Changing the climate change conversation

About the author

Vickie Cox prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignmnent while studying with PR Academy

Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash
Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

Climate change is one of the biggest issues we will face in our lifetime. It needs tangible action, and it needs to happen now. But are we failing to communicate it effectively? 

News headlines create a sense of urgency like a ticking time bomb that only humans can defuse. It is an urgent matter but could scare tactics such as running out of time be causing inaction rather than meaningful change? 

The issue

Vickie Cox
Vickie Cox

Last summerI attended a conference dedicated to exploring how business can tackle climate change. Among many things, it highlighted the negative perception of how the issue is being communicated.  

A panel of media experts responsible for reporting climate change was clear on how the story should be told. 

Nicole Itano, executive director of Television for the Environment, says businesses need an emotional appeal when sharing their stories about tackling climate change. BBC sustainability manager, Richard Smith, backed up the sentiment. He shared that the balance for tone is challenging, but that climate change is a human-interest story. The aim of sharing these stories is to translate the desire for change into action. 

The public perception of climate change and consequential attitude 

In August 2018, a news story by environmental media outlet, Edie, cited report on climate change that aroused public interest. The two key messages were1. The Earth’s climate path was dangerously affected by excessive emissions and 2. Human activity was responsible. For most of us, these messages are not new. However, that summer devastating forest fires and heatstroke caused by higher than average temperatures were claiming human lives and suddenly the message was resonating, the public was listening. 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has been tracking public attitude to key issues such as climate change since 2012. In April 2018 levels of concern about climate change were at 74% and iMarch 2019, concern levels rose to 80%. 

However, in March 2020 the numbers went down slightly. Concern about climate change dropped to 76% yet by June 2020 the numbers had risen again, revealing that 81% of the public is concerned about climate change.  

These statistics show public concern is alive, but it fluctuates, and the reason behind their feelings appears to be fear. 

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a human instinct, but its overuse in the climate change conversation suggests little evidence of consequential positive action. A reason for this could be information deficit, a theory that scientific evidence is not being effectively translated. 

Leading by listening 

Stephen Covey, renowned theorist and speaker on leadership, once said ‘‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. A basic yet fundamental notion in successfully creating behaviour change with a global-scale issue such as climate change.  

Currently, climate change communication is a linear exchange from the speaker to the media outlet to the consumer. If the speaker does not understand their audience, then the message will not be received, and no action will happen. 

By adopting a feedback loop between the speaker and the receiver, such as the Osgood-Schramm communication process model, the message can be measured based on how it is has resonated with the receiver, e.g. has it encouraged action? 

Devoting time to understand the audience allows for a more influential message that will encourage action. This also gives the speaker more gravitas in being part of the conversation for climate change. 

What does the conversation currently look like? 

During global lockdowns instigated by Coronavirus, emissions trackers were recording substantial drops in greenhouse gases. Media outlets and the public were sharing this data and, perhaps most compellingly, images of clearer skies, vehicle-free roads, clearer rivers, and wild animals in areas normally occupied by humans. 

In May 2020, the BBC, among others, produced news reports about the positive results but also used it as an opportunity to keep the pressure on to meet net zero. It is these updates and more optimistic outlooks from the media that appear to have kept the climate change, or climate emergency, on the agenda.  

The panel of media professionals at the net zero conference questioned the terminology ‘climate emergency’ because of its panicinducing status. 

This term has worked well for climate activist group, Extinction Rebellion (XR). As their name indicates, their tactics rely on disruptionCampaign activity included shutting down central London as activists took to the streets. Shutdowns went nationwide, proving the message had resonatedXR consistently makes the headlines, sometimes for the wrong reasons, but has it inspired meaningful changeIt has certainly raised awareness and devised opinions, but thus far, there is no positive assessment of their success for tangible action. 

Place-Based Climate Action Network has a different approach. The non-government organisation focuses on the disconnect between policymaking and individual action. It is a softerlocal-scale approach, sharing achievable examplesIt seems sensible, and there are helpful resources, but I had never heard of them until finding them in a search. They certainly do not have the same impact as XR, and it is hard to tell if a more positive, optimistic outlook is inspiring the action needed. Perhaps they are not telling their story well enough or perhaps there is no appetite within the media to share this tone of story after all? 

So, where do businesses come into the climate change conversation? 

In special report about brand trust post-COVID, the Edelman Trust Barometer reports 70% of respondents feel trusting a brand is as important as ever. It also states 74% of respondents feel a brand’s societal impact is why trust has become so important. 

This sentiment is backed up in RepTrak’s 2020 Global RepTrak report, which highlighted the importance of sustainability leadership as a purpose to resonate with customers.  

Brands are in a favourable position to communicate climate change, so long as they are genuine, authentic and have the evidence to back up their actions. 

This is the opportunity to influence behaviour change and encourage the public to act rather than just be aware. But is the media ready for businesses to use their influential voices to present the story in an optimistic and achievable way?  

To do this will require sharing stories that evoke emotion and are human-centric, both in the core of the story and the way the story is communicated. The situation demands urgencybut not fear.  

Climate change communication should empower the public and implement the meaningful change that is talked about but too rarely acted on.