The climate communications problem and how to fix it

With the world simultaneously on fire and underwater, it feels like the climate catastrophe should be all we’re talking about. It’s not. Now, new research explains how we might better engage a confused and avoidant public.

31 Aug 2023
Written by
Rory Taggart and Eliza Levinson
For Good
Reading time
9 min

This article was created by The Story for Fireside Agency.

It’s hot. A sticky, sweaty, ash-raining-from-the-sky kind of hot. Scientists warn that the long-feared climate ‘tipping points’ are upon us—thresholds that, once crossed, will cause record-breaking natural disasters to smash into our homes with increasing frequency. There will be refugees—that is, more of them—and so, more political instability. If nothing changes, our coral reefs will die, pushing vital ecosystems and, by extension, economies, further to the cliff’s edge, while staggering numbers of insect species fall into extinction, threatening the very basis of our food chain and, thus, life itself.

But wait—there’s another way to tell this story.

Humpback whales—those endangered, singing, bus-sized wonders of the ocean—have been slapping their fins on the waters of the New York Harbor in significant numbers, a novelty in what was once the five boroughs’ preferred sewer. Oysters, once all but washed away from the city’s waters, are back by the millions; the estuary is cleaner than it’s been in more than a century, and people can once again swim there now, bathing in the sea off of one of the world’s most populous cities. Less than a year after it broke up with Russian oil and gas, Germany has produced more renewable energy than anywhere else in the world. And back at home, people are making a difference without even leaving their houses: composting, lowering their thermostats, planting native trees to make food for the pollinators.

How these paragraphs make you feel, and which (if any) of them is more likely to spur you to do things that will to help save the planet, is a central concern for those working in climate communications—a broad banner encompassing those scientists, journalists, activists and comms professionals who have dedicated their professional lives to stopping climate change through the power of messaging. So far, agreement between them on the best way to communicate—paragraph one, or two?—has been elusive. Some studies show that too much doom and gloom causes people to switch off. Others claim that pollyannaish optimism only lulls people into inaction.

So what messages should climate communicators elevate to shift people into action?

Rebecca Huntley, writing in her 2020 book How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, examines the evidence to arrive at some broad conclusions about whether we should be talking about the impending apocalypse or the thriving whales if we want people to engage with the problem. “The consensus seems to be that fear on its own won’t do it,” the Australian author and researcher writes. She says desensitisation is the main culprit, as appeals based on fear lose their potency over time. Such messages, then, need to be “ramped up in order to overcome this and then become too extreme, even laughable, to be credible.” Fear can also undermine the audience’s trust in the messenger, Huntley says, leading to unintended effects such as denial.

And yet Huntley doesn’t think we should abandon negative emotions altogether. “Worry is better than fear. If we want to use fear when we communicate about climate change, we should try and combine it with positive emotions like hope, generated through collective action.”

The question of fear versus hope is just one of the debates being thrashed out by climate communicators. Another centres on the role of hard facts and science, and whether good storytelling can do more of the heavy lifting in the quest to save the planet. But an even more pressing question concerns the role of climate communications itself. For decades, the goal has been to raise awareness, to put climate change on the public agenda. But what, some communicators have begun asking themselves, if awareness isn’t the problem?

In a 2020 poll of over 80,000 people from around the world, 70 per cent of respondents said that they consider climate change to be “a very, or extremely serious, problem,” while less than 3 per cent said climate change doesn’t worry them at all. This concern seems to bear out in demonstrable ways: in Australia alone, as many as 300,000 protestors flooded streets around the country in a nationwide climate protest in 2019. By any reasonable measure, we are aware.

But while most people tell the pollsters that they take climate change seriously, confusion about it abounds. Only one in seven Americans understand there’s a consensus among climate scientists that humans cause climate change. And you only need to open your news feed to see evidence of our breathtaking complacency. In a week of record-breaking heatwaves, tourists flocked to Death Valley to have their photographs taken in front of a giant thermometer, marking the occasion with a smile.

If that snapshot leads you to the very reasonable conclusion that engaging the community on the overall implications of climate change is hard, spare a thought for Oxfam Australia. In recent years, the anti-poverty charity has focused much of its energy on fighting for climate justice—a slightly fiddly concept that centres on climate change's social and economic impacts. Climate justice argues that the people who have contributed the least to climate change (i.e. the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged) should not also be lumped with its most significant impacts (i.e. environmental and financial destruction).

Researchers started to wonder if the first rule of talking about climate justice should be not to talk about climate justice.

The problem for Oxfam was simple: whenever the organisation tried to speak about climate justice, people got confused. Most didn’t know what it was, while those who did were unsure why an organisation focused on lifting people out of poverty would be interested in it. And this wasn’t just true of the broader population; even among Oxfam supporters and donors, the concept was often met with a bewildered shrug.

