Communicating Climate Science in Troubled Times Workshop

On the 14th November, the Climate Justice programme gathered academics to discuss and share learnings about climate change communication.
Climate science is not the easiest thing to talk about in the first place. The science is complex, full of uncertainties, and it’s practically impossible to fully get your head around all of the predicted effects and what they would mean for our earth. But just filling in the ‘knowledge gap’ for decision makers by presenting this data has not resulted in any real tangible change – not really. Not, at least, in ways that we need if we are to have any hope of halting warming at just a mere two degrees. So how are scientists to communicate climate change to policy makers and the lay public? Should communications be framing policy options in terms of climate justice?
Mix that with a turbulent political context, where climate change has become an even more polarising issue, and we find that talking climate is actually considered talking politics. Any effort to talk about climate change therefore inextricably engages in people’s world views and their conception of identity.

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist based at Texas Tech University, is one of the most recognisable voices in the states that is talking about climate change. And, in what may come as a surprise to some, she is also an evangelical Christian that credits her faith as being the motivator for her engaging in actions to prevent climate change. Studies show that listening to her talk about climate change and faith has successfully resulted in convincing doubting evangelical Christians that climate change is real, and something that need action. As the opening keynote speaker, Katharine gave us a whistle stop tour through the ways in which different audiences perceive climate change, and gave examples of how her own interactions with different people have influenced the way in which she approaches talking climate. Katharine explained that by bonding, connecting, explaining and inspiring, conversations about climate change, and what needs to be done to address it, can happen. Bonding and appreciating what things you have in common with someone, and what things you both value, helps to establish a common understanding. In doing so, you can begin to connect in a meaningful way: given our shared values, why might we care about climate change and its effects? For example, Christians may care about climate change given their belief that they are to be caretakers of God’s creation. Instead of being an intangible distant scientific phenomenon, climate change then becomes something that our values can interact with. By understanding how our values might make sense of climate change, we can begin to identify ways to respond to it, explaining why we might care. Explaining climate change and action on it in a way that is in line with our beliefs allows people to care about climate change and retain their identity – not everyone has to wear crocs and hug trees and be a member of Greenpeace. But this alone won’t be enough. In order to truly ignite a sustained engagement in climate change, and encourage action, the conversation needs to inspire further conversation with others about solutions. By communities uniting around shared values, engagement in climate change can become less about talking politics and more ab out talking solutions.

We next heard from Max Boykoff (University of Colorado), Anabela Carvalho (University of Minho) and Mike Goodman (University of Reading) talking on the subject of culture and climate change. They talked about how different people interact with climate change. Max gave examples of how one project, ‘Inside the Greenhouse’, explores climate change through theatre, film, fine art, performance art, television, and even comedy nights. As climate change is predominantly framed in scientific terms, branching into other mediums of communication allows for a new way of engaging in climate change. Media portrayals of climate change, as Anabela explained, tend to vary depending on their politics, but also the type of media that they are. Traditional news outlets tend to focus on endorsing the views of the political elite, whereas newer sources (such as Buzzfeed) tend to provide a stronger counter-narrative. Mike then talked about how celebrities act as emotional witnesses for us to climate change catastrophes as they film documentaries. By leveraging the connection fans feel with celebrities, showing celebrity concern for climate can provide a way for new audiences to engage with the issue.
The next panel had Alyssa Gilbert (Imperial College London, Grantham Institute) Emily Shuckburgh (University of Cambridge) and Lydia Messling (University of Reading), and discussed how science plays a role in communication. Alyssa talked about the need for scientists to be speaking, and maybe even in more emotive terms, about how they see climate change. Scientists remain as trusted messengers by the public, but this too can differ depending on the audience. Emily also talked about trust, and how the attributes of independence and integrity are essential for maintaining public trust in science. As such, scientists have a duty to go further and seek to make sure that their information is sufficiently well understood by the audience, and that things are not misconstrued. In this sense, everybody is different when it comes to engaging in advocacy. Lydia then presented her research into how scientists should (or should not) engage in policy advocacy and proposed a spectrum of different advocacy and non-advocacy a scientist can engage in. There appears to be a difference between engaging in specific policy advocacy, and advocacy that just asks for some form of action to be taken.

The final keynote of the day was given by Susan Moser, who asked if we can find a way to frame the depth of the necessary change needed to tackle climate change. Susanne said that the arts help us to explore what the future might look like. Therefore these communications about climate change need to be in touch with people’s deep desires to want to be good, foster a public love of community and have a way to work through different emotions toward climate change. Tapping into emotions can help us to put our energy into motion: e-motion, if you will. One powerful emotion in helping to sustain engagement in actions is hope. And the hope needed to overcome climate change is like no other in human history. As Katharine Hayhoe said on responding to the challenge that climate change presents: “the fear is in my head; the hope is in my heart” and it is that hope that spurs action.

Communicating climate change in troubled times therefore needs to make use of all of these different ways of communicating, and allow different people, including scientists, to engage in these different methods to form new dialogues with new audiences. Climate change is not just a topic of scientific interest. It’s one that engages in people’s values, including our ideas of what justice looks like. The culture of climate change in communities, and the emotional reactions to climate change are just as important (if not more so) than our scientific understanding of it.

Written by Lydia Messling, Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar