Creative Carbon Scotland’s Guide to Communicating Climate Change

21st April 2020

Communicating Climate Change 6

Communicating about your organisation's green work and issues of climate change is vitally important. But it's important to get this communication right, and in a way which is effective and appropriate for your audiences.

The guide offers advice and information drawn from research into climate communication and suggests potential actions as well as further resources.

In this guidance you will find information on:

  • Why you should be talking about climate change
  • What makes people take climate action
  • What you can do
  • Potential actions to take
  • Useful resources

Why you should be talking about climate change

Communicating about climate change is important. Surveys show that more people than ever see climate change as a major threat but often perceive others to be less concerned. Communicating about environmental action combats this sense of isolation and encourages us to think of climate action as a community effort and, increasingly, as the norm: in turn, influencing wider society and decision makers.

The cultural sector is well-positioned to lead on climate action communication:

  • We have a large and diverse reach across the population, with 92% of adults in Scotland being engaged with culture in some form every year.
  • We are adept at communicating in more complex or alternative ways – a particularly important skills given that evidence suggests that merely presenting people with the facts of climate change is not enough to make them take action (see below).
  • We also need it to succeed internally: communication is equally important for building support for sustainability within your organisation or sector.

What makes us take climate action

There is no conclusive answer to this question, but evidence increasingly seems to suggest that it’s not enough to merely inform people of the science. Longstanding behaviour change requires us coming to think of climate action as part of our identity or values. Here are two slightly different perspectives on this:

  1. Climate Outreach advocate a shift from ‘Nudge’ approaches to ‘Think’. A ‘nudge‘ method encourages people to make easy behaviour changes (such as abandoning plastic straws) with the hope that this behaviour change would then spill over into more difficult but more impactful changes. However, the evidence for the success of this approach is limited. Instead we have to help people ‘think‘, encouraging them to understand why the changes are necessary and encouraging them to see themselves as the kind of people who would make these changes.
  2. The Scottish Government’s ‘Shifting Normal’ guide suggests a number of factors which climate change communications need to consider if they are to produce behaviour change. Ideally, we need people to be able to say yes to all these questions:

Does it feel right? (Emotional factors)

Does it make sense? (Rational factors)

Does it fit into my day? (Time factors)

Can I do it? (Ability factors)

People’s answers to these questions will depend on Individual, Social, and Material (ISM) factors. For example, we are far less likely to adopt a behaviour change if it seems inconsistent with the community that we are part of, as we may feel that we lack knowledge or fear losing social capital by behaving differently from the rest of our community. Evidence suggests that if climate communications appear to attack or challenge the values of a person’s community then they are much more likely to be put on the defensive and will seek to reject your arguments.

Good climate communications requires going beyond the scientific facts to connect green issues with individuals’ and communities’ beliefs, experiences and daily lives. As a result, communication which is more connected with identity, emotion and collective experience is more powerful. Luckily, our arts and culture sector is an expert in such connected communication.

What you can do

Climate change communication takes many forms and could occur through blogs on your website, social media posts, artistic programming of climate-related work, outreach events, themed staff meetings, conference presentations, or whatever format is appropriate for your organisation.

Communication won’t necessarily lead to immediate change, but it should lay the foundation for action. It should not alienate people by making them feel excluded, targeted, or disempowered.

Here are some suggestions for areas to consider:

