Communicating climate change: from words to solutions

In the most recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth (14th January 2020), author Michael Rosen spoke to George Marshall of Climate Outreach about communicating climate change in ways that are relatable and true to life.

They know their stuff, of course, and listening to their conversation was half an hour well spent.

Words into action

In the climate crisis, we’re seeing something truly unprecedented. We face major challenges as we try to get a critical mass of people to respond as necessary – to engage with what’s unfolding and take action to protect the habitat we all depend on.

How well we communicate this necessity – in the media, in boardrooms and government chambers, over the garden fence, and everywhere – will determine the pace of change.

I recommend listening to the full Word of Mouth episode for all the fascinating detail, but in the spirit of spreading the word in urgent times I’ve also briefly summarised the insights I took from it.

With apologies to Michael Rosen and George Marshall for any subtleties left behind in the process, here are those insights:

  • Our active response to climate change depends on how we describe it to one another. How we understand it is shaped by shared narratives. Unprecedented crises require new words.
  • With the climate crisis, language has a lot of heavy lifting to do – it has to prompt us to take extensive action now in order to avert future disasters that are hard to imagine.
  • Finding the right words for what’s at stake is important because waiting for more tangible evidence of climate breakdown means waiting too long.
  • We need to talk to people about climate effects in their own lives – in the UK, this might be flooding expected in Central London, rather than ice melt thousands of miles away. And the images we use should support this approach.

 

 

  • The messenger is important. Are they credible? Popular? Or seen as pursuing a political agenda that not everyone shares?

 

 

  • The climate crisis is not only an ‘environmental’ crisis, because it affects everything in our lives, and news coverage should reflect this.
  • We need storytelling that is not over-focused on ‘the enemy’, on a ‘them-and-us’ narrative – identify the obstacles, but then focus on the collective action required for change.
  • Narratives of apocalyptic futures can be discouraging and distancing. Then again, ‘brightsiding’ narratives (which suggest that crisis brings out the best in us and that we will design our way out of this one) can also be ineffective.
  • It’s better to acknowledge that this is a huge and unprecedented challenge but also remind ourselves that, across the world, humans have already responded successfully to major challenges (including extreme weather events) through cooperation and problem-solving because ‘that’s the kind of people we are’.
  • Recognise and respect the role of fossil fuel industries and their workers in the development of modern society but emphasise that progress now demands a different approach.
  • Even those already suffering under the effects of climate change, such as flooding, are busy coping with them and may not make the link with the bigger picture unless prompted through further discussion.
  • Personal conversations are key – it’s vital that we begin to talk about these realities in our daily lives and not reject the topic of climate change as ‘too political’ or ‘too depressing’.

 

 

Words at work

These are absolutely among the strategies I draw on in the work I do for clients – that is, the work of researching, writing and editing text that examines social and environmental challenges and promotes real solutions.

Time is short and the task before us is certainly daunting.

But abundant opportunities exist for ecological regeneration, and narratives in which we cooperate to seize them are multiplying.

The work of learning and sharing these narratives is the work of convincing ourselves that ‘that’s the kind of people we are’.

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Connecting villainy, heroism and celebration

A book launch I recently attended got me thinking afresh about ways to communicate solutions to contemporary forms of violence – in particular, the ongoing economic violence against fauna and flora (including us humans) to the point of mass distress and mass extinction.

Lost – or stolen?

The book in question is Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation (2019) by Grace Blakeley. In it, she asserts that finance capitalism has ‘stolen our economies, our environment and even the future itself’, and she explores ways to overturn this state of affairs and pursue egalitarian and regenerative ways of organising.

Recently, too, I read Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (2018) by Johann Hari, in which he examines how disconnected societies feed and create depression and anxiety, as well as more generalised unhappiness. He also investigates forms of reconnection – to each other, our work, the natural world, and the sense that we have a future.

For many of these reconnections to occur at scale, we’d need something like the degree of social and economic reform Blakeley and others advocate.

Reworking the narrative

Positive alternatives to neoliberalism and finance capitalism, such as a decarbonised socialism, certainly have the potential to restore control over our lives to those of us living off our own work and to vastly improve humanity’s chances of living within ecological limits.

