It’s a common enough question from friends and family over the holiday period: how’s work going? When you work on climate change it can be a challenging one to answer, even if you work in communications. Here’s how I’ve been responding.
We’ve had major wins over recent years, whether it’s the phenomenal uptake of renewable energy, significant shifts of finances out of fossil fuels, Electric Vehicles going mainstream or the Paris Agreement.
Climate change is increasingly a topic of conversation and here in the UK, the conservative prime minister recently stated that tackling climate change and reducing its effects on poorer countries is a “moral imperative” (a narrative our centre-right work has been promoting), in a move that was widely seen as intended to reach out to a younger and greener audience.
However, current action to tackle climate change remains inadequate and there are major risks that we won’t avoid catastrophic global warming or learn to cope with impacts let alone achieve the safe world envisaged by the Paris Agreement.
What fills me with hope is that increasingly, from international organisations and campaigners there is recognition that public attitudes and social practices almost always play a central role in decisions on how we are going to tackle climate change and whether such interventions are accepted or not. There is also a growing understanding that there is a science to doing this.
This has been a significant shift in thinking for many who have previously seen the communication aspect of climate change as a tag on at the end of a project, a task to simply assign to an advertising agency, or something to approach with your gut feeling rather than the evidence.
We know that climate change is challenging to communicate and the negative repercussions of poor communication – whether political polarisation or lack of motivation to act – have shown we need to take a much more considered approach.
Why communications is increasingly central to addressing climate change
Governments in democratic nations will not run significantly ‘ahead’ of where they perceive public opinion to be.
Decisions about how to adapt and adjust to a changing climate are fundamentally linked to the way in which people understand the problem of climate change (and who they see as having the responsibility for dealing with it).
What ordinary people think about climate change – and their perception of what it means for their lives – really matters. Our collective decision-making is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the climate change story.
The most carefully considered policy interventions will backfire if they don’t take account of how people will respond. Seemingly ‘win-win’ technologies and ideas (such as free home insulation schemes) will not be taken up if they are unpopular or viewed as irrelevant.
Donald Trump is a prime example of this and the problems that his administration is causing (domestically and internationally) show what happens when a society is polarised on climate change: there is no political cost to simply walking away from climate change (whereas he has found it much harder to undo progress on healthcare for example, because there is better bipartisan support on that).
Recently we’ve seen a similar example in Germany following the 2017 elections where the ambitious goals in the Energiewende (energy transition) are threatened by conservative coalition partners who don’t have a positive vision of decarbonisation.
Without engagement from across the political spectrum, progress on policy and the take-up of low carbon technologies will always be vulnerable to changes in the political winds.
Even where such political polarisation doesn’t exist, the discussion of climate change remains challenging. It is usually described as something that happens far away in time and space, seemingly imbued with negative emotions and complex terms. Climate action often appears to require individual sacrifices today for collective rewards in the future – something our brains are not well wired to prioritise. And in many countries around the world, climate change is largely discussed using ‘Western’ narratives and approaches that are often irrelevant.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is a deep and growing understanding about what works with climate communications, based on Climate Outreach and other’s work and we are applying it in a growing number of contexts around the world.
Over the last few years, our team has expanded significantly (and by the way we’re hiring) and we are now increasingly working with partners across the globe, including international bodies such as the IPCC and World Bank, universities from Canada to Austria, and campaign groups such as WWF and Greenpeace.
Looking ahead, there are a key set of priorities for climate change engagement which we’ll be working on as an organisation:
- Broadening the story of climate change
As most of us know, climate change is not just an environmental issue – it is a health issue, an economic issue, a heritage issue. But placing it in a ‘green box’ has made it difficult for many people to prioritise it. In fact there are few aspects of what people care about that aren’t impacted by climate change.
Connecting to wider issues has been a key focus of our work. We look at how communities can best understand the impacts on their lives and communities – an increasingly important issue as communities around the world suffer the horrendous impacts of our changing climate.
A critical new area for us is the under-told story of climate change and health, a universal concern. We’re currently exploring with organisations including the World Health Organisation the most effective ways to highlight the connection between health and climate change.
Similarly we are broadening the visual story of climate change through our Climate Visuals project. It’s been amazing to see the enthusiasm this project has generated around the world. We’re looking forward to expanding our library of images and partnering with global image partners to shift the way climate change is perceived.
- Raising new climate change voices
The messenger is often as important as the message. We continue to focus on working with ‘unusual suspects’ to raise the voices of those who wouldn’t traditionally be seen as climate change advocates.
With 84% of the world’s population identifying itself as belonging to a faith, we’re proud to continue our long running work with faith communities and are currently working on a global project to drive behaviour change in faith communities.
Meanwhile we are continuing our acclaimed work with centre-right communities and hope to be partnering with both Canadian and German national organisations this year to help empower these communities to support and speak out on climate change issues. In the same fashion, we’ll also be expanding our work with young people as well as people forced to migrate because of the impacts of climate change, ensuring that their voices are heard.
The rise of so-called populist movements across the globe and the backlash against ‘liberal elites’ also provides a key consideration for climate engagement which has been characterised by detractors as not an issue for ‘normal working people’. In this context there is even more need to better understand the ways of empowering wider populations to speak out.
- Widening the reach of public engagement activities around the world
Over the last two years we’ve seen very active and visible global climate change initiatives and movements across society which are gathering momentum (in part thanks to the brazen efforts of Donald Trump to undo scientific understanding and low carbon policies).
Many of these activities, whether government outreach or new advocacy campaigns, are wanting to reach beyond the usual suspects, acknowledging that effective public engagement is vital in achieving long-term success.
We’re increasingly partnering with these groups to ensure their campaigns – on air quality, sustainable behaviour or renewable energy, to name a few – are effective at engaging wider audiences. A key consideration for our work is also to ensure that such projects take the long term view and include the main driver for these activities (climate change) appropriately in their outreach.
- Supporting climate scientists
Scientists have and will continue to be key climate change messengers, but many have struggled to communicate effectively with wider audiences and to deal with skeptics.
We have been working with many scientific organisations, helping scientists improve their communication skills. We are particularly proud to be supporting Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists communicate their work, -watch out for our handbook shortly!
As an organisation focused on transforming public perceptions and generating demonstrable public support for political, collective and individual action on climate change, there is a lot to be positive about.
I’m really excited by the difference we’re making and our new projects and partnerships for 2018. I’m also really grateful for all the support we’ve had on this journey – in particular from donors to our recent Annual Appeal which, thanks to two matching donations, came to over £16,500.
So yes, work is going well – and I’m looking forward next Christmas to being able to talk even more enthusiastically about the impact of our work.
Image: Robert Spiegel