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Climate communications can be more effective. Here’s how.

June 15, 2023 #Insights
Climate communications can be more effective. Here’s how.
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The efficacy of our climate communications could make or break our response to the climate emergency. Drawing on her experience in environmental communications strategy, Amy Hemingway highlights our current challenges and how they can be overcome.

“The people intended to be served by these policies are subjects of research and objects of government action. They are not direct participants in the self-governance that should be their birthright in a democracy.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter

When I read these words in Cast From Clay’s series “The Remould”, I was transported back to 2003 when I helped open the National Constitution Center. A key grand opening theme was, naturally, “We the People.” It was a reminder that, more than 200 years later, the U.S. Constitution is for all citizens.  

Here we are 20 years post-opening, and we have repeatedly seen policymakers and experts lose sight of this fact on matters of major importance to citizens, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

Climate and environmental communications are one example of this. They often miss the mark with respect to not just reaching the broader public, but inspiring and motivating involvement. No clearer is this when the Conference of Parties (COP) comes around each year. The critics shout “elitist” and “exclusionary,” though the experts there purport to be laying people-centered plans. 

Therein lies a tension between policies and people – one that communications can make or break. Also in “The Remould” series, former Director of Chatham House Sir Robin Niblett says tackling such persistent social problems requires a “whole-of-society effort.” Pressuring companies, as many NGOs do, is useful; but we can go so much farther if more people had information, inspiration and incentive.

As optimism is an implicit tenet of any democracy, I believe that climate and environmental communications is just getting started on unlocking the holy grail of our times: getting people to care right now about the future of humanity with regard to planetary health and social equality.

Sir Niblett continued, “When large groups act together, we might see progress on climate, on sustainable development, or making our societies and economies more inclusive and equal.” In functioning democracies, political leaders feel unable to take a lead on sustainable development with no critical mass for change – so let’s change that.

Overcoming the challenges of our climate and environmental communications

The major challenges with our current approaches to communicating about climate issues are well-known, but let’s summarise them:

1. Scale: The issues at hand are complex and abstract, thus difficult for people to understand and relate to their daily lives. People may feel overwhelmed and powerless to make a difference, leading them to disengage or tune out. Communicators need to make the message personal, relatable and tangible with specific stories and real-world data. 

2. Polarisation: The issues are often politicized, with people rejecting evidence or facing policies that don’t align with their values. Identifying shared values is a worthwhile exercise to help depoliticize the issues and make them more accessible to a broader audience.

3. Fear: Communications is often negative and fear-based, focusing on the dire consequences across issues, such as extreme weather events and sea-level rise. Rather than focusing on what we stand to lose, people are more likely to respond to positive solutions for a better here and now, as well as a better future.

4. Representation: Communications also lacks diversity and inclusion of important voices, leading to a lack of representation and participation from marginalized communities. Communicators can increase impact by amplifying diverse voices, engaging with communities, and ensuring that solutions and policies are designed with equity in mind.

You already knew all this – they’re table stakes. Moreover, simply calling the task at hand “complex” and “multi-faceted” overlooks that every layer of humanity has been driven to do hard things over centuries. We can overcome these, and many already are.

But there’s more. We must also tackle structural – and even more provocative – impingements on effective climate outreach.

Tackling some underlying barriers to effective climate communications

Let’s discuss lesser-exposed barriers in climate and environmental communications, and put some practical solutions on the table. 

We need to: 

1. Reconcile competing agendas for the public

Competing interests, instead of the public interest, are often at play in our climate communications. Research by the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) found that “policy incoherence” and “too little attention to collaboration” are fundamental barriers to sustainable development in democracies. 

It rings true in climate and the environment. When I worked with the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, or Ocean Panel, I always thought that the people we want to care about the ocean must be totally confused by the competing agendas across the world. One of these is the Ocean Panel’s own agenda to sustainably manage 100% of waters under national jurisdiction; another is the 30×30 effort to protect 30% of the planet’s land and ocean.

Both are time bound goals to 2030. Both have many countries duplicating their support. But how is the public to know whether the goal should be 100% or 30% or both or neither? It requires nuanced discussions, which rarely reach the public.

On one hand, I am encouraged whenever our most precious natural gifts like forests and the ocean get love on the international stage, especially with the endless complex problems in search of solutions. But the people who will actually benefit from positive actions to address climate and environmental concerns shouldn’t settle for confusing and competing messages and asks. We can do better.

People shouldn’t settle for confusing and competing messages and asks. We can do better.

This is not just a communications problem. Naturally, there are different opinions about how to achieve similar goals. These goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive; both ocean initiatives are ultimately working towards the same goal of protecting the planet’s ecosystems and ensuring a sustainable future. At some point, however, their visions diverge and compete in the public eye. 

