In a recent issue of Mother Jones an American professor was quoted as saying that getting behaviour change from climate change communication is close to impossible: no matter how much you do personally to reduce your carbon foot print, you will not witness the impact of your actions. Beyond the small number of convinced activists who know better than to expect an immediate carrot for their mitigation efforts, wide-scale change in behaviour will require other drivers. So what would it take to ensure climate change communication is not just a shot in the dark?

As a communication planner I begin by defining the audience groups. I see a range of people, starting with the “deniers” who are not listening, to the “sympathetic” who may not be tuned-in very often, to the “convinced” who only act on it at times, and finally the “champion-activists”. People of all walks of life may fit into these categories: politicians, scientists, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, those in the private sector, farmers, artists, etc. (many could wear several ‘hats’). This continuum of audience groups is preliminary and intuitive. I further suspect that individuals shift along the continuum on a regular basis, so these audience groups are dynamic. The shifts may happen in private life but not at work, depending on multiple influences – every combination is possible.

There are plenty of incentives and influences at play, and they probably behave as a system. I call them ‘drivers’ for ease of reference. These drivers can contribute to a shift upward or downwards. For instance a temporary price drop in gasoline will reverse conservation behaviours. At the same time there are drivers that consolidate our identification with a group: we witness a powerful video that confirms our fears about global warming and it reinforces our position. Climate change communication can begin by clarifying the meaning of words like mitigation and adaptation. The details can be daunting: mitigation is about reducing the causes of climate change (using your bicycle more often), while adaptation is about adjusting to our changing environment (protecting your house from flooding from more intense rain; change your planting dates and varieties).

We know little about the drivers; yet we will need to understand them better to decide which ones we try to manage and shape, and which ones we only map out and make evident. There is no linear cause-effect relationship between a driver and behaviour change because the system we are working with is complex, turbulent and unpredictable. Many factors are at play and new issues arise; these can hardly be predicted. And yet, there is room for concerted action. A question to test is the following: While shifts upwards in the continuum (from deniers towards activists) cannot be engineered, can the “scene be set” to awaken each groups’ antennae? In other words, the outcome to strive for is a citizen willing and able to make sense of the situation and act on it.

The system of drivers is massive; we are immersed in it. We swim in a sea of…prices of what we buy and sell, changing regulations, constant media reports on climate, on energy, on food, on trade. Add to that what we feel and sense: a shockingly warm winter night while on the background the radio announces floods and droughts… The media barrage cannot and will not stop. But if we look at our audience list, very few are tuned in; many are un-sensitized, at best overwhelmed. They are not in a teachable moment!

The idea of probable scenarios has emerged in climate change and international development circles. I have a growing collection of reports using scenarios that are described through rich narratives. They are often story based, with characters we can identify with. Some include sample news headlines from the future. As you read them you can ‘see the movie’ in your head. Scenario making is not just art; it is also a detailed planning tool. The different possible futures are based on carefully selected sets of variables that we know may shift. It allows us to imagine, what would a farming system look like if variable “a” (price of oil) stayed low, but variable “b” (average minimum temperatures) went up? The variables and the scenarios must be real. They need to flag a range of plausible situations that could arise in the short term. They need to awake that fact that we are ill prepared to adjust to them. This awakening is a necessary first step towards action.

In the Dag Hammarsijöld Foundation “What Next” publication (2006) a number of scenarios were described as if in a short novel. A panel of experts helped prepare each scenario. Each one gives the reader a context in which to imagine how one would function in a probable future. By providing a vivid context, readers begin to make connections with their own experience, and their own hunches about the future. Since stories often stay vivid in one’s mind, the odds are that some of our antennae become live. The story becomes the Velcro - you begin tuning in.

If you are thinking Augusto Boal you are already ahead of me. Indeed theatre, and especially popular theatre, has worked towards social change on similar principles. Putting climate change communication on stage: a play about hedging your bets. You will see people like yourself in probable situations in the near future, you will identify with the bold decisions of some, and with reluctance to change of others. You may consider thinking differently as you watch - without saving face. However, one way or the other the seed will have been planted: sometime soon you too will be ‘on stage’, with some form of mitigation and adaptation happening that you better plan for. The media will do the rest…as climate change is upon us. While it will be difficult to measure the impact of the play, this approach may hold more promise (and be more fun) than more infomercials, expert presentations, and slogans on the wall.

For now this is just a hunch, but the odds are that out there someone may already have an example to share.

Ricardo Ramírez (with thanks to Wendy Quarry for editorial feedback)