Climate change is complicated, complex and converging. With competing systems, ideologies and investments at play, communication professionals need to elevate the conversation and mobilize participation in new and meaningful ways.
We can create a step change in approach by working alongside science in convening the conversation, connecting perspectives and big picture integration. This year’s IABC World Conference in New York City started a shift in thinking and priorities, and the future contribution of our profession.
Exploring how communication professionals might catalyze the world's climate conversations in new and substantial ways, there was unanimous agreement that communication and communicators should:
- Work to address the resonance of climate change as a topic
- Understand how we can scale impact and intent
- Commit to influencing the climate change narrative
- Be intentional and purposeful, role modelling with a greater sense of urgency, and
- Reinforce that climate change is the defining issue, that sets the context for other issues
The Communicators Climate Charter developed at the conference is not about blacklisting brands, but creating collective ownership and action that inspires involvement adds momentum.
It’s about bringing together the diversity of communication professionals so we can close the “say-do” gap on climate change.
Putting this charter in the context of the wider conversation around catalyzing for climate change, we’re sharing:
- What we learned
- Where we’re leaning in
- Where we’re leading next, and
- How you can become part of collective action
What We Learned
Our climate is changing, presenting risks and opportunities. We’ve worked with some incredibly clever scientists and engineers who shared some of what they were seeing as we headed into the IABC World Conference.
- Is increasingly driving investor and board behaviors
- Policies, laws and litigation are on the increase globally
- Is a key driver of consumer, stakeholder and shareholder expectations
- Needs credible aspirations, targets and pathways to succeed, and
- Is a true dichotomy; we must hold the risk and opportunity, the survive and the thrive, the imagination and implementation at the same time
This is just the tip of the climate iceberg. We’re also seeing several other trends having a push and pull impact on climate, including the probable global recession.
COVID-19 became everyone’s story, but climate change did not
The University of Queensland (UQ) and professional consultancy firm Aurecon (for who the author works), surveyed 3,000 individuals and over 200 organizations regarding sustainable transitions and expectations across communities and organizations in Australia.
From this shared research study (available on request), we found that:
- When it comes to climate change, everyone’s lived experience is different
- Climate change has not become a universal narrative the way COVID-19 did, and
- Leadership will need to be reimagined and reenergized, for the change ahead
Where We're Leaning In
With a background in communications, corporate strategy and transformation, we know that winning over hearts and minds is critical to activating and sustaining change. People are more aligned than not when it comes to climate change. There is an appetite for change at a citizen, company and country level, but how to change and sustain it is a societal and system wide issue.
When you add this with our research findings, “care plus control equals change,” it reinforces the strategies, systems and stories that need to intersect and interact alongside the science.
Communication professionals can create the dialogue, to accompany the scientific design and delivery of a better future state.
Breaking Down Where Art and Science Meet
Leonardo DaVinci was ahead of his time with the Vitruvian Man, bringing together science and art; exploring what it means to be human and the connection of humans to the universe.
To successfully communicate climate change, art and science need to meet and meld.
"Communicators need to convey possibilities and opportunities in the climate conversation. We need to de-couple jargon, fear and negativity from the narrative. We need to paint an integrated and inspired picture of a low carbon future and how we’re going to credibly get there.”
From the UQ/ Aurecon study, we found that knowledge and care are critical to sustaining change. For there to be care, purpose and values must be aligned. You need to experience information in a way that is tangible and accessible. Futerra’s “Sell the Sizzle: The New Climate Message" says, “Although these Armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough.”
Communicators need to convey possibilities and opportunities in the climate conversation. We need to de-couple jargon, fear and negativity from the narrative. We need to paint an integrated and inspired picture of a low carbon future and how we’re going to credibly get there.
COVID-19 has shown us that change is possible and sustainable. We saw a trend in individuals making visible sustainability changes at home, such as eating healthier and fresher food, growing vegetables and recycling soft plastics. These were modifications the consumer could control and see the impact of their changes. However, using and consuming less and the more invisible structural changes needed to effect wide-scale change, such as alternative technology adoption (e.g. rooftop solar), occurred less. There is a risk behavioral changes observed during the pandemic and against the emerging economic backdrop won’t stick without system level changes.
Are we as communicators engaging in climate change from a place of crisis or a place of care?
According to Wunderman Thompson’s “Inclusion’s Next Wave," inclusion starts with identity. As we know, identity encompasses multiple dimensions and is brought to life through interactions and intercepts. When you couple this with insights from Stanford’s Szu-chi Huang on how we’re becoming information avoiders through selective filtering, in turn loosing curiosity and connectivity. This selective filtering and information avoidance in a world of social-information overload, can have an impact on achieving and sustaining change.
