28/07/2019

How To Talk Effectively About Climate Change

Scientific AmericanMax Boykoff

Our conversations have been stuck, but a new book lays out a number of ways to get them flowing productively
Credit: Getty Images
Lately, climate change has imposed itself on the public sphere. Through extreme events linked to changes in the climate, new scientific reports and studies, and rejuvenated youth movements (along with many other political, economic, scientific, ecological, meteorological and cultural events and issues) climate change has been increasingly difficult to ignore.
But you wouldn't really have picked up on that in the first round of the U.S. Democratic party primary debates that took place in Miami, Florida. As 20 candidates made their case to the American people, it was striking how minimally and shallowly they discussed climate change.
Sadly, this illustrates a contradiction we have been living with for some time. That is this: amid extensive research into the causes and consequences of climate change, climate communications—and thus, conversations about climate change in our lives—have remained stuck.
There are many reasons. Among them:
  • Climate change is still regularly treated as a single issue. This was clearly on display in the debates, and even during the paltry time devoted to surface-level discussions of climate change.
  • There has continued to be inadequate funding provided to support sustained and coordinated social science and humanities research into what constitutes more effective climate communications.
  • We have all been short on creativity, and we generally have stuck to ineffective climate communications approaches (e.g. merely scientific ways of knowing) as we muddle along.
Yet climate change is a collective action problem that intersects with just about every other area of life. It traverses critical issues such as public health, jobs, education, inequality, poverty, violence, trade, infrastructure, energy, foreign policy and geopolitics. While everyday people clearly have the capacity to care, they reasonably often focus on immediate concerns, such as issues of job security, local school quality, crime and the economy. In recent years, however, it has become more and more clear that these issues are interlinked with climate change.
So, in making these connections, we can more effectively get to the heart of how we live, work, play, find happiness and relax in modern life, shaping our everyday lives, lifestyles, relationships and livelihoods.
There has been an urgent need to improve communications about climate change at the intersections of science, policy and society. With that in mind, I wrote Creative (Climate) Communications. It is essentially a handbook that bridges sectors and audiences to meet people where they are on this critical 21st-century challenge. In the book I integrate research from the social sciences and humanities that has provided insights into better understanding what communications work, where, when, why and under what conditions.
I also examine how to harness creativity for more effective engagement. I integrate these lessons by assembling what I call features on a "road map" along with "rules of the road." The guide is then meant to help as researchers and practitioners proceed with both ambition and caution into struggles to effectively address the many issues associated with climate change.
Through this guidance, I seek to help maximize effectiveness and opportunities and minimize mistakes and dead ends in a resource-, energy- and time-constrained environment. In putting this together, I also emphasize that successful and creative climate communications strategies must be tailored to perceived and intended audiences and can be most effective when pursued through relations of trust. And I underscore that context is critical; cultural, political, social, environmental, economic, ideological and psychological conditions matter.
From synthesizing this work, I distill these lessons into some important "rules of the road."
  • Be authentic.
  • Be aware.
  • Be accurate.
  • Be imaginative.
  • Be bold.
From there, additional features on the road map help to navigate toward resonant and effective communications.
  • Find common ground on climate change.
  • Emphasize how climate change affects us here and now, in our everyday lives.
  • Focus on benefits of climate change engagement.
  • Creatively empower people to take meaningful and purposeful action.
  • "Smarten up" communications about climate change to match the demands of a 21st-century communications environment.
These rules and features can then help to meet people where they are in their everyday realities while opening up spaces for productive discussions and deliberations about climate change.
This approach can help to expand a spectrum of possibility for meaningful, substantive and sustained responses to contemporary climate challenges. Also, these "rules of the road" and the "road map" help make connections between climate change and other pressing issues that everyday people care about.
I also argue that an expanded approach involves processes of listening and adapting rather than winning and argument or talking people into something. Authentically considering other points of view fosters meaningful exchanges and enhances possibilities for finding common ground. Facts established through scientific ways of knowing about climate change are important, but they are not enough. We therefore need to enlarge considerations of how knowledge influences actions, through experiential, emotional, visceral, tactile, tangible, affective and aesthetic ways of learning and knowing about climate change.
Careful approaches informed by social sciences and humanities scholarship provide space and perspective for more authentic participatory engagement. They can overcome limited approaches and narrow mindsets that have blocked off these needed pathways. As a result, these approaches can then more effectively recapture what may be seen to be a "missing middle ground" on climate change in the public arena.
Through this systematic work, I hope we can better understand that a creative "silver buckshot" approach—in which different strategies are needed to reach different audiences in different contexts—will significantly improve creative climate communication efforts going forward. I hope my book catalyzes the ability of researchers, practitioners, decision-makers and everyday people to get more organized and steer our discussions and actions more productively.
As the Democratic primary debates illustrate all too well, we continue to miss opportunities to make deeper and more creative connections with climate change and related issues.

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