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18 February 2016

How can climate issues be communicated effectively?

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris awakened new hope of prompt, vigorous measures to reform society. The Mistra-SWECIA researcher Gregor Vulturius, on behalf of the European Parliament’s Green parties, has written a report on how to convey and convince people of the message from COP21.

To ensure that COP21 does not fall into oblivion, the Green Bloc in the European Parliament tasked Gregor Vulturius, a researcher in Mistra-SWECIA (Mistra Swedish Research Programme on Climate, Impacts and Adaptation, 2008–15), to compile documentation for discussion of how experience can be put to use and disseminated.

The result is an ambitious discussion brief, Building bridges and changing minds: insights from climate communication research and practice, which was completed in January.

‘The Green parties in the European Parliament wanted to have a background paper to communicate climate research better,’ says Vulturius, who is associated with the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI).

What is needed is to make people understand that what they do today will have effects in 30-40 years’ time. This has proved far from easy, but there is solid evidence that it can be done.

Gregor Vulturius refers to recently completed research on the effects of communication, including the work carried out by himself and his colleagues in Mistra-SWECIA. They investigated data from the Swedish Forest Agency’s campaign on climate change, which reached 17,000 forest owners.

Subsequent surveys showed that, after the campaign, a significant proportion of respondents had improved their knowledge of how to adjust to climate change, and nearly a third thought it was high time to take action.

Scare tactics alone seldom work

In the report, Vulturius discusses fear as a motivating factor. In other contexts it has become evident that fear, in particular, can induce people to change their behaviour. But the matter concerned has often been of the kind that directly influences a person and that one can personally change, such as health and eating habits.

When it comes to the climate, a different drama is unfolding. It may not affect people individually and directly. At the same time, the problem may seem so overwhelming that doing anything does not appear worthwhile. Apathy towards climate change may arise.

‘Many people in the environmental movement think scary tactics are OK. Sometimes they can work, but being scared can also result in paralysis,’ Vulturius says.

Alarming announcements about climate threats must therefore be followed by action proposals to prevent the trends. These must include both major proposals on such aspects as carbon tax or new technology and also minor ones that individuals can embark on here and now.

It is also important to understand how much is a matter of collective measures and changes. Here, too, it is crucial to boil down campaigns on abstract issues into concrete action. The better educated people are, the more they demand from their politicians, Vulturius points out.

Vital to find right messenger

However, communication is not just about what is said but also who says it. The right person must deliver the message — and this is not always the researcher.

Vulturius refers to the ‘Francis effect’, i.e. the fact that when Pope Francis took the step of starting to talk about climate threats, billions of Catholics listened.

Vulturius has had similar experience, although on a smaller scale, in Mistra-SWECIA.

‘I noticed that people other than the researcher were often better at getting the message across. Scientists often have in-depth knowledge but are perhaps not exactly familiar with the details of conditions for forest owners, for instance.’

The messengers can be employees at the Swedish Forest Agency or people from forest owners’ associations, who often enjoy great confidence among the owners.

‘They’re also out in the field and in daily, personal touch with forest owners,’ Vulturius says.

Text: Thomas Heldmark

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