Five reasons why climate scientists need to become better communicators

Business coach.

Zara Qadir, Communications Manager at the Sustainable Gas Institute, discusses why climate scientists need to step onto their soapboxes – and how to go about it.

You have a moral responsibility to share your knowledge

“If you are a climate change scientist and not a committed communicator, you should not be able to sleep at night.” This was Bob Ward’s (Policy and Communications Director of the Grantham Research Institute, LSE) rallying cry for climate scientists at a recent Royal Meteorological Society meeting hosted at Imperial, where experts shared their insights into how to translate the science of climate change to a wider audience

Our children and future generations will suffer the most severe impacts of climate change, from floods to heatwaves. Climate scientists understand these impacts and how reducing greenhouse gas emissions today can still avoid the worst case scenarios. They therefore face a moral obligation to step outside the lab or the office and become climate advocates, communicating the case for urgent action. Here are Bob’s top tips to engage audiences with climate change.

Top tips:

  • Tell personal stories.
  • Talking about the lives and livelihoods of people affected by climate change, can be enormously powerful in public outreach.
  • Emphasise local impacts of climate change (e.g. threats to local landscapes, and cities) as well as global issues.

You are a trusted source

In an era of ‘fake news’, scientists might worry that they won’t be listened to. But public opinion is more favourable than you might expect. Pete Castle, a media expert at the University of Reading, provided reassurance from recent UK polls. Scientists are still perceived to be a trusted source; fourth in a list of 25 professions (79 per cent trust them to tell the truth). A 2015 poll also showed that Americans trust information from climate scientists over other groups, such as the media.

Top tips:

  • To build trust with your audience, talk about your motivations, rather than just focusing on facts.
  • Clarity is key – 83 per cent of people are more likely to trust someone using simple language.
  • The Academy of Executive Coaching found that cloaking messages with reassuring words and phrases can backfire. Don’t use phrases such as, ‘If I’m honest…’, ‘Believe me…’etc.

Climate change is being talked about

Public interest in climate change fluctuates – but increasingly fast-paced news and politics bring it back into the spotlight again and again. A quick Google Trends analysis shows that the volume of searches for  ‘climate change’ was highest in December 2009 (around the time of the COP15 UN climate summit in Copenhagen) but it peaked again in November 2016 (around US election time). This was higher than in the run up to the Paris conference (COP21) in December 2015.

“Now more than ever before with recent political events, there is an opportunity for scientists to step into the debate,” urged Pete, who provided some tips on how to engage with the media. Climate change ticks all the boxes for journalists, especially at the moment; it’s controversial, extreme, and timely, it affects people, and can be tragic or bizarre, all things likely to get media attention.

Top tips:

  • Offer to brief the media on upcoming stories.
  • Get media trained and seek help from organisations such as the Science Media Centre.
  • Talk directly to the public! If we’ve learned one thing since the advent of social media, it’s that you don’t always need the press. Set up a twitter account!

If you don’t communicate the science, someone else will (and they may not understand the science as well as you do).

While celebrities use their star power to support climate action, they do not always get the science right.

Fortunately, more people accept that climate change is happening (and is largely human-made) than ever before; almost two-thirds in the UK (Energy and Climate Information Unit). Even half of Trump voters (49%) “think global warming is happening” (from a recent Yale Survey).

The bad news is that most people still don’t fully understand how climate change affects their lives and are therefore not equipped to make informed decisions to minimise these impacts. For example, in the UK a survey by the Adaptation Sub-Committee showed that people perceive heat waves as being far less common than flooding and therefore may not be making the necessary changes to their homes.

While climate change is a science, its communication should draw inspiration and expertise from other disciplines such as the arts, drama and social sciences. Maps, photos and other imagery can play a role in enhancing understanding and even change behaviour. It’s hard to see the overall climate trend with data alone but data visualisations can be extremely convincing (e.g.  Spiralling global temperatures – Ed Hawkins). Ros Pearce, a Multimedia specialist at the publication Carbon Brief, introduced the topic of how to create accurate and compelling data visualisations (see her slides).

Top tips:

  • Search for the right charts using the site (data viz catalogue.com).
  • Tell the difference: Infographics are usually curated, subjective and explain a specific story, while visualisations are usually automatically-generated and objective.
  • Be careful with maps as they are a political construction. India, for example, has its own official map.

Check out Ros’ recent article ‘Six tips for creating a good climate change graphic’ for more tips!

You can help businesses become socially and environmentally responsible

Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy & Translation at the Grantham Institute shared her expertise on how to make your research have an impact on business practices.

“It is equally important to understand what challenges the business community are facing, and be able to put your science in that context, in order to build a solution and to describe your science in a way that is meaningful to the business community,” she said.

Top tips:

  • All types of university research could potentially be relevant to businesses.
  • Many different types of organisations are interested, especially the retail sector (which is consumer-facing) and finance sectors (which is looking to make informed decisions on their investments).
  • Make sure you seek out the right teams (e.g. Chief Scientific Officers, Sustainability teams)
  • Ensure you get the timing right. Anticipate interest prior to big events (e.g. COP21).
  • Identify the best way to engage (e.g. commissioned research, hackathon, executive training).

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