The effects of climate change are very visible in Greenland. The ice cap is shrinking, glaciers are receding, the flora and fauna is changing. Amidst these environmental changes are Greenland’s people, and many of them are embracing rising temperatures.
Warmer temperatures are increasing fish stocks in the region, and in the farming heartland the growing season has been extending. Meanwhile the melting of Greenland’s ice cap has accelerated severely with NASA estimating it now loses about 300 billion tonnes of ice each year. That is not only a great threat to Greenland’s ecosystem, but also contributes significantly to global sea level rise.
In this short documentary by ABC News Australia, Eric Campbell travels to Greenland and speaks to people about the changes they are witnessing and how they are adapting to them:
Climate change – or global warming – is a term we are all familiar with. The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to the consumption of fossil fuels by human activity was predicted in the 19th century. It can be seen in the increase in global temperature from the industrial revolution onwards, and has been a central political issue for decades.
Climate scientists who moonlight as communicators tend to bombard their audiences with facts and figures – to convince them how rapidly our planet is warming – and scientific evidence demonstrating why we are to blame. A classic example is Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and its sequel, which are loaded with graphs and statistics. However, it is becoming ever clearer that these methods don’t work as well as we’d like. In fact, more often than not, we are preaching to the converted, and can further polarise those who accept the science from those who don’t.
One way of potentially tapping into previously unreached audiences is via cli-fi, or climate-fiction. Cli-fi explores how the world may look in the process or aftermath of dealing with climate change, and not just that caused by burning fossil fuels.
Recently, I participated as a scientist in a forum with Screen Australia, looking at how cli-fi might communicate the issues around climate change in new ways. I’m a heatwave scientist and I’d love to see a cli-fi story bringing the experience of heatwaves to light. After the forum, Screen Australia put out a call for proposals for TV series and telemovies in the cli-fi genre.
We absolutely need and should rely on peer-reviewed scientific findings for public policy, and planning to stop climate change and adapt to it. But climate scientists should not expect everyone to be as concerned as they are when they show a plot of increasing global temperatures.
Cli-fi has the potential to work in the exact opposite way, through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters. By making people care about and individually connect to climate change, it can motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.
The term “cli-fi” was coined at the turn of the millennium, but the genre has existed for much longer. One of the earliest examples is Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, where the tilt of the Earth’s axis is altered by human endeavours (of the astronaut, not industrial kind), bringing an end to seasonal variability.
More modern examples of cli-fi take their prose from real-life contemporary issues, imagining the effects of human-caused climate change. Some pieces of cli-fi are perhaps closer to the truth than others
Is it possible that fertility rates will be affected by climate change? The television-adapted version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale blames pollution and environmental change for a world-wide plummet in fertility, thus giving a cli-fi undertone to the whole dystopian series. While there is no scientific evidence to currently back this scenario, as a new parent, it struck a chord with me personally. The thought of a world where virtually every couple is unable to experience the joys of parenthood, particularly due to climate change, is quite distressing.
Cli-fi also underpins the highly acclaimed Mad Max movie series. In a dystopian near-future, fossil fuel resources have depleted and the social and environmental impacts are vast. Australia has become a desolate wasteland and our society has all but collapsed.
Although such a scenario will be unlikely to occur in the next couple of decades, it is not completely unrealistic. We are burning fossil fuels far faster than they are forming, with some predictions that accessible sources will run out in the next century.
And some of our famous ecosystems are already very sick thanks to climate change.
And then there is Waterworld. Yet another dystopia, where there is no ice left on Earth and sea levels have risen 7.5km above current levels. Civilisations exists only in small settlements, where inhabitants dream of the mythical “dry land”. While the movie overestimates exactly how much water is locked away in ice (sea levels can only rise by up to 60-70 metres), many major global cities would be inundated and no longer exist. And while it will take thousands, not hundreds of years for complete melting to take place, sea level rise is already posing a problem for some coastal settlements and small islands. Moreover, Arctic ice is predicted to completely melt away well before the end of this century.
Sure, the scientific evidence underpinning these storylines is embellished to say the least, But they are certainly worth deliberating over if they ignite conversations with people that mainstream science fails to reach.
The power of fiction
In the long run, cli-fi might encourage audiences to modify their everyday lives (and maybe even who they vote for) to reduce their own carbon footprint.
From personal experience, some audiences tend to disengage from climate change because of how overwhelming the issue may seem. Global temperatures are rising at a rate not seen for millions of years, and we are currently not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Understandably, the scale and weight of climate change likely encourages many to bury their heads firmly in the sand.
To this audience, cli-fi also has an important message to deliver – that of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.
Imagining a future where green energy is accessible to everyone, where global politicians work tirelessly to rapidly reduce emissions, or where new technologies are discovered that safely and permanently remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are absolutely worth air time. Cli-fi can act as prose for science. And on the topic of mitigating climate change, there is no such thing as too much prose.
If you want to give cli-fi a try, check out David Middleton’s book “The Hwanung Solution”. It follows two British scientists who are sent to Siberia to assess how mysterious holes are appearing there. Is Russia about to take strategic advantage of the melting ice seas of the Arctic? And how does all this link to a mansion on the far north coast of Scotland? This gripping Bond-like adventure novel with a serious message will appeal to fans of adventure, thriller and espionage fiction.
With floodwaters at four feet and rising, a family in Houston, Texas abandoned their possessions and scrambled to their roof during Hurricane Harvey to sit with their pets and await rescue. Unable to reach first responders through 911 and with no one visible nearby, they used their cellphones to send out a call for help through a social media application called Nextdoor.
Within an hour a neighbor arrived in an empty canoe large enough to carry the family and their pets to safety. Thanks to a collaboration with Nextdoor, we learned of this and hundreds of similar rescues across Harvey’s path.
This story illustrates the power of systems like Nextdoor, an app designed to make communication between neighbors easy. Survivors in Houston have been using social media platforms such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter to connect to rescuers, organize food and medical supplies, and find places for people to stay.
Everyone knows that they should have batteries and three days of water and food on hand as extreme weather events roll through. But in our view, friends and social media platforms reachable by phone are equally important, because they could be lifesavers.
Many people assume that standard emergency services – such as the 911 system, police, firefighters and FEMA – will rescue them from disasters. While these are critical services during normal times, they can become literally and figuratively swamped during major hurricanes and floods, as we saw in Houston during Harvey. Firefighters and police officers cannot respond to every phone call. In some cases, emergency call response centers have shut down or have become unreachable because of damaged communications systems.
In past disasters around the world, our research has shown that the actual first responders in the immediate aftermath have often been neighbors, family and friends. Under such conditions, social ties – the connections to our friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances – can save our lives, mitigate the damage from storms like Irma and Harvey and fast-track recovery.
Neighbors help each other find safety in the wake of Hurricane Harvey
While we are constantly bombarded with information from television, radio and newspapers – especially when a major storm is approaching – we tend to act on information that we trust. The governor of Florida has urged residents in Irma’s path to evacuate, but for many Floridians, hearing the same message from relatives or friends may be what triggers action.
After disasters end and recovery begins, social ties can help keep us anchored to a home or business. Victims may face long waits for insurance payouts, if they are lucky enough to have insurance, or have to make decisions about restoring homes and businesses in disaster areas. They also must confront the psychological challenge of returning to places associated with hurt and loss. Having a circle of friends and neighbors can make them more likely to return and mitigate some of the trauma they have experienced.
Apps prove their worth
Social media is a tremendous resource for harnessing social networks and putting them to work during and after disasters. Facebook and Nextdoor have both demonstrated their usefulness during recent catastrophes. A recent study found that following the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake, online engagement and utilization of social media platforms for good occurred in communities with higher levels of social cohesion. We believe that individuals who are socially active on the ground – volunteering, helping neighbors, giving blood – are similarly active through social media.
In Houston, members have used Nextdoor to share prayers and information on road closures, obtain medical care and protect homes from looting. Local agencies including the Harris and Houston County emergency management offices, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department have used Nextdoor to post mandatory evacuation orders, links to flood maps, lists of open shelters, instructions on connecting with first responders for rescues if needed and calls for volunteers with boats to help individuals who are stranded.
Now Florida residents are using Nextdoor to encourage people to reach out to neighbors, especially the elderly and infirm, discuss evacuation plans and find stores that still have supplies. Nearly 50 agencies have used Nextdoor to share information on preparing for supply shortages, rain, storm surges and high winds.
On September 6, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature for Hurricane Irma, allowing its members in her path to indicate if they need help and enabling users to check on friends’ and relatives’ status. To use Safety Check, start here.
If you’re in the path of a hurricane, of course you should move to high ground, bring batteries and hunker down in a safe location with food and water. But don’t forget your phone, and consider using Nextdoor and Facebook through the storm and recovery. Even if you can’t see them, you’re surrounded by a community that cares.
The Game of Thrones season finale is once again upon us. Now that the fight to protect Westeros is in full swing and the puzzle pieces are starting to fall into their places, Sansa Stark has returned to Winterfell. She and her people are facing the beginning of what they know will be one of the longest and harshest winters the North has ever experienced. Not much is left of the ‘sweet summer child’ in Sansa, she is ready to lead the North into this long winter and get them through it.
This video by Resilience Post breaks down Sansa Stark’s key skills as Chief Resilience Officer and we can all learn from her!
Humans are currently in a war against global warming. Or is it a race against global warming? Or maybe it’s just a problem we have to deal with?
If you already consider climate change a pressing issue, you might not think carefully about the way you talk about it – regardless of how you discuss it, you already think of global warming as a problem. But the way we talk about climate change affects the way people think about it.
For scientific evidence to shape people’s actions – both personal behaviors like recycling and choices on policies to vote for – it’s crucial that science be communicated to the public effectively. Social scientists have been increasingly studying the science of science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. It turns out the language you use and how you frame the discussion can make a big difference.
The paradox of science communication
“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced but agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in the science of science communication.
Kahan’s work shows that just because someone has scientific knowledge, he or she won’t necessarily hold science-supported beliefs about controversial topics like global warming, private gun possession or fracking.
Instead, beliefs are shaped by the social groups people consider themselves to be a part of. We’re all simultaneously members of many social groups – based, for example, on political or religious affiliation, occupation or sexuality. If people are confronted with scientific evidence that seems to attack their group’s values, they’re likely to become defensive. They may consider the evidence they’ve encountered to be flawed, and strengthen their conviction in their prior beliefs.
Unfortunately, scientific evidence does sometimes contradict some groups’ values. For example, some religious people trust a strict reading of the Bible: God said there would be four seasons, and hot and cold, so they don’t worry about the patterns in climate that alarm scientists. In cases like this one, how can communicators get their message across?
A growing body of research suggests that instead of bombarding people with piles of evidence, science communicators can focus more on how they present it. The problem isn’t that people haven’t been given enough facts. It’s that they haven’t been given facts in the right ways. Researchers often refer to this packaging as framing. Just as picture frames enhance and draw attention to parts of an image inside, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas.
One framing technique Kahan encourages is disentangling facts from people’s identities. Biologist Andrew Thaler describes one way of doing so in a post called “When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” Instead, he talks about things that are important to his audiences, such as fishing, flooding, farming, faith and the future. These issues that matter to the people with whom he’s communicating become an entry into discussing global warming. Now they can see scientific evidence as important to their social group identity, not contradictory to it.
Let me rephrase that
Metaphors also provide frames for talking about climate change. Recent work by psychologists Stephen Flusberg, Paul Thibodeau and Teenie Matlock suggests that the metaphors we use to describe global warming can influence people’s beliefs and actions.
The researchers asked 3,000 Americans on an online platform to read a short fictional news article about climate change. The articles were exactly the same, but they used different metaphors: One referred to the “war against” and another to the “race against” climate change. For example, each article included phrases about the U.S. seeking to either “combat” (war) or “go after” (race) excessive energy use.
After reading just one of these passages, participants answered questions about their global warming beliefs, like how serious global warming is and whether they would be willing to engage in more pro-environmental behaviors.
Metaphors mattered. Reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing it is real and human-caused. This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than people who read about the “race” against global warming.
The only difference between the articles that participants read was the metaphors they included. Why would reading about a war rather than a race affect people’s beliefs about climate change in such important ways?
The researchers suggest that when we encounter war metaphors, we are reminded (though not always consciously) of other war-related concepts like death, destruction, opposition and struggle. These concepts affect our emotions and remind us of the negative feelings and consequences of defeat. With those war-related thoughts in mind, we may be motivated to avoid losing. If we have these war thoughts swimming around in our minds when we think about global warming, we’re more likely to believe it’s important to defeat the opponent, which, in this case, is global warming.
There are other analogies that are good at conveying the causes and consequences for global warming. Work by psychologists Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki suggests it helps to point out how global warming is similar to many medical diseases. For both, risks are often caused or aggravated by human behaviors, the processes are often progressive, they produce symptoms outside the normal range of past experiences, there are uncertainties in the prognosis of future events, treatment often involves trade-offs or side effects, it’s usually most effective to treat the underlying problem instead of just alleviating symptoms and they’re hard to reverse.
People who read the medical disease analogy for climate change were more likely to agree with the science-backed explanations for global warming causes and consequences than those who read a different analogy or no analogy at all.
Golden past or rosy future?
Climate change messages can also be framed by focusing on different time periods. Social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers asked people to read either a past-focused climate change message (like “Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”) or a similar future-focused message (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”).
The researchers found that self-identified conservatives, who tend to resist climate change messages more than liberals, agreed that we should change how we interact with the planet more after reading the past-focused passage. Liberals, on the other hand, reported liking the future-focused frame better, but the frames had no influence on their environmental attitudes.
And the frames didn’t have to be words. Conservatives also shifted their beliefs to be more pro-environmental after seeing past-focused images (satellite images that progressed from the past to today) more than after seeing future-focused ones (satellite images that progressed from today into the future). Liberals showed no differences in their attitudes after seeing the two frames.
Many climate change messages focus on the potential future consequences of not addressing climate change now. This research on time-framing suggests that such a forward-looking message may in fact be unproductive for those who already tend to resist the idea.
There’s no one-size-fits-all frame for motivating people to care about climate change. Communicators need to know their audience and anticipate their reactions to different messages. When in doubt, though, these studies suggest science communicators might want to bring out the big guns and encourage people to fire away in this war on climate change, while reminding them how wonderful the Earth used to be before our universal opponent began attacking full force.
Communications play a big role to make a change, including in raising awareness towards urban climate change and resilience. However, this topic is not as popular or interesting as other development issues such as economics, poverty, or President Trump.
The question is, “How do we engage people to pay attention to information and discussion related to Urban Climate Change Resilience?” and also, “who are these people we want to engage?”
On Wednesday, 19 July 2017, ACCCRN hosted a webinar where we could learn about communications strategy implemented in Urban Climate Change Resilience field and on how to engage people to participate in the discussion. Will Bugler, Senior Communications Consultant and Communications Lead at Acclimatise, shared his experience on this topic followed by discussion facilitated by Nyoman Prayoga, Member Relations Manager of ACCCRN Network.
By Julia Bentz (Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon), Ingrid Coninx (Wageningen Environmental Research), Gabriela Michalek (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research)
An initiative that supports coordination between climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) across Europe, is using the power of narratives to help change the way people think about risk preparedness. The PLACARD project, part of the EU’s ‘Horizon 2020’ research and innovation programme has established a knowledge exchange platform and hopes to break down the barriers between the CCA and DRR communities of practice.
One major obstacle to collaboration between CCA and DRR is ineffective communication between the two communities. Efforts that can contribute to a better understanding and the definition of a common goal are needed to close this gap and engage the communities to work together. But how do we best communicate about disasters and adaptation to projected climate change impacts? What words, formats and techniques do we use to increase engagement, ownership and collaboration of institutions and communities that formerly worked separately?
Social psychology studies have shown that the way we frame things, the stories or narratives we tell, have a deep impact on our belief system and can create or hinder a community´s agency and collaboration. In the case of CCA and DRR, different stories have been told and consequently the two concepts have developed in separate ways. CCA research tends to start with an understanding of the medium and longer-term implications of future climate change and climate-driven extreme events. In contrast, DRR measures are often conceived on the basis of addressing existing risks and includes geological and technological hazards.
Despite the different approaches and framings, there exists the common interest between CCA and DRR to reduce negative impacts of climate change and disasters, on the natural environment, human society and economies by anticipating risks and uncertainties and addressing vulnerabilities. However, each field addresses this topic through different organisations and institutions, and with different time horizons, research methods, and policy frameworks. This can lead to poorly integrated strategies and duplicated research funding programs.