Without an intersectional perspective, movements designed to close one gap may unintentionally create another. Gregg Sparkman, professor of psychology at Boston College, found the “spiral of silence” causes people think their opinions are unpopular or not supported, making them less likely to share what they are thinking with friends, let alone family. This is reinforced by the University of Sydney’s Professor Tim Soutphommasane, who says organizations, groups and individuals want an intelligent, personalized conversation about social issues.
Business and business communicators have a role to play in closing this gap by playing in the intercepts, whether it’s about climate, color or cost of living. Diverse debates and narratives need to be played out to create a common ground from which climate change conversations can build.
How might we as professional communicators keep climate change top of mind?
Inspiration is vital, being sought out to discover new things, and live a better life, and to gain new perspectives (not just experiences). Wunderman Thompson’s Inspire Report showed being outdoors amongst nature, was the number one source of inspiration universally. Equally, planetary concern is impacting people’s inspiration agenda.
Bain & Company’s 2021 Innovation Trends shows over 60% of global executives are using customer experience to nudge customers toward desired information and decisions outcomes. When it comes to sustainability and climate change, access to credible, holistic content that is in context and scientifically accurate is critical.
How might we inspire action rather than alienation through big picture integration?
Empathy in design and in communication is critical to connecting points of view. It’s why we need to work together to create an intentional, purposeful and urgent impact. Sarah Stein Greenberg from Stanford’s d.school has likened not having empathy to framing a view in a lens finder. You have a “point of view but not the view,” she says. The way we engage in the climate change narrative, what we curate, how we connect and contextualize content and concepts is important in helping science to deliver credible roadmaps.
In Jeanne Liedtka’s Why Design Thinking Works (Harvard Business Review), Liedtka highlights that “real-world experiments are an essential way to assess new ideas and identify the changes needed to make them workable… they help reduce employees’ and customers’ quite normal fear of change.” In a hybrid world, tangible experiences and physical prototypes aren’t always possible. Using “pre-experience,” or imagination, to create vivid, relatable stories can also test comfort and conventions. Experiments are a crucial part of science, but also for story.
Communication professionals need to have an awareness and understanding of the pain points if we’re to work alongside scientists to reimagine products, processes and perceptions against a bleak economic outlook. We need to look at redesigning from multiple angles, perspectives and possibilities.
How might we re-frame the view finder, creating pre-experiences that excite rather than engage in fear?
"We need to play in the space between what is said and what is done if we’re to catalyze real change.”
Where We're Leading Next ... And How You Can Be Part of the Collective Action
This is where we as communication professionals step in. We can bring together the science, the strategy and the story. To explore and engage in the possible, to work alongside science to communicate the credible pathways that get us toward prosperity of people and planet, and equally those that do not. To connect the context of choices, and consequences of inaction and misplaced action. To vocalize and validate truth. We need to play in the space between what is said and what is done if we’re to catalyze real change.
As we heard at World Conference 2022 in NYC, now is not the time to vacate our seat, but to vocalize and bring visibility to the world’s problems and scientific solutions. We’re past the point of isolated, individual action. We need alignment, awareness and action at scale.
Scientists might be highly inspirational (ranked five in Wunderman Thompson’s Inspiration report) but humanity is still looking to be inspired. Equally, humanity is looking for truth.
Truth was identified by Wunderman Thompson as a source of inspiration with “85% of respondents saying they felt motivated to get to the truth about events in the world today.”
Truth and transparency are pre-cursors to trust. We need to advocate for transparency to address mis/mal/disinformation, creating best practice governance and a systematic approach to information. We need to create social connectivity — convene the right people in the room to accelerate conversation and action. Never has there been a greater need for communicators to put their superpowers to good use.
"Equally, humanity is looking for truth.”
Communication can influence the broader climate change narrative, starting now:
- Convene the science
- Create capacity for care and change
- Communicate context of choice
To help drive the climate change narrative, communication professionals need to play in the space between what is said and what is done.
As Helen Keller said: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
You can download a copy of the IABC World Conference Workshop output. You can request a copy of the University of Queensland and Aurecon Sustainable Transitions Report by reaching out to Suneiah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read More From the 'Catalyst for Climate' Series
Suneiah Cullen facilitated an interactive design session at the 2022 IABC World Conference in New York City "Communications as a Catalyst for Climate." She is the principal for strategy design and transformation at Aurecon.