But attempts at reform inevitably trigger resistance from those profiting from the status quo (or those who simply prefer the devil they know).

For a start, creating radical change always requires extensive lobbying and campaigning, and the powerful invariably have a much bigger budget for their communications.

During the launch Q&A, Blakeley suggested that economic and social reformers can boost their chances of successful counter-communication in these ways:

  1. Use your personal influence – people who know and trust you will listen if you explain the approaches you think will make life better for you and for them.
  2. Tell a good story, with a hero and a villain – identify which institutions are driving the systems that cause suffering, as well as the groups and movements you think have the answers.

This highlights the tension between looking around at current, destructive forms of organising, and ahead, to a more just and sustainable society. It asks us to name villains, and villainy, to better represent the bigger picture, while contemplating what it means to act heroically these days.

Meanwhile, as I read Lost Connections, I became intensely conscious of the importance of celebrating whatever moments of (re)connection we do achieve, whether they come from speaking to a neighbour, feeling our feelings, or eating what’s in season. Affirming what does us good can weaken the narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the erosion of abundance and security for the majority.

Climate talk

Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology, Zero Carbon Britain and the Rapid Transition Alliance has emphasised that we must avoid feeling like we’re caught in the headlights even in the face of so grave a threat as climate breakdown.

He argues that

AT LEAST 50% of our messages, social media content, speakers or referenced science … [on climate should focus] on solutions and the multi-solving ‘better world’ they can bring to us

– that is, they should trumpet all the ‘co-benefits’ decarbonisation processes can deliver. For one rendering of these co-benefits, see the ‘areas of change’ listed by the Rapid Transition Alliance: safe water, good food, enough money, clean energy, efficient travel, decent work, secure rights, better homes, digital progress and liveable cities.

Again, the emphasis is both on work that can be framed as heroic resistance to contemporary drivers of destruction and on the crucial practice of celebration.

Joining the dots

At the book launch, Grace Blakeley suggested that some key justice movements have so far hindered their own success by failing to clearly name their villains.

My conclusion?

These days, the communications that do most to foster social, economic and environmental justice will indeed name institutional villainy where necessary; they will also celebrate heroic, multi-solving paths to the best future we have left, along with all the moments of connectedness available to us on the way.

The power of speech, and speaking to power

How we communicate about the climate crisis matters, of course – the words we use and the occasions on which we choose to deploy them.

I live in a part of the world (the UK) already affected by climate change but not yet overwhelmed by it. Most climate-related death and disease, most of the climate refugees, have so far come from other places.

So when I talk (or write) about climate breakdown, I am often talking (or writing) about events at a remove – far from home, or in a potential future. This adds to the challenge of communicating persuasively in some cases.

And so do the angry reactions it’s possible to provoke just by raising the subject.

As I navigate these testing times, personally and professionally, I plan to keep returning to questions such as these:

  • Am I brave enough to speak directly and accurately in my daily life about the scale of the emerging crisis?
  • Do I express how I really feel about possible futures to the people I live and work alongside?
  • Can I sometimes marshal my words well enough to transform collective paralysis into action?

Greta Thunberg’s speech to world leaders at the UN yesterday combined passion and hard data.

It provoked strong reactions, both praise and condemnation, but I haven’t yet learned of a negative response from anyone who really accepts the established science and understands just how much business-as-usual must change for us to pursue real solutions and avert complete global catastrophe.

So here it is – Greta’s most recent masterclass in straight talking. May we all be inspired to speak up when the occasion demands.

 

 

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you ‘hear’ us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you fully understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees C, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity.

They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us – we who have to live with the consequences.

To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees C global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world had 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide left to emit back on 1 January 2018.

Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatonnes. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.

The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

Letters to the Earth

The Letters to the Earth project has gathered contributions from citizens acclaimed and obscure. In their letters they’ve expressed their fears and dreams to our home and host planet in a time of rapid extinction rates and climate breakdown.

Letters to the Earth

Mine, written in snatched moments during a busy week, was short but nonetheless personal. I’ve included it further down this post.

I first heard about Culture Declares Emergency‘s call-out for Letters to the Earth through the Museum of Liverpool.