If we can’t change the competing agendas at the top, how can we get people to see past the competition and care? Can competing organizations with similar north stars work together to build consensus around what is most important for the public to know and go from there? Can they shed their ulterior motives and focus on the topics at hand like the ocean, forests and nature instead of self-interests? It will require compromise, but with the promise of more resonant engagement, action and impact. 

What does this look like? 

Foundations have a role to play. Not so much more than companies, NGOs and think tanks, but they can show up differently. They can help a wide range of entities find common ground, not too much unlike how business associations operate, but with a laser focus on the common good, not the bottom line. 

FDSD agrees with the concept, noting that “Independent institutions in democratic systems are one way to reduce short-term bias, bringing the concerns and implications of the long-term, future generations and sustainable development into decision-making.”

As Anne-Marie Slaughter said, reconciling competing interests requires us to create “flotillas of action” for climate and environmental priorities. It is necessary that the desired impact, goals, objectives and communications modes are agreed, but then the interested parties take on a different role, such as on an advisory committee. 

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, long aware of the ocean’s importance, funds a flotilla called OneOcean, made up of many ocean-focused programs and hubbed in a communications firm. It is a noble effort with dedicated resources, but it lacks a modern and effective communications approach. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Modernize our approach to communications

Foundation funding needs to go to neutral parties like strategic communications firms suited to bring a modern and effective approach to reaching wider audiences.  

To me, the gold-standard would completely re-orient the communications function of climate and environmental initiatives as a newsroom that – in an always-on, outside-in, beat-focused, research-informed, and timely and creative manner – monitors and analyses how trends in coverage and conversation match or don’t match key messages, diversifies content to share those messages, and seizes opportunities to do so. 

The newsroom is not just about traditional news; it’s integrated across online and face-to-face engagement as well, among a host of other untapped communications opportunities. The most important thing is having a framework that allows there to be a singular, resonant message and flexibility to promote and respond as the plan – or the moment – requires. 

3. Invest more in climate communications

The challenges of achieving this approach brings me to another lesser-exposed problem: Donors and funders often have extremely high expectations for programs reaching people, inspiring action and changing behaviors, and achieving great impact, yet they don’t fund them like they mean it. 

I speak from experience both as a communications consultant at a large firm and a communications lead at a research institution. In general, climate and environmental communications have historically received less funding and resources than other areas of communications and advocacy. 

Underfunding can be attributed to a range of factors, including: the perception that the issue is not a priority for the public or decision-makers; and the complexity and uncertainty of the science and policy surrounding climate change. We already know we can overcome these challenges and the signs are encouraging in terms of addressing the table stakes. 

Funders often have extremely high expectations for programs achieving great impact, yet they don’t fund them like they mean it. 

That said, I can tell you one reason this fully-integrated newsroom approach has not taken hold in the climate and environmental spaces: it can be costly to set up an effective newsroom to reach a wider audience. It’s worth it: it would be not only more efficient, but more likely to have an impact if the agenda-setters pool their resources to make it happen and continue to steer via committee. 

Foundations and philanthropists can and should reorient their funding around key topics with a vision for modern, effective communications. And they can direct it to consulting partners who are neutral on the matters. We can serve as change agents and consensus builders, help define the desired impact, conduct research to inform strategy, craft the narratives and key messages, create content, and assume distribution and measurement thereof.  

4. Champion integrated media coverage to elevate climate messaging 

Media has an active role to play. Author, journalist, and climate and environmental communicator Nicholas Walton wrote, “Environmental impacts, big and small, and awareness of them, are so universal now that most decent stories are in one way or another environmental. Report them as such!” 

In other words, climate and environmental stories are often confined to the environment and climate sections of news outlets, which can limit their reach to a broader audience. We need to find them in health and well-being, sports, style, art, food, travel and business. By highlighting the ways in which climate and environmental issues affect these different areas of life, news outlets and reporters can help to engage a wider audience and raise awareness of the urgent need for action.

This is a call for foundations and other philanthropists to seize the opportunity to advance climate and environmental priorities and democratize those interests without egos or political agendas. Because I don’t believe that people care whether it’s Nature Conservancy or World Resources Institute or Norway or Brazil or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos that is leading environmental and climate awareness efforts. I believe they want to know why it matters to them and that something is getting done. 

In a recent survey of civil servants, one said that, in an environment of expediency, “Anything that is meaningful and impactful doesn’t have the assurance of longevity.” We can change that when we set up flotillas with strong frameworks for success, countering the short-termism that defines most democracies and the resulting policies.     

All in all, participation and considered judgment, in which people are adequately informed and understand positions, are key principles of democracy that are hard to achieve, especially on climate and environmental issues. Unleashing the potential of the above opportunities are imperative to giving us a chance.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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