PLACARD seeks to address this fragmentation of CCA and DRR through establishing a coordination and knowledge exchange platform. This platform will help to encourage multi-stakeholder dialogues that address knowledge gaps and promote institutional collaboration.
One of the topics that gained special attention within PLACARD is using narratives that have the potential to bridge the perceived gap between CCA and DRR practice. Narratives, with their power to framing an issue and open space for new critical, theoretical and methodological ideas, can help to reshape adaptation practice. DRR narratives, are also being used to communicate disaster risks to different people, and can be a way to jointly develop effective solutions.
The power of narratives is that, it allows us to envision a new future. By exploring the many possible futures, we can begin to take practical steps towards changing the present. If we feel that many people are joining the narrative, then we feel part of a community, and we feel empowered. So that is how stories can give directions to policy and practice. Stories create community.
Creating a sense of community is crucial. New narratives that depict positive futures are more engaging than the traditional catastrophe-framing found in so much climate change and disaster risk communications. Narratives that focus more on the opportunities of CCA and DRR help us to envision better where our society is going, bring the topic closer to us making it more urgent and urgent and therefore create engagement and ownership.
Mitchell T., van Aalst M., Villanueva P.S. (2010). Assessing Progress on Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation in Development Processes. Strengthening Climate Resilience Discussion. Paper 2, Institute of Development Studies 2010.
Paschen, J.-A. , Ison, R. (2014). Narrative research in climate change adaptation—Exploring a complementary paradigm for research and governance. Research Policy, 43 (6) 1083-1092. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.12.0
“My blood pressure is a little high right now” exclaimed the charismatic Prof. Walter Leal Filho, as he made his welcome address to the delegates gathered for the inaugural World Symposium on Climate Change Communication in Manchester, UK. “Our opening keynote speaker has not arrived yet, so we’re going to have to get a video link up and running”. The reason for Prof. Leal’s distress, had a name: “I used to like ‘Doris’” he said, “it brings to mind someone’s grandmother… now I’m not so sure!”
The ‘Doris’ in question, was in fact Storm Doris, a weather system that battered the UK’s west coast bringing high winds and driving rain to much of the country. Travel chaos ensued, forcing some delegates to postpone their visit. Despite wreaking havoc with people’s travel plans, the storm provided a fitting backdrop to the conference which included sessions specifically dedicated to the extent to which extreme weather events are useful for communicating climate risk.
For the hundred-or-so delegates who made it, however, the conference provided a wonderful opportunity to share ideas, inspiration and best practice about how to effectively communicate climate change. Delegates from Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for climate research and Oxford-based NGO Climate Outreach, exchanged ideas with people who had come from further afield, working on innovative citizen science projects in Tasmania, or understanding climate change can influence higher education institutions in South Africa.
Co-hosted by the University of Hamburg’s Applied Science unit, and Manchester Museum, the conference provided a platform for discussion on climate communications for an eclectic mix of practitioners. Museum curators, researchers and journalists rubbed shoulders with representatives from NGOs, multilateral organisations and consultants, delivering a packed schedule of over 80 presentations, workshops and poster displays over the course of the two-day event.
Acclimatise at the event: CCORAL and private sector engagement in Bangladesh
Will Bugler and Elisa Jiménez Alonso represented Acclimatise at the conference, presenting the Caribbean Climate Online Risk and Adaptation tooL (CCORAL) at a Friday morning session which was focussed on managing climate risk. CCORAL is an online decision-support tool to help government ministries and other decision makers integrate climate change considerations into their planning processes. The tool was created by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) with technical support from Acclimatise and funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).
The focus of the Acclimatise presentation was not on the architecture of the tool itself, but instead emphasised the importance of the offline, face-to-face communications and training efforts that went into making the tool a success.
Sessions at the conference ran in parallel, and such was the diversity and quality of the talks on offer, it was often hard to know which talk to attend. Alas with only two members of staff at the event, Acclimatise did not have a presence at each of the presentations. What features here is just a taste of what was on offer.
Gretta Pecl, marine ecologist and associate professor at the University of Tasmania, presented the Redmap Australia project. Redmap, which stands for ‘range extension database and mapping’, allows scientists to detect and study climate-driven changes to species distribution with the help of citizen scientists. The project, which has informed over 20 scientific papers, taps into the interests of established cultural groups, like divers and fishermen. They can snap pictures of and geotag any ‘uncommon’ marine species they encounter during their outings.
