Communicating climate change: righting past wrongs

Last December I had the great opportunity to partake in the 24th UNFCCC Conference of Parties held in Katowice, Poland.
I travelled alongside the Walker Institute as an observer to the COP process. The Walker Institute, based at the University of Reading, develops interdisciplinary research to support the development of climate residence societies in Low Income Countries. In partnership with the SCENARIO Doctoral Training center, since 2016 Walker has been running the COP Climate Action Studio. This programme enables motivated doctoral students to gain access to COP in a supported, dedicated environment, both remotely and in situ. I was among the lucky ones that could experience the conference firsthand.
This has been one of the most compelling experiences. The fascinating people I met there have ignited my motivation to join the so needed action to address this intergenerational and environmental crisis.
I would like to share with you the thoughts I gathered at COP around one really hot topic: communicating Climate Change. We have been doing it wrong and too little. Now it is the time to be effective and pervasive. How?
I originally wrote the following blog for the COP CAS website.

The IPCC special report on 1.5 C made it crystal clear: the next few years will be the most crucial. With our actions from now on to 2030 we have the chance to either arrest global warming to a reasonably safe level (namely, the 1.5 degree warmer than pre-industrial levels) or press the accelerator on the crisis. The practical pathways to a carbon-neutral and thriving society are within our reach, but as time is short the effort required will be “unprecedented”. That’s why “every choice and every action” will matter.

At the special IPCC event at COP 24 in Katowice, the Chair of the IPCC called for an escalation in global climate action. I have never heard a disruptive call-to-action coming from a panel of distinguished scientists, and this was extremely powerful to watch. Each viable option to limit to 1.5 C requires everyone’s engagement, but how do we do this? How do we reach all the many people still unaware or uninterested? Resonating across the crowded rooms of the conference, a solution to this long-standing dilemma of inclusion reached many ears: communication is the missing ingredient.

The story of past failed climate change communication is fascinating: the reality of human-made climate change is a fact established since the late 1980s, yet the public only started to be involved properly in the discussion in the beginning of 2000s. This initially led to a lot of early distrust and ‘climate skepticism’ amongst groups of people. However today statistics from developed countries do show that a large majority of people believe the science and are convinced that not only is climate change happening, but that it is also a huge threat. Despite this ‘acceptance’, only a minority takes personal action. (See this example of a survey in 2018)

So, why do we live in this divorce between knowledge and action? At a workshop on constructive journalism – targeted at young journalists and wannabe communicators like me – we tried to tackle this question.

We first looked into how information about climate change has been historically presented by mainstream media. It boils down to a long list of Oops! The narratives have numbered quite a few: for example ‘every little counts’, the polar bear-extinction argument or catastrophism. A prominent example of the latter is Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. The trailer of which, can be easily mistaken for the Hollywood film “The day after tomorrow”. The images of natural disasters are just too big for people to handle and imagine as their reality. We are left puzzled and powerless.

All in all, the main reasons behind past communications failures appear to be the following two: “it was doomy and gloomy, while providing no accessible solutions” and “it felt distant, because it was never about the people”.

So what do we need to do to remedy these past failures? There are three main things which were suggested as ways of engaging and empowering audiences:

  1. Stories about people matter. Telling stories in the context of human experiences will help to make it more relevant and grab people’s attention.
  2. Pairing information with action. Just presenting negative facts will make the reader feel discouraged and powerless, but by pairing information with action, the whole picture changes. It’s important to providing people with both scale-matching solutions to the problem (e.g. transition to renewables to cut global emissions) and individually achievable and immediate actions (e.g. fly less, eat less meat), help to empower and engage.
  3. Make it pervasive. Climate change will impact on us all, so by including it more in everyday discussions about everyday things, we will make it more real and less of a taboo subject to a lot of people.

The formidable leap we are about to take requires the understanding, help and collaboration of us all. We cannot underestimate the role of a well informed and active local communityin addressing this human-caused yet human-solvable global livelihood crises. Good communication and engagement between us all will help us to drive effective global action.

“We must make it a lot simpler for people to act climate-friendly, and we need to tell better stories that create a longing and a vision for where we want to go for a low-carbon society: it’s fun, it’s smart, it’s more conducive to human interactions. And finally, we need signals so we know that we’re actually bending the curve, so we know that we’re doing something personally relevant.”                                                                                         P. E. Stoknes [1], in an interview in 2016.


