Su-Mei Thompson: Tackling the climate crisis will require a sustained sector-wide commitment

With a widening spectrum, from climate fatalists at one end to climate deniers at the other, how do charities gain the traction needed for collective action to tackle the crisis?

As Sir David Attenborough put in his record-breaking debut Instagram post last year: “Saving the planet is now a communications challenge.”

This was also evident from the Garfield Weston Foundation’s Prioritising our Planet report, which found that more than half of environmental organisations were struggling to communicate the scale and complexity of the crisis.

Last year Covid-19 dominated the news agenda, making it even more challenging for environmental charities to cut through.

So, with the COP26 climate summit being held in the UK this November, how do we jump-start the climate agenda?

What do charities need to consider when trying to shape the dialogue and influence different audiences?

And how can we ensure the communities most likely to be negatively impacted aren’t also the most under-represented?

The Media Trust has been doing a lot of thinking on these questions as we launched our Communicating Climate programme, which has been shaped by a fantastic advisory group comprising some of the UK’s leading thinkers in climate communications from the media and environment charities.

Here are their insights on how climate change communications should be shaped.

Keep the message simple

“Jargon doesn’t just fail to engage, it actively pushes people in the other direction,” says the communications charity On Road Media, which last year analysed comms research to discover which climate frames and stories work.

Sceptics have used (and in some cases abused) the presence of uncertainty in climate projections to argue that the science is not sufficiently settled to warrant policies to cut carbon or other green measures.

Having a clear and consistent message about where there is consensus makes a big difference to whether people see climate change as a problem that requires an urgent societal response.

It’s better to start communications with what we know, not what we don’t know – and to emphasise that the important question is “when”, not “if”.

Understand your audience

With political polarisation and inequality on the rise, creating a broad-based social mandate for climate action is a huge challenge.

The communications charity Climate Outreach is playing an integral role in helping people of all ages, faiths and sides of the political spectrum to understand climate change in ways that are relevant to them.

As the charity puts it, a great deal of existing climate change communication and campaigning speaks powerfully to a particular set of left-wing political values, but risks disenfranchising more right-leaning groups.

It’s therefore vital to understand how to strategically connect with people who hold different political perspectives.

Win the emotional argument

Compelling and relatable communications are needed to make climate change relevant to everyone.

Most people understand the world through stories and images, not PowerPoint decks, so it’s crucial to find ways of translating and conveying the science via more engaging formats.

According to the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, messages delivered as stories are up to 22 times more memorable than a set of facts.

Narratives structured as stories facilitate experiential processing, heightening affective engagement and emotional connection, which serve as an impetus for taking action.

We also need to acknowledge that too much doom and gloom, and a failure to make the issue feel local and relevant, will lead to inertia.

People respond better if they feel they have a stake in a transition to a more resilient, thriving and sustainable society.

Engage hard-to-reach communities

Lower-income and other disadvantaged groups are contributing the least to causing climate change, but are often likely to be the most negatively impacted by the effects and policies.

Recognising that the most impacted in society are likely to be the least represented in the narrative, we need to make every effort to reach, listen to and involve them, and to localise messaging and content while respecting culture and diversity.

The lack of representation of BAME climate voices and perspectives in the media and at climate events is concerning.

This is not a problem that has a quick-fix solution, but for charities looking for speakers drawn from BAME climate experts, campaigners and advocates in the UK, the Climate Reframe Project is a fantastic initiative and a good place to start.

Promote collaboration

Ahead of a year in which the UK will host COP26, civil society organisations are already showing willingness to collaborate. Acevo’s initiatives with respect to climate action are a great example of this.

The sector also needs to look outside itself to engage with media industry partners and to ensure we are leveraging the latest techniques around behavioural science and nudges to drive positive changes in attitudes and behaviours.

Tackling the climate crisis will require a sustained, sector-wide commitment to, and a willingness to embrace, more joined-up messaging and collective action. It will also take redoubled efforts to engage with the hardest to reach audiences and to give a voice to underrepresented communities.

Su-Mei Thompson is chief executive of the Media Trust

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