Being able to use the knowledge of these groups is extremely helpful for the marine researchers. The Redmap team is very invested in having a good relationship with the citizen scientists. “We partake in the activities – enter fishing competitions and diving – we are not just scientists with a clipboard […] this builds trust”, Gretta explained. Using data by citizen scientists is a great communications tool in itself, and Redmap proves it. As of December 2016, over 2100 sightings had been logged on the platform proving that citizens can get involved in research and help produce useful results.
Tom Crompton from the Common Cause Foundation kept delegates on their (metaphorical) toes with his workshop about the social psychology of values and what it means for climate change communication. The Foundation had researched what type of messages people responded more to, which would lead to intentions to help an environmental NGO (in this case WWF). Interestingly, it did not matter if a person identified more with intrinsic values (e.g. universalism, benevolence) or extrinsic ones (e.g. power, achievement) – messaging that spoke to intrinsic values always led to a higher intention of helping the environmental NGO.
Image: The value map with intrinsic values in the top right corner and extrinsic values in the bottom left. From valuesandframes.org.
On a similar note, Chris Shaw from Climate Outreach emphasised that climate change conversations had to be rooted in people’s values to encourage people to learn more, “we have to start from values up, not numbers down”. This might sound scary to the scientific community but it is not about swapping one conversation for the other, but rather having different conversations at the same time. One way to have climate change conversations is making them peer-led, like the Scottish Government initiated the Climate Change Public Conversation Series. This project aims at finding ways to get people talking about climate change, especially community groups organisers and other influencers. The research project showed that people like talking about climate change by rooting it in everyday experiences and common values; for example, discussing the science of climate change puts many off because they don’t feel confident in their knowledge, however, engaging in a conversation about climate change news and how people feel about them can be more successful.
Charles Muraya from the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia gave a talk about the importance of knowledge management for climate resilience building in Africa. The ‘climate knowledge paradox’, as he called it, means that while we have all the necessary information and data, it is not reaching those who need it. There are many initiatives working towards improving this information flow, but, little to no coordination between them exists; bridging the gap thus becomes significantly more difficult. A very important opportunity exists for climate change communications in Africa: internet penetration on the continent has grown by 7000% (yes, three zeros!) between 2000 and 2016, and it continues to increase rapidly. While Muraya’s talk pertained to the African continent, many of the messages were universal and important for communications work everywhere.
Finally Jonathan Lynn, Head of Communications at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a highly engaging and honest keynote address, where he was frank about some of the organisations past failures: “I read a study that said that one of our reports was harder to understand than a paper by Albert Einstein” he admitted. However, things have changed under Johnathan’s guidance and now the IPCC is recognising better the importance of communicating its findings to policy makers, whilst remaining scientifically robust.
There is no doubt that we are at a very important crossroads when it comes to climate change. The successful implementation of the Paris Agreement will define the decades to come and how climate risks will evolve. At the same time, climate change has become a highly politicised and divisive topic. Finding common ground on the issue so that we can work together and build resilience against impacts is a challenging mission for the climate change communications community. The delegates at the symposium last week showed that while there are many pitfalls on this path, important lessons are being learned and climate communications are improving. We thank all the delegates of the conference for sharing their insights.
Over the coming weeks, presentations from the conference will become available on HAW-Hamburg.de
In recent years, the science of attributing extreme weather events to climate change has been improving. Analyses are getting faster, more accurate and cover more types of extreme weather event than ever before. However, the scientific process used is complex, and is especially difficult to communicate to the public.
For many years scientists were not able to prove the links between climate change and individual events. Such a link is important for public discourse, as extreme events linger in people’s minds and are visible reminders of the potential dangers of climate disruption.
The picture is made more complex as climate change can produce counter intuitive extreme impacts. For instance, in the public’s mind, ‘snowmageddons’ do not fit the ‘global warming’ narrative well. Equally climate change can lead to increased incidence of extreme droughtwhile, at the same time, intensifying heavy rainfall events in the same area.
Effective communication about the links between extreme events and climate change can be help to influence public perception of the dangers posed by inaction. However, people are not very good at forming and remembering those links, even when they experience extreme events themselves. Therefore, they need tools and information to be able to do so.