[1] P. E. Stoknes is a is a Norwegian psychologist, author of the book “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action” (2015)]

Recycling plastic bags won’t stop climate change

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending the recording of the 70th anniversary of the BBC Radio 4 programme “Any questions?” in the House of Commons (podcast available here) where a panel of guests were asked pre-selected questions by the studio audience. To mark the special occasion and look towards the future of the programme, all the members of the panel and the studio audience were aged under 30. Given this, the first question for the panel was: “Will our generation be the one to finally take decisive action on climate change?”. As a member of the Mathematics of Planet Earth CDT, I was intrigued. The first answers from the panel included an insightful remark from Jordan Stephens, a member of hip-hop duo Rizzlekicks, suggesting the problem is posed incorrectly. He pointed out that people always say we’re saving the planet, but actually the planet will survive and what we’re doing is saving ourselves. The last person to answer the question was Conservative MP Tom Pursglove. His response was to talk about personal responsibility, the need to cut down on litter, and the current government’s policy on cutting the use of plastic bags and micro plastic beads.

Figure 1:  Committee Room 14, the location of the programme and, incidentally, where the results of the Conservative Party no confidence vote concerning Theresa May were announced exactly two months later. Source: Wietze Beukema

To put it in context, this debate came two days after the publication of the IPCC report stating that even if we meet current pledges to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the world is still heading towards 3°C of warming over pre-industrial levels by 2100. According to the report, to limit warming to 1.5°C (the limit defined in the Paris climate agreement) would require an annual average investment in the energy system of around $2.4 trillion. Hence, it is predominately the energy sector including energy generation and usage in transport and industry (and arguably the agricultural sector) that needs to change. On the other hand, recycling plastic bags or even cutting plastic waste entirely has no real meaningful impact on climate change and it is important to be aware of the differences between the two issues. Plastic waste is clearly a huge environmental issue; just look at the massive plastic islands in the ocean. Animals can get trapped in packaging or die from ingesting plastic. Moreover, it would be unfair not to mention a recent study from the University of Hawaii, which suggests that decaying plastic may result in methane emission into the atmosphere. However, compared to the contribution from burning fossil fuels, that of plastic waste is insignificant.

Figure 2:  A vast mass of plastic stretching for miles in the Caribbean Sea. Source: BBC

By confusing the two issues of plastic waste and climate change, we can think that by solving one, we are also solving the other. In fact, in a recent article in the BBCGuy Singh-Watson, a green campaigner and founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, argued that “the almost religious fervour – of some of our customers in (being) anti-plastic can actually create problems…The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change – and anything that distracts attention from that is potentially dangerous.” I would argue further that the problem is in fact worse because people think that by reducing their use of plastic, they are also helping to slow down climate change. By coincidence, a week after attending the recording of ‘Any questions?’, I listened to the podcast “Sept Milliards de Voisins” where they discussed the possibility of living without plastic (podcast available here in French). The presenter asked Bruno Tassin, Director of Research at l’Ecole des Ponts Paris-Tech and a specialist in dealing with plastic in the environment, how much plastic waste contributes to climate change. Tassin explained that although plastic usage does result in greenhouse gas emission, this is mainly when the oil to make plastic is extracted and refined. This is a common problem with resources (see a previous article (How renewable are renewables really) on this topic). The fact the presenter asked the question is another example of a respected public figure getting confused between the two separate issues of plastic waste and climate change.

The most concerning aspect of this climate change misconception in the “Any questions?” debate was that it was coming from an MP who is from my generation, and young enough to have been taught about climate change at school. I am not trying to make a political point. The response from the Labour MP on the panel, Danielle Rowley, was a very open meaningless statement that Labour “are committed to being a lot stronger on tackling climate change” without any specific strategy or commitments. I’m sure many MPs across the political spectrum also think that recycling and reducing waste has some impact on climate change. Perhaps more shockingly, some of them, including Graham Stringer MP, a member of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, do not believe that climate change is man-made (see article in the Independent). Whilst this is disheartening, we should use this as motivation to be better informed than those in power, which is not difficult!

To return to the original question, about whether our generation will indeed be the one to take decisive action on climate change, my honest answer would have to be, I hope so but it is by no means certain. Unfortunately, the recent IPCC report emphasises that if we leave it to the next generation, it will be too late. I remain optimistic that, as the people educated about climate change at school begin to take positions of power, they will take more meaningful action. From the admittedly small sample audience present at the “Any questions?” recording, it was clear that my generation care about mitigating climate change. However, in order to do this, it is important that we keep ourselves well informed about the issues and keep our eye on the main goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are plenty of ways to do this, including many suggested in the recent IPCC report, such as eating less meat, buying a fuel efficient (or electric) car or travelling by train instead of flying. So please, continue to reduce your plastic use, but don’t think this means you are taking action on climate change.