Home » Recommendations for Communicating about Climate Change
Before considering any guidance on communication, remember that the first step to developing effective messaging on any topic is to identify who specifically you are trying to reach — the target audience — and what specifically you want them to do in response — the desired outcome.
Need help? Visit “Developing a Communications Product” for a bare-bones outline of the steps to developing a communication product to see where this guidance fits into the process.
Here are five research-based recommendations to help you communicate more effectively about climate change. To help show you what these recommendations look like in practice, we have linked to examples of products that do it well and provide additional communications product analysis for further insights. An collection of additional communications product examples is available here.
Here’s why: Most people don’t need to be talked into caring about majestic scenery, clean water, and healthy trees, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum. But even though climate change threatens universally valued natural assets, the term itself is inescapably polarizing because it is portrayed as an ideological issue. And since it is difficult for people without a scientific background to understand the science behind climate change, they rely on political leaders to validate or refute the findings. Rather than rallying us to work together at a time when unity matters most, the term climate change tends to pull us apart.
Politics aside, many of the strategies promoted for climate mitigation, like carbon sequestration, or climate adaptation, like green infrastructure, require considerable explanation. Effective communication should focus on common ground issues, and mutually beneficial outcomes. If you root your messages in universal values and needs, you can make a more compelling case for adaptation actions intended to sustain the things we all care about in the face of changing environmental conditions, without specifying what’s driving those changes.
For example: Protecting clean water for drinking, timber for building homes, and open space for recreation
Supporting evidence: The research behind recommendation # 1
Here’s why: It’s tempting to assume that opposition to or apathy about climate change is rooted in ignorance. That assumption leads science communicators to try to educate audiences by citing all the facts. In fact, research indicates that ideology, social identity, and trust have much
greater influence on how people make sense of complex or controversial topics. That means an individual’s willingness to accept facts is incumbent upon his or her trust of, and respect for, the source of information. Ideally, you want to build this level of trust with your audiences, but that comes from repeated positive interactions over time. So if you are trying to initiate productive conversations about climate change with new audiences, find trusted scientific or natural resource experts in your community to offer evidence and testimonials.
For example: Wildland firefighters, Cooperative extension agents, county foresters, neighbors
Supporting evidence: The research behind recommendation # 2
Here’s why: It’s important to convey a sense of urgency about the immediate consequences of climate change because lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, species, and ecosystems are at stake.
We need to act now to address changes that are underway, and to reduce the impacts of threats on the horizon. But the goal of our messages should be to empower people to act, not to shame them into doing so. Focusing too much on causes may alienate people who may feel they are being judged for their personal contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of our individual carbon footprints, we’re all in this together. Everyone has a role to play in climate adaptation, and you can communicate that there are lots of ways for different people to take action in their communities, and lots of compelling reasons for them to do so.
For example: Flooding of roads, tree damage from invasive species, loss of food crops from drought
Supporting evidence: The research behind recommendation # 3
Here’s why: Shoptalk, acronyms, and abstract concepts can make people who are not part of the associated profession feel like outsiders. For certain audiences, jargon will be interpreted as a secret code or a red herring, intended to conceal or mislead. And some terms like “resilience”
can have different meanings in different contexts, making them sound vague or elastic. In general, technical language makes it harder for people to understand what you are trying to communicate. That wastes their time, and yours. Your messages should be clear, concrete, and accessible to anybody. Say what you mean in plain language, and engage audiences in dialogue rather than lecturing to them. Once you have established a rapport based on mutual understanding, you may find that some audiences will become more open to nuance and complexity.
For example: Say “land along rivers”, instead of “riparian zone”
Supporting evidence: The research behind recommendation # 4
In practice: Scenic Hudson’s web page Combating Climate Change: Building Clean Energy in the Hudson Valley. Read the communications product analysis here.
Here’s why: Climate change has an image problem, often associated with distant places like the Arctic Circle, and big data like the beleaguered hockey stick graph. Disconcerting? Certainly. Relatable? Nope. If we want people to care enough about climate change to act, we need to show them impacts that are closer to home, responses that are within reach, and role models who look like them. Climate Visuals, an evidence-based resource for climate communication, recommends depicting the following:
● Faces – Use photos that show individuals or small groups of people in real places or situations, experiencing or responding to a climate-change impact. Viewers should be able to read the emotions clearly on individual faces. For example: A family standing in front of their flooded home.
● Actions – Couple images of impacts with images that demonstrate measures that people can feasibly take in their own lives to respond to or prepare for climate change.
For example: A homeowner installing a rain garden.
● Before-and-after – Contrast is a powerful tool. Use images to illustrate a concept that is fundamental to climate change, but difficult to put into words: change over time. Show a familiar place before and after it was affected by dramatic impact. For example: Before and after a flood, drought, or invasive-species infestation.
● Scale – Although it is helpful to show climate response on a personal level, it’s not productive to show climate responsibility on a personal level. If you must talk about causes of climate change, zoom out to emphasize that it is a problem of scale. For example: Hundreds of fossil-fuel burning cars on a congested highway, not an individual driving his fossil-fuel burning car to the mall.
Supporting evidence: The research behind recommendation # 5
Remember: These recommendations are intended to complement your communication process, not to replace it, and not all recommendations will apply to every product or every audience. Take advice into account, but trust your gut. You know your audience better than we do.
This product was created by Bridget Macdonald and the Mass ECAN Climate Communications Expert Work Group, with input from Meaghan Guckian and Environmental decision-making lab at UMass for The Land Trust Alliance.