Studies that confirm these linkages do occasionally make the news, but arguably not often enough, especially given the frequency with which extreme weather events happen and make headlines. These events offer an opportunity to bring attention to climate change’s most obvious impacts to a wide audience, but the media need to choose to do so. Additionally, opinion leaders who disregard or distort climate can sway public opinion.
When communicating extreme weather events and climate change impacts it is important to start with what we know. Climate scientists express their findings with reference to the relative confidence in their results. Expressing a level of uncertainty, no matter how small, can be misread by those not familiar with scientific approaches and methods. To many the word ‘uncertainty’ is understood as “they don’t know”. Therefore, it is important to offer context and explain sometimes complex findings, in a way that is meaningful to a wide audience, not just a specialist one.
It falls on the shoulders of climate scientists and the communications community to find improved ways to communicate scientific findings linking climate change to extreme weather events. An informed public will be able to better hold decision-makers accountable, and can also make better decisions to increase their own resilience to climate impacts.
How is it possible to spark a response to climate change that is proportionate to its importance? Perhaps it is the heart, and not the head, that holds the key. Gaia Global Circus is a theatrical experiment that simulates climate change on stage. Conceived by Bruno Latour, Pierre Daubigny, Chloé Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati, and funded by the French Ministry of Ecology, the production uses the flexibility and freedom of the stage to kindle an experience of a phenomenon that so often eludes perception. The performance tries to overcome a common problem of climate change communication: that it is far easier to conceive of, and act on discrete, short-term events such as a flood; than to relate to multi-decadal trends.
A common reason for lack of action on climate change is its apparent distance from everyday, lived-experience. It is considered either as being too distant to warrant concern or too grand in scale to comprehend. The gaps in our ability to comprehend climate change, translate to meaningful gaps in our response to it. The gap between the knowledge that ‘we must adapt’ and the stakes of climate change, translates to similar gaps in the adaptation infrastructure that is required, and that supplied. All too often, our limited repertoire of concepts, language, and feelings with which we attempt to makes sense of it, constrain our understanding.
Gaia Global Circus, most recently performed at Mount Royal University (Canada), is part of a trend of scientific or technical spheres of knowledge recognising the interdependence of their practice and wider social values. One recent publication examines the stakes of climate change for architects and architecture, and observes that “our environment is not just a resource to be managed or an externality to which we must adapt but one of the chief figurations of shared or contested cultural values.”
Similarly, the Luce Fund for Theological Education (of the Henry Luce Foundation) has recently awarded US$ 425,000 to the Methodist Theological School (based in Ohio, USA) to support the teaching of the ‘moral dimensions’ of climate change. Both interventions recognise that as integral as better infrastructure is to answering the pragmatics of climate change, there remains a hinterland of ethics and values that prefigure the character and scope of climate change action, by individuals and collectives. The science that underpins climate adaptation is inseparable from the engrained images and values that we work with in everyday habits and actions.
The main character in the play is climate itself, present in the form of a large, white silk canopy suspended from balloons, which respond to changes in the theatre’s atmosphere. This symbolically places climate change as the central issue facing the planet. Four actors take turns – adopting the personalities of scientists, politicians, and others – giving voice to the inconsistencies, contradictions, and ironies of the speech and actions on the parts of the well-meaning and not. The intent is not to condemn as such, but to invite collective reflection on climate change; on the stakes of inaction and the adequacy of the sum of our responses. Neither didactic nor catastrophist, the play doesn’t leave the audience numb with terror, but – through use of tragic-comedy and irony – with an appreciation of the issue that’s both accurate and actionable.
Above all, Gaia Global Circus reckons with a prevailing and under-addressed gap in responses to climate change, wherein even the most rigorous scientific data on the most portentous issue has yet to become a frame shaping everyday action. This perception gap in turn demands experience and mental tools for making-sense of the climate future and sparking action in the present; tools and experiences that the theatre is uniquely placed to fashion. If climatologists have computerised scenario models for bridging past, present, and future; theatres have actors and scenery. The stage can enable these scenarios to come alive in ways that make oft-imperceptible characteristics of climate change, become comprehensible. In communicating a forceful story of climate change – and inspiring citizens to ‘to be up to the task’ – the performance represents a powerful ally for advancing efforts to promote understanding and action.
Trailer (in French):
Cover photo by The Gaia Global Circus: press promotional poster