Communicating climate change: success or failure?

By Asher Minns

The ultimate measure of success for communicating research into climate change and energy is that global emissions should be falling. Unfortunately, emissions are rising at levels previously never thought of.

Why is this, given the tens of thousands of scientific papers and consultancy reports, the thousands of academics, government advisers and environmental campaigners that tell us emissions must fall?

Several thousand of these people will be in Doha for COP18, but are these people working in climate change so bad at communicating? Is no-one really listening to what we are saying?

Yes they are listening. Scientists, politicians and environmentalists have been enormously successful at raising awareness of the consequences of climate change.

The ultimate sign of successful communications on climate change would be the reduction of emissions – but globally emissions are rising (Source: foto 43/Creative Commons)

These measures of success include the UNFCCC, the UK Climate Change Act, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, Mexico’s Climate Act, the European Department for Climate Action (DG-Clima), and China’s Five Year Plan for its energy policy.

We know that the countries that can together reduce global emissions are the EU, China, the US and India. It is not necessary to communicate to everyone all the time; these are our target audiences.

The general public, whoever they might be, also have a high awareness of climate change.

Opinion survey’s back in the peak years of climate debates show an awareness of climate change across the world’s top five emitters that rivals the renown of Coca-Cola (Japan 99%, US 97%, Russia 85%, China 62%, India 35%, Gallup 2009).

Climategate dipped belief in manmade climate change by a couple of pollster points, but acceptance of manmade causes remains high in the West. In China, a recent national poll shows that 93% of people understand the idea behind climate change.

So, people are listening and they are aware, but, falling emissions require radical changes in attitude, economics and everyday behaviour. Radical changes are often led by rules handed down by policy.

Driving behaviour change

I’m so old that I can remember when it was okay to smoke in the cinema and on buses (Yuk); It was optional to wear a seatbelt when I was learning to drive; and I’m almost old enough to have ridden the motorbike of my youth without a crash helmet. All of these behaviour changes were enforced because they became illegal and immediately improved the quality of people’s lives, and their life expectancy.

So why then, are global carbon emissions rising so high if policy people are engaged with climate change and the public are awake to it?

It is because no-one truthfully knows how our lifestyles and behaviours, our everyday interests and activities, can be so transformed that global emissions start to fall by 2015 to 2020 and for the world to be zero carbon by 2050.

The vast majority of the public are concerned about climate change but this does not necessarily equate to behaviour change, warns Minns (Source: James Cridland/Creative Commons)

And most importantly, few of the suggested solutions improve quality of life.

At the extreme end, ‘don’t aspire, drive, heat your home, but do eat locally grown seasonal vegetables’ are negative messages for saving the climate that none of us welcome or pay attention to. Anyway, the benefits of such good behaviour do not accrue to us, but to someone unknown in another family in a distant land in the future.

Until thinkers and policy people collaborate and implement the ultimate radical plan, what researchers and communicators can do is to keep calm and carry-on.

I will continue to communicate our independent research findings using the blunt instruments of the media and the internet and the sharper tools of engaging with the policy makers’ process.

Overall climate change communicators need to understand that response to climate change is not about more research or campaigning or being at war with carbon, it is about people’s priorities, ideologies and beliefs. Cultural change does happen, but usually it takes a shift caused by several laws.

Asher Minns is a science communicator and Centre Manager at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He specialises in knowledge transfer of climate change research to audiences that are outside of academia.

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