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What does public engagement mean for climate experts?

By Tara Bryer on June 17, 2024

Climate experts – usually scientists – have a reputation for struggling to connect with the general public. Whether or not you think that’s a fair stereotype, there’s a lot that experts can do to better inspire audiences outside of academia on climate and nature issues.

Participants taking part in exercises as part of Climate Outreach’s Climate Ambassador programme.
Photo credit: Ross Fairgrieve

I deliver our evidence-based public engagement workshop for climate experts at Climate Outreach. The experts I work with are fully aware of the social transformations required to limit climate change. Those who participate know that to transform society, we need public support for climate action. Crucially, they understand the credible and authentic role they play as experts, in influencing people to take action on climate change. Like many climate experts, they too have struggled to connect effectively with audiences outside of academia. 

Public engagement involves not only seeing past the complexity of the science, but also making the story relevant and meaningful. In Senegal, meteorologist and IPCC scientist Dr Aïda Diongue-Niang ran ‘conversation shops’ where people from farming and fishing communities could visit different climate experts. In these meetings, people would talk about specific, climate-related topics such as why the monsoon season had experienced a lot of variability and what everyone expected would happen in the coming years. 

Beyond their immediate value to local communities, these ‘conversation shops’ helped the climate experts earn and maintain trust when sharing information with local people. The project highlighted the importance of having an audience that can champion an expert’s message because they see themselves in that climate story.

What does public engagement really look like for climate experts? For a climate expert to have an impactful conversation, maintaining a trusted relationship is key. As a climate expert, your authentic voice ensures you can effectively engage any audience. Allow yourself to be honest about your concerns and motivations for researching climate change. This supports your credibility as a communicator.

As humans, we make sense of the world through anecdotes and stories rather than statistics and graphs. Having your own climate story helps your audience see and relate to the real human behind the science.

Listen to your audience and find out if you have values in common, for example a love of nature. Active listening and connecting with the values of your audience ensures the people you engage with can see themselves in your climate story. Your message becomes relevant to their lives.

Why should I engage? While delivering public engagement workshops with climate researchers, I was surprised to learn about the many opportunities experts have to effect meaningful change. Journalists seek out scientific voices as a credible source to back up a story. Policymakers rely on robust evidence from experts. These audiences will always go back to the expert who is able to tell a compelling story, make the science feel relevant and speak in a relatable context.

Many climate experts find their audiences asking them for advice on the best ways to take climate action. This may feel uncomfortable for some, especially if it starts to feel like advocacy over engagement. We advise climate experts to share their own authentic, personal story on taking climate action, for example, as a climate voter or someone taking more car-free journeys. When talking about behaviour change it’s always important to recognise that we can’t expect everyone to be able to swap their family car for an EV. We expect better climate leadership from the government to make these changes fairer for everyone.

Public engagement is by definition a two-way process. It goes that bit further than communicating the science more simply. It’s about letting your audience take the lead. It starts with listening, understanding and empathising with your audience’s values and experiences. 

Your audience may influence you too. They can offer their own perspectives and help you paint a more vivid image of how your research intersects with society. Are your local community’s concerns actually reflected in your research? How might your research inform its decisions?

Climate experts face many barriers to being a truly effective communicator. This includes limited time and funding, lack of skills and confidence as well as public engagement being seen as a low priority by some academic institutions. Our workshop provides tools and novel approaches for making climate research more relevant and inspiring for wider audiences.

The ultimate goal of our training workshops is to help climate experts increase their confidence in having meaningful conversations about climate change outside the walls of academia. Another very positive outcome of this work is an increase in support for public engagement within academia too. Climate experts can therefore be supported to invest time in building up the necessary skills to tell impactful climate stories.

Ultimately, we need more climate scientists engaging the public in climate change conversations. With support, climate experts have the power to influence transformational action on climate change across the breath of society.

If you’re a climate expert interested in our public engagement training, find out more sign up to our next online workshop here.

By Tara Bryer

Tara manages Climate Outreach’s science communication programme – supporting scientists, researchers and experts on public engagement with climate change. Before joining Climate Outreach, Tara trained researchers on public engagement at Cancer Research UK and ran science clubs with Science Oxford.

Tara completed her Msc. in Science Communication at Imperial College London in 2014 and is also a PRINCE2 accredited project manager.

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