Communicating climate change: science, solutions, solidarity

Mis- and disinformation are widespread on the issue of climate change. Across digital platforms, bad-faithed actors are sowing doubt and confusion, with the aim of delaying or obstructing action on the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its February 2022 report, for the first time acknowledged that “rhetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk and urgency, and dissent.”

But there are plenty of communicators, content creators and influencers ready to counter misinformation and eager to disseminate valuable, reliable climate information to mobilize action. Surveys show that a majority of people in all regions are worried about climate change and want their governments to act. How do we help guide content producers who want to do the right thing? How do we encourage more communicators to help mobilize the action people want to see?

The guidelines for effective climate communications – produced by the UN Department of Global Communications in consultation with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UN Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) – brings UN climate communications expertise together with experienced external partners on the issue – ACT Climate Labs, Climate Action Against Disinformation, the Conscious Advertising Network, TED Countdown, and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication – to provide a set of tips for effective climate communications, based on three key points.

The importance of authoritative scientific sources

First, use authoritative scientific information. When sharing facts and figures, make sure the data comes from a reliable source, which is science-based (consistent with the latest scientific consensus) and objective (not biased or influenced by financial or political incentives). Peer-reviewed articles (reviewed by experts in the same field prior to publication) generally provide the most reliable information.

When breaking down the science, the right messengers can help get the audience engaged. Reputable scientists, weather presenters, and medical doctors are widely trusted. Often the most impactful climate communications also come from “people like me” who are affected and care.

To avoid spreading misinformation, pause before you share something. Find out who made it, what sources it is based on, who paid for it, and who might be profiting from it. If you detect misinformation among your followers, rebut it by using the ‘Fact, Myth, Fallacy’ model that can help convey your message in a way that will stick.

And beware of greenwashing. Double-check what a company is really doing to reduce their carbon footprint and deliver on their climate promises, and only promote genuinely sustainable brands that meet the UN credibility standards

The power of solutions

Second, make sure to convey the problem and the solutions. Explaining the scale of the climate crisis is important, but it can seem overwhelming and may lead people to lose interest and tune out. A good way around disillusionment and “crisis fatigue” is to convey a hopeful message focused on the solutions, helping people feel empowered and motivated to engage.

To do this, make the information relatable, local, and personal. Individual stories can forge an emotive connection, get the audience to care, and make shared global challenges seem less daunting. You don’t even need to lead with the word ‘climate’ but start with a related issue that is important to your audience. Air pollution, for instance, which cities like Dar es Salaam are tackling by introducing soot-free buses. Or new job opportunities offered by clean energy projects, like in this story from India. Or power outages during hurricanes, which Puerto Rico is tackling by installing solar power.

Make sure to let people know that they have the power to effect change. Individual action and systemic change go hand in hand. Individuals can help drive change by shifting consumption patterns and demanding action by governments and corporations. Small steps by a large number of people can help persuade leaders to make the big changes we need. And the more people act now and speak up for change, the bigger the pressure on leaders to act.

The need for solidarity and urgent action

Third, focus on mobilizing action. We need all hands on deck. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and halving them by 2030, requires nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, consume, and move about. Surveys indicate that most citizens in advanced economies are willing to make changes in their own lives.

Let people know what needs to happen right now in order to solve the climate crisis, and that action can’t wait. Studies have also shown that explaining the human causes of climate change increases public support for urgent action.

At the same time, get your audience excited about the prospects of a sustainable world. Addressing climate change will bring about an abundance of opportunities – green jobs, cleaner air, renewable energy, food security, livable coastal cities, and better health. Reframing the issue to focus on the prospects of a better future can galvanize action. Linking it to shared values like family, nature, community, and religion can help reach new audiences.

And, finally, let’s not forget that climate change is also an issue of justice and solidarity. The poor and marginalized are often hit the hardest by the worsening climate impacts. Those who contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions are too often affected the most. And financial commitments of support by wealthier countries have not been met. Solving the climate crisis therefore also means addressing injustice and inequity.

Everyone can raise their voice and play a part in advocating for change – shaped by different experiences, cultural contexts, and underlying values. Science, solutions, and solidarity provide a common thread to engage audiences wherever they are and help mobilize the action people overwhelmingly want to see.

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