Warm and fuzzy works: communicating climate change to achieve richer public engagement

Comparison of good (top) and bad millet yields, in Ghana's Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures. Source:
The use of informal language and approaches could prove the best method in getting people engaged in climate related activities. Images are also powerful, above image showing millet affected by failed rains. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

by Paul Stapleton

Paradoxically, a group of scientists packed into a meeting room at the Plant under Pressure conference to discuss how to communicate climate change and improve the public’s consideration of the issue. Luckily, these scientists were actually psychologists and sociologists, who have been busy doing empirical experiments on the public.

Mathieu Jahnich, from Missions Publique, a French public participation agency, and colleagues, worked in the city of Nantes, which has established a public participation policy on climate change and a local climate plan to reduce emissions by 50%. They surveyed 2500 people out of a population of 600 000, and selected 150 families to have either three or seven meetings during 2011. The main goal was to identify the most appropriate public actions to take and the barriers that might exist to changing behaviour. They found that households that attended seven meetings in the year felt involved and supported, but those attending only three meetings were much harder to mobilize.

“The participants preferred hopeful campaigns, rooted in their everyday lives, with short messages that promoted responsible behaviour,” said Jahnich. The researchers also revealed several barriers, including the financial cost of meeting low-emitting solutions, the overabundance of information, force of habit and geographical location. However, even though the survey only intended to understand barriers to communication and changing behaviours, the participants did in fact change their habits, such as giving up the use of a second car and reducing their meat consumption.

Hebba Haddad spoke about the roles of ‘tone of voice’ and uncertainty when communicating climate change information, from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, UK. As scientists, or people used to being around scientists, we understand that uncertainty is a range of outcomes expressed as probabilities, but the research showed that people actively avoid messages that communicate uncertainty. “Uncertainty makes people averse to acting,” said Haddad, “So the challenge is to buffer the effects that come from uncertainty.”

Effective communication does not reside solely in the message, people also unconsciously analyse peripheral data, such as who is communicating the information and how they feel about them. Scientists prefer to use language that transfers as much scientific information as possible, highlighting uncertainties and focusing on information content, whereas communicators, who understand their audience, will minimize uncertainty and use a warm, more friendly style of communication.

The boffins from Exeter presented subjects with two different websites, one written in a more informal style, using language like “We are …” and “We believe…”, and a one that was more formal and distant. The open style engaged the audience and gives the impression of being more trustworthy and honest, so the people had more confidence in the information. Reporting greater levels of uncertainty reduced belief in the message and trust in the institution. “Uncertainty is a barrier, but an open style will cultivate engagement, which will increase behavioural modification,” concluded Haddad.

In the subsequent discussion, it came out that many people feel very distant from the issue of climate change, as much of the information was second hand, so the idea of using informal language and approaches was very valuable. The idea of operating in a group to make an effect, rather than individually, was also an important factor, and an efficient way of keeping people involved.

A BBC UK journalist stressed that although climate change was a global issue, any story needed to relate the subject to local and national issues to be published and to get attention. The discussion panel highlighted that scientists should step enthusiastically into the popular social media, to affirm the image of being approachable, as well as making efforts to engage the media. Researchers also confirmed that tailoring information to what audiences cared about and appealing to their sense of identity are powerful factors in engaging the public.

Written by Paul Stapleton, Head of Communications at the World Agroforestry Centre. Follow the coverage of the Planet Under Pressure conference all week on our blog as well as Twitter @cgiarclimate and Facebook. You can also see the full list of CGIAR events and stories from the conference.