Improving climate change communications: moving beyond scientific certainty

The University of Nottingham has just blogged a great piece which reaffirms the challenge of engaging more effectively on the causes and effects of climate change and how to help people understand what they can do to mitigate and adapt to climate change now and in the future. My experience is this is a really tough thing to achieve. Unless somebody has direct experience of the effects of climate change (such as a flood, or heatwave or similar) they fail to believe it will have any effect in their lifetime.

Dr Pearce says: “Climate science draws on evidence over hundreds of years, way outside of our everyday experience. During the press conference, scientists attempted to supplement this rather abstract knowledge by emphasising a short-term example: that the decade from 2001 onwards was the warmest that had ever been seen. On the surface, this appeared a reasonable communications strategy.

“Unfortunately, a switch to shorter periods of time made it harder to dismiss media questions about short-term uncertainties in climate science, such as the so-called ‘pause’ in the rate of increase in global mean surface temperature since the late 1990s. The fact that scientists go on to dismiss the journalists’ concerns about the pause – when they themselves drew upon a similar short-term example – made their position inconsistent and led to confusion within the press conference.”

This short termism and, for want of a better expression, disbelief, meant it was incredibly difficult to engage decision makers, let alone the general public, in this debate. DEFRA, for the UK Government, has plenty of evidence and data about the causes and effects of climate change but they have been unable to help people understand what it means for them as individuals, communities, businesses.

Expertise in the field of social marketing does exist. The last Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ acknowledged this but was often met with a cynical ‘Big Brother’ stance. But look at the good work that has happened in the field of health (@divacreative) and climate change () as examples of where it does work – but you need to take a long term and sustained view to achieve it.

The full press release is here and a blog by Warren Pearce is here:

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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