Personalising the Climate Change Narrative

Serious faces while talking about Climate Change: Steven Chu and Brian P. Schmidt.

It’s not a stretch to say the vast majority of participants at the Online Science Days 2020 share the view that unchecked anthropogenic climate change spells catastrophe for humanity and life as we know it on Earth. But despite this view being shared by more and more people, actions and interventions to limit global warming remain piecemeal and insufficient – all signs point to a 3–4 °C temperature increase by 2100 unless radical measures are taken.

Knowing that there is an urgent need for climate action, how can scientists better influence policymakers, industries and individuals to ensure that the apocalyptic visions of the future conjured by the press never come to pass?

Influencing Opinion

During the Discussion The Politics of Climate Change, Steven Chu (Nobel Prize in Physics 1997) and Brian P. Schmidt (Nobel Prize in Physics 2011) shared their views on the relative merits of different policies and technologies that could reverse the effects of climate change, as well as how society can sway the perspective of policymakers. But it was in their live Q&A where they offered practical advice for all scientists on influencing popular and political opinion.

“The only people who can get citizens to behave coherently are leaders who control the narrative,” said Schmidt. “We must work on it and convince people (…) whether it’s Beyoncé, President Obama, Angela Merkel or President Trump – those leaders set the agenda on how people act.”

“Can the scientists become those leaders?,” asked one young scientist. Having served as the 12th US Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013, Chu had a unique personal insight. “It’s necessary to have practising scientists in the real inner circles of power,” he began. “When I was working for President Obama, he knew I was a scientist and he gave me stuff that was way outside the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy. It irked the other cabinet members no end, but he said ‘No, no, no, we’re going to the scientists, I trust them’; but he was also an exceptionally different President.”

Schmidt too has used his platform to become climate influencer. He was the originator and driving force behind the Mainau Declaration 2015 on Climate Change signed by Laureates during the 65th Lindau conference. Widely publicised, the Declaration made it clear to the world that the vast majority of researchers strongly believe that climate change constitutes a real and profound existential threat that needs to be addressed. 

Both Schmidt and Chu emphasised the need to frame the climate narrative around the motivations of the particular audience. Whether it’s the re-election hopes of a politician or the impacts on an individual’s livelihood, they argued that climate change needs to be made real for people by sharing genuine and personal experiences and stories.

Chu drew a parallel with recent events, citing how statistics and studies on systemic inequality and police brutality against African-Americans was available long before 2020. But it was rapid dissemination of a simple and tragic story – the brutal killing of George Floyd – that sparked Black Live Matter protests around the globe and has since led to major policy changes in cities across the USA.

Broad or Targeted Dissemination?

In the further course of the programme Chu and Schmidt had the chance to elaborate on these points in the company of Mario J. Molina (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1995), 2019 Lindau Alumna Levke Caesar from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Georg Schütte, General-Secretary of the Volkswagen Foundation in the Debate Communicating Climate Change.

During the live Q&A, one young scientist questioned whether the emphasis on engaging stories that elicit emotions to convey climate issues might be considered manipulative, or even scientific propaganda. Schmidt replied: “I don’t have any problem using stories or things that stick with people, as long as they’re actually aligned to the science. We really have to self-police – it’s about your own ethics”. Schütte took a different tack in his response: “Propaganda seems to be a somewhat outdated mode of one-way communication,” he argued. “We have to engage in dialogues and this needs to be honest, it needs to be open, it needs to be based on evidence.”

Meanwhile, Caesar questioned whether building different stories that resonate with all sectors of society is the right approach: “Is it really necessary to convince most of the public that we have to act? Or is it just necessary to convince the politicians?,” she asked. “We don’t have the time to get everybody a personal story (…) I think we’re running out of time.”

Molina agreed, calling on his experience in providing the scientific evidence that prompted the Montreal Protocol banning CFCs: “We have to concentrate on decision makers because that’s what we did with the ozone layer,” he said. “It worked extremely well and we were able to convince the public subsequently.”

Three Innovative Ways to Communicate

In a separate session whose themes overlapped those in the panel discussion, the three Communicating Climate Change finalists of the Online Sciathon 2020Group Barreda, Group Bisztray and Group Enninful – took to the virtual floor to describe their innovative and unique approaches to effective climate change communication.

The presentation got off to a highly entertaining start, with Group Barreda boldly acting out an informative play for kids they had prepared over the course of the 48-hour Sciathon. This live demonstration was intended to show the potential for better communication that connects audiences to both the problems and solutions of climate change, as group leader Angela I. Barreda Gómez explained: “If I show (…) charts, facts and figures to my mom, my grandpa, my boyfriend or anyone who is not a scientist, this information becomes somewhat meaningless. The reasons for this are we tend to use way too much technical jargon, and the average person struggles to relate their day-to-day experiences to increased carbon emissions.”

While Group Barreda focused on messaging, Group Bisztray’s project addressed dissemination. Most scientists’, and even Nobel Laureates’, social networks are limited, the team argued. To spread climate change ideas more broadly, it makes sense to engage with media celebrities and influencers and make those ideas fashionable. They proposed the use of big data analysis to target specific Twitter users and the formation of a foundation to coordinate social media activities and communicate climate change messages beyond the scientific bubble.

Last up was Group Enninful. “We decided to look at the differences and similarities between COVID-19 and climate change,” explained group leader Henry Enninful. “And we see that both have exponential growth, and limited capacity or resources to contain them; there is an urgency for swift action – short-term sacrifices are required for long-term benefits; and they both have health-related problems.” Learning from effective communication strategies concerning COVID-19, the team developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for communicating the climate crisis and a proposal for a multifunctional mobile app that increases user awareness about climate change and helps them to engage in relevant initiatives.

As for the Capitalism after Corona Sciathon whose winner – Group Abdelmageed – was announced the previous day, selecting a victor must have been hard for the 15 jurors. But it was Group Bisztray that came out on top.  

About Ben Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.

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