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UN climate events are a wasted opportunity for public engagement

By Adam Corner on October 31, 2017

Even in green Germany, the UN Paris climate conference failed to catalyse greater concern among citizens – smarter strategies are required.

Young people push the boundaries and ask governments to make a commitment to make social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure deliver for young people.

The 23rd meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) begins soon in Bonn, Germany (6-17 November). If this information fails to set your pulse racing, you’re probably not alone.

Which is a problem, given that these are the blockbuster events dedicated to the global problem of climate change. What’s worse is that they may in fact be creating a more relaxed attitude among the public when it comes to taking action on the issue.

This outcome is indicated by the recent results of a three-part survey conducted in Germany before, during and after the Paris UN conference in 2015 (COP21). It found that rather than catalysing concern, the “historic” event left citizens less inclined to push for a leading role for Germany in climate politics.

And despite plenty of material on the Paris summit reaching readers of newspapers and other media – their main way of learning about it – Germans were, for example, no more likely to say they wanted to cut their own carbon use after the summit. Overall, the authors say it had an “appeasement” effect.

Missing context

As to the reason, the researchers point to a lack of “context” in a lot of the coverage, arguing that it typically does not provide much analysis of the wider meaning and significance of such conferences. Because of this, Germans reading about the Paris meeting probably assumed that the important work on climate change was being taken care of, with no obvious role for themselves.

This chimes with the research I’m involved in at UK non-profit organisation Climate Outreach on the image that the public gets of these UN events. Despite the many ways in which climate change impacts on lives – in areas such as health, homes, and the way we eat and travel – coverage is very literal, and dominated by pictures and footage of anonymous negotiators inside the conference, or stage-managed demonstrations outside.

Those types of image do not strike a chord with general audiences. To do so requires showing “everyday” people being impacted by, or responding to, climate change.

There is a wider problem here. It is the assumption, held by campaigners and politicians, that blockbuster, technocratic events in the climate change calendar will act as a catalyst for public engagement. But this does not fit with what social science tells us.

A human touch

More than factual information about science or policies, it is our own values, and the views of people in our social networks, that shape how we think about this subject and what it means for our lives.

What is crucially missing from most reports on the UN climate conferences is ordinary human stories, using people and places that audiences can relate to, and that cross different cultures to reach beyond the usual suspects.

Audiences, especially younger readers, are interested in coverage of climate change. But the lesson for politicians and campaigners alike is that we can’t expect events like the UN conferences to communicate themselves. And as the German research shows, there is a risk that the grandstanding on the international political stage may even backfire.

Because media coverage – and by extension public attention – is so fleeting, the UN conferences are precious opportunities for engagement that should not be missed.

At a time of growing doubt about the commitment of some of our most powerful governments to head off extreme climate change, using the right strategies to get through to voters has never been more important.

Originally posted in New Scientist

Journal reference: Nature Climate Change, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3­­­409

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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