What I learned about communicating climate change at Climate for Change


Conversation squareWhen I came to Climate for Change we were just finishing focus groups, and I was there for two design iterations of our gathering program. This was a great chance to get feedback and reflect on effective ways to engage people on climate change.

Some lessons we learned the hard way, some were thankfully passed on by the many wonderful people I encountered along the way who generously shared insights, knowledge, and critical thinking with us. (thank you, you know who you are!)

Here’s 6 takeaways from my six months at Climate for Change.

I should point out that our work was not climate change communications in the normal sense that we use the words: crafting messages for campaigns, mailers, websites, social media and news. We did do those things, but our main focus was training volunteers to conduct a two hour, deep discussion on climate change with a group of friends and friends of friends.

That said, research suggests that’s the kind of climate communications we really need, and a lot of what we discovered gels with current thinking around more traditional communications.

1. Assume Zero Knowledge, but don’t get hung up on it

Yes. Zero.

We were really surprised by how much of the knowledge we took for granted was not shared by the community, but if you think about this it is completely understandable and to be expected.

The audience we were trying to reach are people who are sympathetic to, but do not engage with climate change, so naturally, they haven’t sought out information about it, and probably haven’t given active attention to information they happen to see. The most they will know is whatever they’ve actively paid attention to in the news, their social media feed, or similar. They would preference bite sized, exciting content, so our audience are unlikely to have encountered the science and background to climate change.

(This is actually the same thing that I found in my earlier work with school students, but for different reasons)

This means that most people don’t know, or have an incomplete understanding of:

  • What global warming is,
  • What causes global warming,
  • What fossil fuels are,
  • What the impacts of global warming are,
  • When we will experience them,
  • What 1.5 or 2 degrees means,
  • How fast we need to act,
  • What carbon has to do with it all.

(Some of this we discovered through the focus groups, others come from research like the IPSOS Climate Change Report)

But, just because people don’t know these things about global warming that doesn’t mean that we need to embark on a massive information campaign. (they’ll probably switch off anyway)

In fact, we found this level of knowledge even in some people who are highly engaged volunteers. This gives a pretty good clue about how necessary this information is to move people to action.

So when discussing climate change and planning messaging, be mindful of avoiding language that will not be understood – take nothing for granted. But also ask yourself: do they need to know this in order to act? Do they need to know all of it?

2. Talk less, discuss more

We value knowledge more when we have to work for it, or even better, if we figure it out ourselves.

In our second iteration of the program, we cut the content for our facilitators substantially and replaced it with questions to guide a discussion along the key points.

This resulted in much better engagement. Everyone could be actively involved in the conversation instead of being expected to listen, which got them actively thinking about the topic.

Although we covered less content, we covered the content they really need to know much better. The content was better absorbed and accepted by the audience because they had worked through the alternatives themselves.

It’s another example of a lesson I’ve been learning my whole life – the group is often better at answering a question than you are. In this case, one of the ways they’re better is that they’ll express the answer in ways that are more meaningful to themselves, and they’ll process and retain it better.

3. Don’t make incredible claims, even if they’re true

While we were working on our program, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre released some excellent work on language used about people seeking asylum.

Among their findings was:

“People readily reject unpleasant facts that don’t match their worldview and then doubt the credibility of the messenger.”

In their talk at Melbourne Uni (you might also find they talk about it in their webinar), Anat Shenker-Osorio explained that Australian’s fundamentally did not believe that human rights would be abused on Australia’s watch. So messages telling people about human rights abuses, even if true, would undermine your credibility.

This was something that stuck in my mind as we designed our program. As we designed the program we reflected on the findings from our focus groups and discussed what was and wasn’t credible for us to share with our audience.

4. Tough questions are not climate skepticism

Early on, one of our facilitators had a tough crowd. They asked tonnes of questions and challenged the points he was putting across.

We debriefed together, established that he’d answered a lot of questions well, and reflected on what he would do differently next time. After we’d debriefed, he got an unexpected message from the host: “great session! everyone really enjoyed it”.

Lot’s of people have heard a lot of conflicting arguments about global warming. So when they get the chance to talk to someone with authority about it, it’s an opportunity to separate fact from fiction.

It can be easy to interpret a question as hostility, particularly in an area like global warming, where a lot of the discussion modelled in the media is hostile.

More often than not a question comes from the simple and genuine desire of wanting to know the answer.

5. People support volunteers

It’s amazing how much more receptive people are when volunteers tell them that they’re not paid to be there. What’s more, they become really supportive when they find out that they’ve given up 3 hours of your time to come and speak to them for no reason except than they care about the cause.

It’s a simple thing, but can go a long way to making people receptive to what you have to say.

6. Long time activists react differently to newcomers

Sometimes we’d be taken aback by the way our more experienced facilitators reacted to parts of the program. For example, when we extended the discussion section, we spent a good chunk of time helping the group to discover the many leverage points we have to effect change. This group would draw a diagram, eventually filling the page with the actions that could be taken.

For new comers, this was a great smorgasboard of opportunities, but for some people who had been with the movement longer, they felt overwhelmed.

We heard similar things in our focus groups from people who identified themselves as activists: they expressed a sense of “we’ve tried all that and nothing has changed”.

One of our facilitators found herself giving presentations to people who are more towards the activist end of the spectrum. She has been working on a different format to accommodate their differences.

I would really love to see some work done on this area to identify what the differences are between newcomers and veterans, and what messages work with each group.


What’s been a big lesson for you in learning to talk about climate change?