How to communicate for climate action more effectively?
Effective communication engages for changes in behaviour, posture and attitude, leading to collective and plural mobilization
Despite the negative effects of climate change increasing in frequency and severity, such as the recent wildfire in Maui, Hawaii, which became lethal during a period of drought and high winds, communicating about climate urgency is still a challenging task.
That’s because it’s not enough to talk about the problem; to be effective, communication needs to provide a service by pointing out solutions. “How can I contribute?” – would be an expected result of effective communication about the need to curb global warming.
In addition to raising awareness, effective communication for climate action needs to engage for changes in behaviour, posture and attitude, leading to collective mobilization to cope with the urgent crisis.
In Brazil, as in most countries of the Global South, this mission becomes more critical for two reasons: first because people are more likely to suffer from the consequences of extreme weather events and, second, because the region is home to the world’s largest, most important tropical rainforest, the protection of which has become a key battleground in global climate crisis.
Alongside radical industrial decarbonisation, forests, especially fast-growing tropical forests, are among the best technologies we have today to regulate the climate. That’s right, an effective, nature-based solution.
Communicating about the conservation of nature, forests and biodiversity, as a solution to climate security, is thus a public responsibility and not just from scientists. This debate needs to take place in several spheres: health and education, politics and citizenship, equity and human rights, and so on.
Only by reflecting and discussing in different areas can communication for climate action become a social catalyst for implementing climate solutions. But how many of us Brazilians defend the conservation of the environment as a right and a duty?
Despite Brazil being one of the countries with the greatest potential in nature-based climate solutions, for the third consecutive year, a survey by the Institute of Technology & Rio Society (ITS), in partnership with Yale University and IPEC (Intelligence in Research and Strategic Consulting), revealed that only 22 per cent think they know a lot about global warming and climate change.
The report “Climate Change in the perception of Brazilians 2022“, released in June of this year in an online press conference, presented data on public sentiment on the subject, mainly through the perceived impact on our daily lives, such as the increase in the price of food, pollution, energy bills, lack or excess of rainfall, and the consequent environmental disasters. The majority of respondents also revealed that they are indeed concerned about climate threats.
Although the survey provided other very interesting data, this one piece of information makes it clear that more Brazilians need to understand about an issue that is already affecting their lives, from their physical and mental health to their financial health. On the other hand, this public feeling that we are increasingly vulnerable to climate risks is fertile ground for engaging communication on climate action.
Talking about nature-based climate solutions
Nature-based climate solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage or restore natural ecosystems, such as native equatorial forests, protecting the environment and the services it provides, such as rainfall and the removal and storage of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thereby regulating the planet’s temperature and climate.
However, climate science and solutions are still better known to experts and academics than to ordinary citizens, for whom the cause-and-effect relationships that permeate this issue can still seem abstract and intangible.
Data and estimates, such as the goal of keeping the average global temperature below 1.5º C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2030, to avoid jeopardising the balance of life on the planet, don’t sound so urgent. The longer the time horizon, the more uncertainty hangs over our own projections. And uncertainties lead to postponements.
There is no magic formula, but we can learn to communicate collectively
Social and communication sciences explain that our worldviews, values and social norms dictate how we receive information and apply it practically in our lives. Therefore, you need to know how to communicate facts and data in a way that is neither too scientific nor dogmatic, through examples and shared experiences that make the message more understandable and connected to your audience’s experience.
To help with this challenge, Climate Outreach, an agency specialising in climate change communication, has been releasing tools to address climate communication by connecting with local values, sense of identity and worldview.
In partnership with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the task force that publishes annual reports on climate change, the agency has developed a practical guide to help experts communicate about climate change with any audience.
This guide suggests six principles for communicating in a simple way that engages with climate action. See what they are:
Messages from reliable sources tend to be more persuasive. Experts generally attribute credibility to the message. Be confident when communicating, establishing references that demonstrate your knowledge and experience on the subject.
Scientific jargon, such as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, may not relate to the day-to-day experiences of most people. Pollution, and its impacts on our health and livelihoods does. Start your climate talk with common ground, using clear language and examples that your audience is likely to be more familiar with.
Personal values and opinions have a greater influence on attitudes towards climate change than people’s level of scientific knowledge. Connecting with widely shared local values will make it more likely that your message will be understood.
Most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories rather than statistics and graphs. Invest in a narrative that shows humanity behind the numbers. Telling stories about experiences that led to a conclusion can help illustrate the point and make the story more engaging.
Uncertainty is a feature of climate science that shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside, but it can become a major obstacle in conversations with non-scientists. Focus on the “known” before the “unknown” and emphasise areas where scientific agreement is strong around the topic.
In verbal or written communication, the choice of images and graphics is just as important as evidence and data. In this sense, the Climate Visuals project offers a series of resources, including videos and photographs, to enrich your narrative on climate change.
Plural communication for social engagement
Although good practices for effective climate communication are evolving, there are still few who consider themselves capable of promoting effective engagement with actions in favour of nature and the climate. But to have a collective effect, this communication needs to, and can, take place through various spheres of influence.
A doctor, for example, who already owns the trust of his/her patients, can relate health problems to the excessive heat and pollution caused by human aggression towards the environment. By establishing this authentic and legitimate connection, patients will be open to understanding cause and effect relationships, such as deforestation and poor air quality. This will make them realise that the right to less polluted air is just as important as the right to health.
Knowing that people open up to stories that touch them and with which they connect, as we share human vulnerability, communicating about climate change and the solutions available for it becomes an effective action to influence policies and movements that result in nature conservation.
As more actors reverberate the message locally, more plural engagement will be generated leading to environmental protection, safeguarding the services provided by nature, such as climate regulation, which is so necessary for life on the planet.
With a challenge as complex as this, people need to know that there are solutions to deal with the problem and that they are part of these solutions.
Adriana Martins is the communications director at Permian Brasil, a business administrator from FGV, with an MBA in marketing from Babson College and certified by the Brazilian Association of Business Communication in “Advanced Communication for Sustainability”. Addicted to learning and communicating, she is passionate about working with purpose for nature conservation and climate security.