How do you communicate about climate change?

Here are some of my reflections taken from the Climate Change Communication seminar I took in my last year of graduate school. I am saving them here with hopes to share and build on them in the EECapacity Climate Change Education course I am currently enrolled in.

  • Above all else – be respectful; model respectfulness. Be honest and open about your objectives and approach. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Don’t be manipulative; be transparent and open. Build trust.
  • Don’t assume that people aren’t capable of learning, doing, or caring about something new. They are – and can. Acknowledge their abilities, qualities, achievements – and potential. People will go to the moon and back for things that are dear to them; if you can find a way to relate the issue to something they already care about, and if you can create a setting that allows chances for people to take meaningful action, they will be ready and willing to do the rest.
  • Strive to know your audience; make communication a conversation and not a one-way “transmission.” Be open to hearing what others have to say. When appropriate, acknowledge that you can learn a lot from them and their ways of thinking about an issue. Really try to understand where they are coming from – try to create fertile ground where new ideas, insights, and solutions sprout.
  • Strive for credibility, legitimacy and salience. Have trusted sources or be a trusted source (credibility); get to know your audience, or at least make an effort to incorporate stakeholders’ values (legitimacy); make the message as salient as possible (easy to understand).
  • Humans process all information cognitively and emotionally. Design communications with both kinds of processing in mind. This class has led me to having a more nuanced view of emotions as well as their place in communications. I have come to learn that (1) all information, no matter how objectively presented, is always processed emotionally to some extent; (2) it is sometimes okay, and sometimes even best, if the communicator gives some clues about how the recipient should feel about something (if you care about X, then you should feel concerned about Y); you can’t always assume that the recipients will make the connections themselves. It is not unreasonable to think that people sometimes prefer being told how information relates to what they care about. As an educator, I will always try to design communications with “emotion” or “value” aspects in mind (rather than treating them as if they are non-existent or not important).
  • Highlight the near and far; the tangible and the intangible. It is erroneous to assume that people only care about concrete things that are happening right here and right now. While it is important to focus on the small-scale (which, arguably, are not be focused on enough), highlighting both the small-scale (e.g., household actions) and large-scale (e.g., collective impact) aspects may actually be the most effective way to motivate action. Powerful communication aligns both.
  • Talk about the how and why. When addressing what can be done about climate change, don’t only give factual or procedural knowledge. Appeal to values and connect to them the bigger picture. I think of MLK giving his “I have a Dream” speech: What if he only talked about how to achieve civil rights, but not why?
  •  Provide a frame – or else the audience will apply one of their own. Smart framing can overcome traditional communication barriers. Audiences use framing to make sense of an issue; journalists use it to make appealing news reports; policymakers use frames to make decisions. If you don’t provide the frame, audiences will apply one of their own. The most effective frames are ones that are compatible with a person’s “mental model” (existing interpretation). Frames can be social, economic, moral, scientific, and more.
  • You never know what’s truly effective until you methodically and objectively evaluate it. You can’t assume that something worked without doing an evaluation; also, be wary of others who claim that their approach was effective but don’t have any data or evaluations to support what they’re saying. Risk communication is a very delicate process – evaluations will help you make sure that your approach is not doing more harm than good.
  • Make the process participatory. There is not a lot of research on them yet, but they seem to be a promising way to build relationships, foster a sense of “ownership” over the issues, give people in the community a chance to understand the constraints within which they are working, provide chances for citizens to gain technical competence, reduce conflicts, achieve satisfying outcomes, and so on. I look forward to reading more about how, why, and when to use participatory processes.
  • Don’t just read about communication theories – talk with others about it, and eventually get out there and practice it. It is one thing to study the theories about risk communication; it is an entirely different thing to discuss it with others (as we did in our seminar class). There is no substitute for a good conservation – especially one in which notions, beliefs, and ideas are challenged (and then modified/defended). Getting rigorous experiences with friends first is a great way to prepare yourself for work in the actual field.

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