Communicating Climate Change


Storm (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)


The aloof among us aside, you’ve probably noticed that the weather has gone rather haywire; unleashing unseasonable storms, droughts, temperatures and weather patterns across the globe. I suspect that some of us are enjoying the climate’s abnormality more than others.

Weather’s increasing temper-tantrums have generated a flurry of media coverage reflecting the overlays of fear and disempowerment that dominate much of our thoughts around climate change, with headlines spewing ominous warnings that suggest increasing velocity and imminence of Earth’s decay. Not a great motivator for behavior change.

In fact, much of way the media, scientists, and even environmental and community activists frame climate change serves as a huge morale deflator. Most discussions are framed with either a focus on how climate change impacts the natural world (which we continue to separate ourselves from although we are very much a part of it) or how we have failed and must prepare for the worst. A handful of headlines this week:

Those headlines – and certainly the content of the articles – don’t leave me feeling empowered to take on Goliath. What about you?

We remain mired in inaction because too few people outside of an existing cadre of the concerned have been persuaded that there is an urgent need to act, that climate change affects them, or that anything can be done. The vast majority of us oscillate between downright denial and capitulation to climate doom.

Climate change is a complex problem and for those of us who are interested in engaging the public in dealing with it, we need to start by changing the language that we use when we have the conversation. Climate Change rallies supporters, but is not good language in terms of respecting those who are on the fence about whether it exists. Saying that this is an environmental issue keeps the problem in the realm of “out there” and “separate from me and my experience.”

We need to build a narrative – through eye-catching film, storytelling, and anecdotes about the world around us – that renders the abstract, invisible nature of climate change into the tangible every-day experiences of people’s lives, local communities with the weather and the world around them. Remember that it is human stories, not greenhouse emission statistics, that capture people’s attention.

Project ASPECT recognizes that climate change communication has to-date engaged a narrow audience and stimulated limited public dialogue or action. Through digital storytelling, ASPECT explores how the wider public might connect to the climate change. The power of stories puts climate change into the context of our everyday lives – and provides an opportunity for reflection and re-framing of the way that we think about ourselves and the world around us.

If climate change is to become a real actionable concern, it must be removed from the abstract and made tangible so that it resonates with the culture and experience of communities. We need to frame it in the context of what matters, and move from that space.

While talking about the weather in the office, a colleague jokingly commented that the weather has severely limited our ability to enjoy time-honored traditional summer BBQs. All joking aside, it’s true and BBQs matter to people. So do rising asthma rates, increasing risk for flooded homes and the growing difficulties obtaining insurance for homeowners. These stories resonate because they are real. These are the conversations that we need to be having.

Shame, confrontation, demoralization and fear aren’t working. Perhaps it’s time we shift our approach – starting with stories that reverberate, turning the conversation to solutions, and reinstating quiet diplomacy to win over opposition. Over the next few months, I will be diving deeper into the realm of climate change communication – both what works and what doesn’t.

What do you think are some good principles of climate change communication and how are you putting them into practice?





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Shannon McGarry

Shannon McGarry, a Project Specialist at Campaign Consultation, Inc., was an environmental activist from age 7 when she organized neighborhood children to protest a housing development.  Her dedication to sustainable water & sanitation systems grew from her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Read More

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