A look back on the World Symposium on Climate Change Communications

A look back on the World Symposium on Climate Change Communications

By Will Bugler & Elisa Jiménez Alonso 

“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.

Acclimatise also had a stand and poster presentation at the event, displaying the approach to communications on a recent project engaging the private sector with climate change adaptation in Bangladesh.

What happened elsewhere?

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.

Improving climate change communications going forward

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


Cover photo by Elisa Jiménez Alonso

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