In building the Climate Atlas of Canada, one of our goals was to apply as much insight as possible from the growing world of communications research about the challenges of addressing science and climate change.
I very much liked Prof. Ed Maibach’s take on the five main things we must communicate about climate change, which I reorder slightly and summarize as:
- It’s real
- It’s us
- There’s consensus
- It’s serious
- There’s hope
(This is literally how I structured "Climate Change: the Basics" on the Climate Atlas.)
But the issue then, of course, is how to go about actually presenting these notions.We live in a communicative context that is dominated by our many human cognitive biases and social commitments, and our communications efforts have to take that fundamental reality into account.
I use these guidelines to remind myself that we understand the world as emotional, social, embodied beings, and not primarily through the abstraction, logic, and statistics that are the default mode of conveying scientific ideas. Never throw fact and argument out the window, but always remember that what is received as true and convincing is highly dependant on your audience.
Based on my engagement with the social science literature around communicating climate change, I developed this list of tactics that I try to follow, especially in the context of developing content for the web (although most of them aren’t medium specific.)
Each requires some elaboration, and I plan to expand on each of them as time permits, but to get started, here’s the list:
- Be truthful and evidence-based, but be only as technically precise as is possible within the constraints of the following goals.
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- Be generous and compassionate with an audience that will very likely be neither of those things.
- Assume a lack of shared values and information, skepticism about methods and conclusions, and expect to face suspicion rather than assent.
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- Remember that what convinces you about the reality and gravity of the situation will not convince everyone; but hold on to what did convince you, and what aspects of those experiences might help you communicate with others.
- Write simply and accessibly for a non-science and -math literate audience.
- Write with a narrative/storytelling sensibility wherever possible, even in very abbreviated form.
- Provide insight into the story, effort, passion, rigour, and practice of climate science rather than just offering up decontextualized factual outcomes and conclusions.
- Don't expect assertions and truth claims to be accepted: set context, explain where evidence Y comes from and why we draw conclusion X from it.
- Don't assume the reader is willing to read another page; do as much as possible with their having given attention to this one.
- Keep texts relatively short, but brevity is less important than the foregoing attitude to to the material and audience.
- Structure texts for internet audiences (short paragraphs; clearly demarcated sections; relegate additional details to collapsible "read more" sections; provide frequent, engaging images / figures).