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How Well are we Communicating Climate Change these Days?

by Tim Shah

Over the course of my internship with ACT, I learned about hundreds of communities around the world doing great work on climate mitigation and adaptation. These communities were quite diverse — from population size and demographics to geography and climate challenges — and many were using a range of policy tools to address climate change including market-based instruments and regulatory mechanisms. What was less common, I thought, was how such communities utilized communication tools to inform their populace about the risks of climate change and what can be done about it.

On communication, Adam Corner offers an insightful piece in the Guardian asking the very simple, yet indispensable question of “communicating climate change: where next?” Indeed, while we have made great strides in using instruments to address climate change  — from carbon taxes for mitigation to green infrastructure for adaptation — we tend to overlook the benefits of communicating its risks to foster greater awareness and alleviate the persistent inertia and skepticism that has crawled back in the last five years. Further, political priorities around economics — in light of the recession — have also contributed to the diminishing attention to climate change.

As Adam Corner writes “there has been no weakening of the scientific evidence that climate change – attributable to human activity – poses a range of serious risks. But there has been some weakening of the social consensus that is essential for meaningful action to minimize these risks”. Based on my previous work with ACT and my Master’s research at UBC, I couldn’t agree more with his take.

As Mr. Corner further elaborates, what was most problematic about the Climategate controversy out of the University of East Anglia, was not the impact it had on public opinion (evidently it has had no major impact on public opinion), but how it fomented a reluctance to engage climate scientists and science communicators.

Mr. Corner’s next question is: where next? This is a question I have as I wrap up my Master’s research on climate adaptation planning and as I prepare to enter my professional career where planners will have a role in facilitating the information from climate science to the general public.

Mr. Corner offers a series of ideas on how to better communicate climate change. For one, he argues that to catalyze on the politics of climate change — where he argues conservatives usually downplay it — we need to “identify the conservative values – perhaps security and belonging, or an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world – that chime with arguments for tackling climate change”.

Another recommendation is to ensure that climate change communication is subject to testing via empirical research. Empirical research can develop an idea of what communication techniques work well, and which ones need refining. Mr. Corner argues that such communication must be “synthesized and disseminated to people that need it”. Moreover, this information would need to bridge a number of professionals including climate scientists, planners, economists and science communicators to most effectively distribute the messages through a variety of mechanisms.

Scholars like Baruch Fischhoff and Nick Pidgeon argued for this approach in their 2011 paper in Nature. In short, what is perhaps needed most in the midst of this era of growing inertia is cross-disciplinary support about the impacts/risks of climate change, and cross-disciplinary communication about what can be done about this. This is no easy task, but such consensus and collaboration are the means to addressing the inertia and disengagement — from scientists and citizens alike — to mobilizing the very needed action on climate change that good communication can achieve.

Tim Shah worked as an Intern with ACT for over 8 months. He assisted with the release of the October 2011 report “Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance” and is co-author of ACT’s “Cross-Canada Checkup: A Canadian Perspective on Our Water Future” report. He is now Research Intern at the Pembina Institute.

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