  • Find effective ways into the issue: research has shown that good starting points include local impacts (such as flooding and heatwaves) that show connections with people’s everyday life; the health impacts of climate change; the co-benefits of climate action for social justice, finance, or health; and adaption policies, which tend to be less divisive than mitigation ones.
    • The Scottish Government’s Big Climate Conversation reported that the three areas most commonly cited as important by respondents were: A holistic and system-wide approach, government leadership to change the system, and a just transition.
  • Think about who your audience is: different methods will be effective for different audiences. For example, Climate Outreach suggests that for politically centre-right audiences, who have been historically harder to engage with environmental issues, key framing devices might be: ‘restoring balance and preservation’, ‘responsibility and fairness’, ‘natural beauty’ and ‘avoiding waste’. Another study found that centre-right audiences responded better to comparing our current situation to the past than to the future.
    • When thinking about stakeholders and audiences you might want to consider questions like ‘who has influence to create change?’ or  ‘who is not being involved in climate action?’
  • Consider how information is presented: much advice around climate communications emphasises the importance of strong images, particularly including people and positive action. The Climate Visuals project is devoted to supporting good practice in this area as well as providing access to creative commons photos.
    • The metaphors we use to describe climate action also make a difference. One study found that when participants were presented with the same information but using metaphorical language that framed climate action as a ‘war’ or a ‘race’, the ‘war’ group described themselves as substantially more likely to take action afterwards. We might want to avoid recourse to such metaphors, but comparisons to ‘disease’ for example have also been found to be effective.
  • Vary your approach: using multiple formats and media will allow you to reach a wider range of audiences in more ways. You might want to think about the different questions discussed in the ‘Shifting Normal‘ guide and consider which methods would be most effective for engaging with them.
    • You should also consider who the ‘messenger’ is. The person communicating also has a strong impact on our willingness to accept what they say. If I see the person as someone from my own community or sharing a common interest or lifestyle, I am immediately more disposed to believe them.
  • Make people feel empowered: people can cope with strongly negative information about climate change but only if it is paired with a sense that they can make a difference and that the situation isn’t hopeless. Similarly, if people feel they are being blamed or targeted, they are less likely to respond positively.
Communicating Climate Change 2

Image of local climate change impacts from Climate Visuals’ image library, https://climatevisuals.org/. Credit: Christian Julliard

Potential actions to take

Here are some ideas for things that you might want to consider doing.

  • Even if it feels obvious, explain why you are taking environmentally friendly actions, relating them back to the underlying issues that we are facing so that they can be understood in context rather than in isolation.
  • Make your environmental policy accessible on your website and share it with all your members of staff, encouraging discussion of it. Take a look at some examples of strong publicly accessible environmental policies here.
  • Display the Green Arts Initiative logo on your website, in your building, or in communications through email footers for example.
  • Find time on social media to discuss your green work, perhaps as part of #GreenArts Day. Effective social media posts encourage sharing and feature strong images, infographics, or even memes.
  • Include environmental issues in staff or board meetings and encourage staff to have a say on your environmental policy.
  • Share your green work within the sector through case studies, talks, or blogs.
  • If you do engagement events or activities, think about who the audience is, what will speak to them, and what you would like to be the result beyond increased awareness. Read here about how Fife Contemporary participated in the Climate Conversations programme.
  • If you programme environmental work, think about how you can go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ (audiences who might already be taking climate action) through collaborating with different ‘messengers’, hosting associated discussion events, or communicating at an organisational level as to why you have made this artistic choice.

A webpage with a headline reading: Green Arts Day: 7 projects making craft greener in 2020

A blog post from Green Arts Initiative member Craft Scotland

Useful resources

  • Climate Outreach are the best one-stop-shop for tips and theory on how to communicate about climate change.
  • Climate Visuals offer advice as well as a library of creative commons and copyright free photos.
  • The Scottish Government’s Shifting Normal report clearly lays out their framework for how to influence behaviour change.
  • The Centre for Artistic Activism has a number of resources about how the arts can help encourage people to take action or change behaviour.
  • The Climate Communication Project has lots of pages and reports devoted to practical advice
  • The Climate Reality Project offers blogs on how climate communication can go beyond facts alone.
  • This ODI Blog has some helpful tips on climate change communication

Advice for a More Sustainable Fringe 1

This guidance is part of Creative Carbon Scotland’s resources for our Green Arts community: a network of cultural organisations in Scotland committed to reducing their environmental impact. Find out more and join for free on our Green Arts Initiative page.

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

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