To help the organisation find a way to talk to its people about climate justice, Oxfam turned to Fireside, a storytelling-led communications agency based in Melbourne. (Disclosure: Fireside is the publisher of The Story.) The goal was twofold: help Oxfam understand why people who usually care about disadvantage weren’t engaging with climate justice, and develop a narrative that connected the two issues in their minds.

Nina Crawley, Oxfam Australia’s advocacy and campaigns lead and the person in charge of the project, says the goal was partly to help Oxfam get out of its international development bubble in the way it spoke, and the story it told, about a complex issue.

“It’s very complicated, the whole topic of the causes of and solutions for climate change and inequality more generally,” Crawley says. “And within the bubble of international development, people get used to speaking about problems in particular ways.” She says Oxfam was keen to get help understanding where their audiences were at, “and the best way to meet them so they could see those links between climate and economic justice”.

Part of the challenge was finding good research on this topic. While there are plenty of studies on climate change communications, Crawley says similar research into climate justice was another matter. “I wasn’t able to find any information on how the general public understood [climate justice],” Crawley says. If she wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, she would have to start at the ground level.

To close the knowledge gap, Fireside teamed up with the research firm WhereTo to run a series of focus groups that would glean insights into how people thought about climate change and disadvantage. The goal was to help Oxfam understand whether it should focus on making its current supporters more comfortable with the concept of climate justice, or if it was better to recruit a new group of climate-aware Australians it wasn’t currently talking to. And while the project was squarely focused on climate justice, Fireside and WhereTo were hopeful it would provide useful insights into climate communications more broadly.

Even those who considered themselves climate-engaged were limited in their ability to consider issues beyond what was directly in front of them.

Penny Burke, head researcher for WhereTo, went into the project with a range of issues about Oxfam’s capacity to cut through a complicated concept like climate justice. “We were concerned that people wouldn’t understand what climate justice was, would not find it compelling, would not see it as an easier thing to grapple with than the broader conversation around climate change more fully,” Burke says.

Sure enough, the focus groups confirmed Burke’s predictions—especially around recognition of the term climate justice: few had heard of it and, when prompted, others mistakenly guessed it was associated with the justice system. This suggested that the term itself was a problem, leading some on the research team to wonder if the first rule of talking about climate justice should be not to talk about climate justice.

Even those who considered themselves climate-engaged were limited in their ability to consider issues beyond what was directly in front of them. The cost of living crisis seemed to restrict their capacity or willingness to engage in deeper climate issues. “(Climate change) is important, and I try to do my bit,” one focus group participant said. “But we are renting, and I have had my rent go up by $80 per week.“

This dynamic, combined with an apparent lack of awareness of the broader social and economic implications of climate change, led people to focus on tangential but easy-to-grasp environmental actions such recycling. “You had people who clearly identified as being really into this issue saying, But what does climate have to do with poverty? This issue is so big, let me just focus on the things that I can do,” says Fireside managing director Ben Hart, who sat in on some of the focus groups and led the resulting narrative work.

“The whole vibe to me was like, God, we've got so much stuff to worry about at the moment, and you're giving me one more thing that I hadn't even thought of before? The poverty implications of climate change? Like really?

But there was good news as well. According to the same research, participants became more engaged with climate justice if they were told a strong ‘Story of Us’, a narrative structure that framed the impacts of climate change as a shared experience (albeit with bigger consequences for those in developing countries). One participant drew a comparison between climate change and another shared experience that transcended borders: the COVID pandemic.

“It feels similar to the vaccination program a few years ago, where the poor countries didn't have that much resourcing in obtaining the vaccine, whereas the richer countries did,” the non-climate-engaged Oxfam supporter said. “And similar in a way, I mean, we're on the same globe, everyone is supposed to be equal in getting the right treatment for COVID, and richer countries should be sharing or providing the resources to help the poor countries that don't have that vaccination.”

This sentiment was shared across each of the focus groups, and informed a pillar of the climate justice narrative that emerged from the research: that the climate crisis will affect us all, but not equally. “It was heartening to see how quickly people could see the commonality in the experience of a Pakistani and a Lismore farmer and say, ‘We’re all in this together’,” Hart says. “And then to see them make that next connection: that while both are affected by the same global phenomenon, the Pakistani farmer had far fewer resources to help them recover."

The climate crisis will affect us all, but not equally.

This was both a simple truth and a powerful distillation of the central idea behind the sometimes fuzzy concept of climate justice. So powerful, in fact, that Oxfam Australia decided to make this message a foundation of its future climate communications. Over the next few years, the charity expects to roll out a series of ‘Stories of Us’ aimed at securing support for climate justice. If they succeed, it will be a win not just for climate justice but for climate communications more broadly. The model would show that it is possible to dismantle complex issues and reassemble them into digestible narratives that engage, persuade, and inspire. Of course, whether or not this occurs remains to be seen. But there is reason to be hopeful—if not pollyannaish.

Top image: Shutterstock

Sign up to
The Story Newsletter

The best of the website, with bonus newsletter-only trimmings. Delivered to your inbox every so often.