UK Chief Scientific Advisor calls for better climate change communication

Contributor: Will Bugler

The grand surroundings of the British Medical Association’s central London headquarters played host to the University of Reading Walker Institute’s Annual Lecture earlier this month. The focus of the 2014 lecture was ‘communicating climate science’; a topic that has attracted increasing scrutiny as political and public scepticism continues to belie the strong scientific consensus on climate change.

The question of how to communicate climate change in a way that is most likely to resonate with people is of growing interest to many scientists and decision-makers who feel that the scale of the practical response to climate change does not match the urgency that is demanded by the science.

Addressing the question of whether climate change communication has been a success, this year’s lecture, given by the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, started with the somewhat surprising fact that when asked, people in the UK said that they felt more informed about climate change than any other area of science.

This sits in contrast to Sir Mark’s later slides that showed concern about climate change was falling. Polling conducted by Ipsos Mori, showed that 80% of people said they were concerned about the impacts of climate change in 2005, only 60% were in 2013. It also found that only Americans are less likely than the British to think that climate change is caused by human activity (albeit by a clear 10 percentage points; 54% vs 64% respectively).

Cause for concern

These figures come as some surprise considering the number of extreme weather events that have wreaked havoc in the UK and around the world. People are hearing the messages on climate change, but they are not being won over: “There is a difference between being informed, and understanding the implications of the message”, said Walport.

This disconnect poses considerable cause for concern for climate scientists who, while generally reluctant to go beyond reporting the findings of their scientific endeavours, are being increasingly vocal about the lack of action on climate change.

Another interesting finding highlighted by Sir Mark was that public concern over specific climate-related events is closely tied to very recent experience. The chart below shows public perception of the frequency of specific extreme weather events in the UK.

The poll was taken in February 2013 after the UK had seen a reasonably cold winter, follow the wettest summer for 100 years in 2012. The results show that people’s attitudes strongly reflect recent weather patterns. Considering that the UK had suffered a severe drought in 2011, it also appears that impressions of weather trends are highly unstable.

Trusting the message

Thankfully much of Professor Walport’s lecture was focused on unpicking the problems associated with the current climate change discourse, rather than ploughing the familiar furrow of highlighting the gap between public understanding and the scientific reality.Sir Mark identified a number of reasons why climate communicators, whether scientists, journalists, politicians, or from the private sector, have been getting it wrong.

1) Trust 

Professor Walport identified trust as a major issue that determined whether people believed what they were told on climate change. People placed greater trust in climate scientists than any other source of information. This, Walport argues, puts a clear responsibility on climate scientists to actively engage in the public discourse on climate change.

However, Sir Mark asserts that the issue of trust goes beyond the ‘who’ and also concerns the ‘what’. That is to say, it is just as important what is being said as who is saying it. “People generally have low levels of trust in journalists” Walport explains, “but do people trust journalists to tell them the football scores? Of course, they do. Political controversy over climate change makes trust around this issue much more complex”.

His point here shows that more effort has to be made to build trust, not only in the messenger but also in the message. Avoiding hyperbolic predictions and doomsday scenarios that are unlikely to materialise (the “Day After Tomorrow” approach) is important to build credibility.

Climate communicators also need to develop far better ways of communicating uncertainty around climate science. The standard scientific language when talking about uncertainty does not match people’s perceptions of risk and many people still think that ‘uncertainty’ equates to ‘ignorance’. When, for instance, scientists refer to something being ‘very likely’ to occur, they intend to indicate a level of confidence of more than 90%. Research has found this to be commonly misunderstood by the public, with the 90% confidence level being far more stringent than the common understanding of the term ‘very likely’.

2) The message 

Another reason why climate change communication falls down is, according to Sir Mark, to do with the message itself. People recognise climate change as an important issue but often view it as distant (in time and space), affecting ‘nature’ (a nature that we are not seen as part of) and too big an issue to be affected by the actions of individuals.

Far from dispelling these sentiments, the common discourse around climate change has often reinforced them. Images of polar bears on icecaps, droughts in African countries and films showing apocalyptic visions of the future do not bring climate change into the context of people’s everyday lives. Yes, they may show serious effects of climate change, but they are not ones to which people can relate.

Another message that Sir Mark touched upon was the overwhelming negativity of climate change communication. He identified negativity in two forms: negativity around climate impacts and negativity over climate action.

Negativity around climate impacts includes messages about the devastating consequences of climate change on a global scale, of responsibility for causing harm to people’s children and grandchildren, of famine and mass extinction. It is true that these are genuine concerns associated with significant levels of global warming. It is also true that these messages turn people away from taking action and from acting collectively. When people are threatened in this way they tend to act more individualistically (by protecting their own interests).

Negativity over climate action (pessimism over our ability to respond to the mounting climate challenges), leads to fatalism and disengagement.

Sir Mark said that for climate communication to be successful, it must be framed with a message of positivity about the potential for us to find solutions to climate change. Walport spoke of 5 key messages: “it’s happening, we’re causing it; it is likely to be serious and, crucially, that there are things that can be done.”

Not only should communicators be more positive about the potential for action, they must also deliver a message that shows the world as it could be. Many of the potential solutions to the climate challenge involve things that people want anyway: cleaner air, more livable cities, stronger local amenities, better public health and better conservation of the natural world.

Communicating the world as it could be, relates closely to another of Sir Mark’s points: that, in order to be relevant to people, climate communication needs to tap into narratives and values that people hold dear. People have strong feelings about fairness, honesty, transparency, localism, safety, nature and community. Messages that connect with these values will resonate with people to a far greater degree.

3) The means of communication

The third pillar of Sir Mark’s lecture, related to the means of communication. He showed that by far the most dominant means of communication in terms of impact on the public is television. The more people can be engaged on mainstream television channels, the better. However, Walport also highlighted the dangers of climate ‘debate’ on television and radio, saying that undue prominence given to those sceptical of climate science has created ‘false balance’ and the impression that there is more uncertainty over the science than is, in fact, the case.

Sir Mark also spoke of the growing trend of communication through social media. The influence of this is growing as more people move online; unsurprisingly the highest levels of engagement is amongst the under 30s (who are also the least politically engaged).

“The problem with communicating through many of the social media platforms such as Twitter,” said Sir Mark “is that people are often only engaged for very short periods of time”. Twitter ‘trends’ tend to capture the imagination of their audience for very transitory periods before they move on to other subjects. The degree to which these periods of focus make an impact on people is still unclear.

Engaging for short periods of time is not the only potential problem with social media communication, however. Sir Mark also pointed out that the nature of many social media platforms means that we are closely connected to people with similar viewpoints and far less connected with people (or organisations or businesses) who are less like us. This means that much of the messaging on climate change reach only those people who take an active interest in the subject, and often, those with a similar viewpoint to the author.

Keep on talking

Despite these challenges, Sir Mark’s take-home message was that the scientific community should continue to communicate its findings and respond to misinformation. He also urged scientists to engage with their audience more directly, in order to ensure that the message being delivered is relevant to the audience.Climate change is proving to be a fascinating topic with regards to communicating its core messages. We are in a strange position of having a remarkably strong scientific consensus, but a much weaker political one. Persuading politicians of the importance of action to adapt and mitigate climate change is clearly vitally important. However, unless the public and the business community can be persuaded of the case for action, then who will put the pressure on MPs?

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