Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent reports make it clear that urgent action is not only required to reduce emissions but that it must be accelerated. This week, the IPCC released “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, the second part of the Sixth Assessment Report” which gives the clearest indication to date of how climate change is affecting our world. It estimates that around 40% of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change and that the opportunity to act will only last for the rest of this decade.
IABC believes in the power of communication to deepen understanding, inspire action and transform our worlds. We know that communication makes a difference.
As society grapples with the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the changes required if we are to avoid catastrophic outcomes for people and the planet, how can communication professionals be catalysts for change?
A Multiplicity of Risks
It is now commonplace for businesses to connect their future economic success to their sustainability and climate change performance.
The focus has shifted from compliance in meeting environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements to proactively protecting business against:
- Transition risks arising from the transformation toward a low-carbon economy. As economies and businesses look to decarbonize, what will happen to their business and operations? How can they harness opportunities of a green economy?
- Physical risks from the direct effects of climate change on communities, infrastructure and the economy. How can we mitigate and adapt to increased resilience?
- Reputation risks when organizations fail to meet stakeholder expectations. For many stakeholders — customers, investors, employees — there is an expectation that organizations will move beyond statements of intent to behaviors and actions.
Many communication professionals are actively involved in supporting organizations to understand and communicate the impact of these risks. What can we learn from successful engagements with stakeholders around sustainability and climate change? Can this knowledge be rapidly scaled so communication professionals around the world can bring their A-game to this series of complex and converging problems?
The Language of Climate Change
At our best, communication professionals are great sensemakers and can look at complex issues through multiple lenses to create shared meaning and understanding. We are careful in the language we use, and we often advocate for a common vocabulary that is accessible to broad audiences and respects people’s agency. A more inclusive language has been important in advancing the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. Should there be a similar focus on the language of climate change?
As theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Planck said, "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." In October 2021, the Oxford English Dictionary editors provided an update on the language of climate change and environmental sustainability. They found a dramatic increase in more emotive language that they attribute to the urgency for change. For example:
- “Global warming” has now replaced “greenhouse effect.”
- “Climate crisis” is increasingly being used in preference to “climate change.”
The report also notes the emergence of solutions-focused terms, language that reflects the “increasing impetus toward actions, innovations and technology that could tip the balance toward a more favorable outcome.”
Understanding the Science
We’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that it’s imperative to have a sufficient understanding of the science to ask the right questions. That way, we can explain the issues and necessary actions. Most importantly, we need to know enough to not be misled about the truth of what we are communicating.
Climate is a complex system, as is risk, politics and organizational dynamics. As organizations look to build trust with their stakeholders, the communication professionals advising them must be skilled in understanding and navigating these complexities. Can we build on and enhance the work of adjacent professions in science, technology, engineering, public policy, social science, medicine and agriculture to help us do this?
We must have the challenge of innovation in the front of our minds if we want to influence larger agendas.
If innovation is what happens at the intersection of disciplines, what opportunities might exist to partner across professional disciplines to bring the best of communication, engagement and behavioral change to combat climate change?
Many business communication professionals are actively partnering with stakeholder engagement professionals to engage communities in climate transformation and mitigation programs. What can we learn from impactful, multidisciplinary change programs, and can we rapidly share that knowledge?
Given the size and complexity of the challenge, a key ingredient for how organizations lead and respond will also be how they engage and work in partnership with government, industry, nonprofits and the greater community.
A crucial element within the communication profession will be how well we join forces, not only with IABC’s own members, but with other associations and communities to maximize our collective engagement and participation.
World Conference 2022: Communication Can Be a Catalyst for Climate
At this year’s World Conference in New York City, IABC will hold an in-person conversation for change to explore how communication can be a catalyst for climate.
In this hands-on workshop, leading communication professionals from around the world will co-design how communicators could define and drive collective conversation and action when it comes to climate change. In a “two-hour sprint,” we will explore:
- Charter: What does collective action mean to communication professionals, and why does it matter?
- Capability: What skills do we need both now and in the future to make this happen?
- Capacity: What does success look like at an individual and organization level?
- Change: What actions and visible leadership will we take to catalyze change?
In the lead-up to the World Conference, we’d like to open a dialogue with you by inviting you to share your inputs, perspectives and thinking with us here. This will inform how we design the workshop.
We will also publish the World Conference outputs to kick off a broader conversation in the year ahead as we advocate for communication professionals to help solve this wicked problem.
Danielle Bond, SCMP
Danielle Bond, SCMP, is the group director, brand, marketing and communications for Aurecon and the IABC International Executive Board Chair.