – and what we must do to adapt. 

With climate impacts increasing, and adaptation policy languishing on the global priority list, how can we best engage the public with climate impacts and adaptation? As with mitigation, efforts to adapt will not succeed unless they are based on an understanding of public attitudes and bolstered by a social mandate. We must ground our public engagement in the growing body of social science evidence on effective communication of climate change.

Selling the science 

Polling consistently shows that scientists are trusted messengers, but as Netflix’s Don’t Look Up showed, talking about the science can be difficult. Decades of research tells us that facts aren’t enough on their own – people’s values, worldviews, and capacity to act influence how they respond to information about climate change, far more than how much they know about science. After years of increasingly urgent reports from the IPCC, it’s clear that the reports themselves are not enough to rally public engagement. They must be paired with an effective understanding of good science communication. 

At Climate Outreach, we’ve trained scientists in effective public communications, as well as working with the IPCC to produce a communications handbook for IPCC authors and sharing case studies of how report authors from around the world are meaningfully engaging the public. Now more than ever, we need trusted experts with the skills to convey the profound climate risks and adaptation needs we are facing. 

Turning climate impacts into climate concern

Around the world, climate concern is surging as climate impacts become more salient and visible. But we cannot assume that impacts will equate to concern in all communities. From floods in the UK to tornadoes and wildfires in the US to shifting weather patterns in North Africa, research shows that there is more to it than a simple causal link between ‘experiencing’ climate change and ‘believing’ in it.

Extreme weather may be interpreted in multiple ways depending on people’s prior political and social views. As we discussed in our work on communicating flood risks, attempts to help people make that link with climate change must be sensitive in terms of the message, the messenger and the timing. They must also empower affected communities to prepare for future impacts, rather than simply get back to normal.  Likewise, making use of personal stories, shared identity and a balance of local and global impacts is likely to be helpful

Research also points to the importance of coupling messages about threats from climate impacts with constructive suggestions for how people can respond to these risks, which can mitigate feelings of powerlessness or loss.

The same is true for images of climate impacts, which can be powerful but must be done right. Pairing news stories on record temperatures with pictures of tourists sunning themselves on the beach doesn’t reflect the reality of climate impacts. And some newspapers are becoming increasingly aware that stock images of smokestacks and polar bears aren’t as effective as those telling real human stories. To support them, our Climate Visuals library hosts over 1,000 images, including a new collection of 100 photos freely available to media, educators and non-profits.

Our Climate Visuals research shows that people are moved by images of climate impacts such as floods and the destruction wrought by extreme weather,  but because these are emotionally powerful, they can also be overwhelming. Again, coupling images of climate impacts with imagery or narratives that build a sense of efficacy is important to avoid overwhelming or disempowering audiences.

Communicating adaptation

For years campaigners feared that engaging the public on adaptation would distract from the urgency of reducing emissions and undermine mitigation messages. However, there is little evidence that this will happen, and communicators should not avoid adaptation messages. 

In Britain, our research mapping perceptions of climate risks, resilience and adaptation shows that the public are likely to perceive mitigation and adaptation as two sides of the same coin, suggesting that mitigation and adaptation messages can reinforce each other. Emphasising health benefits of low-carbon policies and health impacts of climate change, as well as making climate risks relevant to people’s everyday lives and locations, is also likely to be fruitful if it comes from a trusted messenger. There is evidence that adaptation policies are more widely supported across the political spectrum, as steps to build resilience are not necessarily polarising in the way that some mitigation policies – like taxes on fossil fuels – may be.

The IPCC’s report will be vital for understanding the climate realities we face, and could be a powerful tool to galvanise international action on adaptation – but it cannot do the work of engaging the public all on its own. For it to have maximum impact, we must learn from evidence-based climate communication.

Reports & guides

Reports & guides

Engaging the public on climate risks and adaptation

Reports & guides

Reports & guides

Communications handbook for IPCC scientists

Reports & guides

Reports & guides

Communicating flood risks in a changing climate

Reports & guides

Reports & guides

Communicating climate impacts in our communities through adaptation

2 responses to The IPCC climate impacts report is here – now how do we engage people with it?

  1. Deborah Ramson says: says:

    scary stuff

  2. . Myghal Ryual says: says:

    Thank-you for these resources but any communication of mitigation and adaptation must be accessible to the ordinary man or women.Many people do not know what 1.5° is. or what causes the climate crisis.There needs to be simple, direct. relevant, emotional messaging and of course with springlings of hope

By Rafi Robin

Rafi worked on Climate Outreach’s Executive team from 2021 – 2022. As Executive Coordinator, she supported the Executive Director, Senior Management Team and wider organisation with all manner of coordination support to keep everything ticking over smoothly and help Climate Outreach deliver its mission. Rafi’s background is in British politics, with a particular interest in environmental and foreign policy.

Before Climate Outreach, Rafi worked in the UK Parliament for the Opposition frontbench team shadowing the Department for Environment, Food, Farming and Rural Affairs, providing policy research and advice, speechwriting and office management. She has previously worked for Mercy For Animals delivering street outreach to raise awareness of the environmental impact of animal agriculture, as well as with a number of charities providing support services for refugees and asylum seekers in Bristol and Cambridge.

Rafi holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Contemporary British Political History from Kings College London.

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