"The more social sciences can be integrated into assessments of the causes and consequences of climate change, the better - because one of the biggest uncertainties in any climate model is human behaviour. To properly understand how the climate is changing, and how likely we are to keep its most dangerous effects in check, we need to understand it as a social and cultural challenge as much as a scientific one." - Adam Corner
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), commissioned Climate Outreach, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on climate change communication, to produce an evidence-based, practical communications handbook. With a focus on actionable tips and tailored specifically to IPCC scientists, this handbook is designed to serve as a resource for IPCC authors, as well as the wider scientific community, to engage audiences with climate change. The work builds on the body of knowledge and experience in climate science communication, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK) and other English-speaking countries, but the insights it contains are relevant for engaging communities in all regions of the world.
The handbook was published ahead of the IPCC's expected October 2018 release of its "Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C". Since 1988, the IPCC has overseen thousands of scientists pulling together tens of thousands of academic papers in a multi-layered process of expert assessment that takes place every six or seven years. As in the upcoming 2018 report, a set of carefully worded statements is approved by representatives of 120 of the world's governments, specifying what we know about challenges concerning climate change. One of the handbook's authors, Adam Corner, says of this undertaking, "until recently, it has been woefully underserved on the crucial issue of communicating its findings beyond specialist scientific and policy circles. And partly as a result of this, the organisation has historically been saddled with a reputation for being dry, bureaucratic and secretive." In speaking to one of the focal points of the handbook, he continues: "By and large, scientists are highly trusted because of their independence, specialist expertise, and credibility. But trust is also about speaking authentically, as a relatable individual, with personal experiences and perspectives (not just a compelling grasp of the data). Who are the IPCC scientists? What are their stories? What is involved in an IPCC process at a human level?"
Writers of IPCC reports must contend with the fact that climate science is filled with uncertainties, a notorious stumbling block for communicating with non-scientists. For some, the topic can seem abstract and intangible. For others, the abstract statistics that define the climate discourse can feel distant from their day-to-day experiences. In some nations, the issue is politically polarised; in others, the absence of a public and political discourse is the problem. The purpose of this handbook is to offer guidance to IPCC scientists on how to make public engagement at key moments in the climate change calendar such as the release of IPCC reports as impactful, effective, and evidence-based as possible.
In short, this handbook is premised on the conviction that it is possible to communicate climate science in a way that makes that message easier for non-scientific audiences to understand, and makes it more relevant to their lives and experiences.
The handbook captures key research findings from the social science literature and relates them to specific examples and situations a communicator might face. It is organised around discussion of 6 principles. In brief:
- Be a confident communicator: Scientists are generally highly trusted. By using an authentic voice, you can communicate effectively with any audience.
- Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas: Although they define the science and policy discourse, the "big numbers" of climate change (global average temperature targets and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide) don't relate to people's day-to-day experiences. Start your climate conversation on common ground, using clear language and examples your audience is more likely to be familiar with.
- Connect with what matters to your audience: Research consistently shows that people's values and political views have a bigger influence on their attitudes about climate change than their level of scientific knowledge. Connecting with widely shared public values, or points of local interest in your communication and engagement makes it more likely that your science will be heard.
- Tell a human story: Most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs, so aiming for a narrative structure and showing the human face behind the science when presenting information will help you tell a compelling story.
- Lead with what you know: Uncertainty is a feature of climate science that shouldn't be ignored or sidelined. Focus on the "knowns" before the "unknowns", and emphasise where there are areas of strong scientific agreement around a topic.
- Use effective visual communication: Choosing images and graphs is just as important to do in an evidence-based way as verbal and written communication. The Climate Visuals project and guidance from the Tyndall Centre are examples of tools that explain how to communicate effectively in the visual medium.
"Keep it human and visual, says U.N. guide to talking climate", by Zoe Tabary, Reuters, February 9 2018; Climate Outreach website; "Communicating the Science Is a Much-needed Step for UN Climate Panel", by Adam Corner, The Guardian, January 30 2018; and IPCC website - all accessed on March 7 2018; and email from Leane de Laigue to The Communication Initiative on March 9 2018. Image caption/credit: "Texas National Guard soldiers help victims of Hurricane Harvey in the United States." Photo: Staff Sgt. Tim Pruitt