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’.