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The challenge of communicating unwelcome

climate messages
Tim Rayner and Asher Minns, Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia
Better engagement of policymakers, planners and wider society with climate scientists and other experts, to evaluate evidence and move towards adaptive responses,
requires new approaches to communication. With the probability that global mean temperature rise can be kept below the 2oC target continuing to diminish, citizens and
organisations need to engage with the kind of knowledge about the likelihood and implications of severe future impacts that few want to hear. The EU-funded HELIX
project brought together individuals from a range of disciplinary and organisational backgrounds for a workshop to discuss how the challenges of high-end scenarios can
most effectively be communicated. Participants suggested that unless the complexity of dealing with the thousands of decisions that might be affected by high-end
climate change can be simplified, and the emotional implications are handled sensitively, simply presenting audiences with the prospect of a 4 C world is more likely to
provoke rejection, fatalism and disengagement than adaptive responses. New forms of communication, with new audiences in new venues are needed, through which
unwelcome messages can be conveyed to citizens and decision makers in a more context-specific manner.

What are the unwelcome messages?

Recognising emotions, loss and the need for hope

The likelihood of higher levels of warming and greater extremes, potentially

occurring sooner than previously thought e.g. 4oC rise in 2060s may be increasing.

Higher-end impacts jeopardise increased prosperity and lower inequality.

Underestimating the likelihood of exceeding 2oC may render much current policy
and planning maladaptive. Adaptation may need to be transformational, involving
e.g. abandonment of currently cherished policy objectives and settlements.

Meeting the 2C target means leaving 1/3 of oil reserves, 1/2 of gas reserves and
>80% of coal unused from 2010 to 2050, (McGlade and Ekins 2015).
Policy responses will likely become more interventionist and disruptive,
presenting ideological difficulties for many.

Friendly communicators of frightening climate science must remain

human, recognizing their own feelings and emotions, and those of
others. More safe spaces for this can lead to emotional connections
that open up energy and engagement. There is a need to:
do something braver than try to save the world we have known.
We must accept the fact that the world we have known is going to
change in hideous and damaging ways (McKibben 2010).

Visioning inspiring, dignified futures

Despite this, hope must be maintained. This requires that the unwelcome outcome is
uncertain, not assured. The most hopeful are those who are the most engaged and who
maintain strong social networks. Real hope requires:
Clear-eyed diagnosis: Where are we at?
Vision of a worthwhile outcome: What is achievable?
Feasible path: How can we get from here to there?
Strategy for setbacks and interim goals: What to do when the going gets tough?
Meaningful role for me: What can I do?
Doing it together: What will you (others) do?

Positive experiences of bad news communication

Honestly conveying bad (terrifying) news carries risks for established academics, wary of
accusations of alarmism, but also clear rewards, as Susanne Moser and others have found ...

To whom are they unwelcome?

The workshop focused on how to communicate to a
number of audiences:

politicians, planners,


wider publics.
Results will be available as a HELIX project briefing.

I hope to make it required reading for the

[agency] management team and the Climate
Cabinet. (Brian)
I have just finished "Getting Real About It" []
with both horror and enormous gratitude for the
way you are able to tell us what's really
happening with clarity and compassion.

What lessons from climate communication efforts to date?

If decision stakes and uncertainties high, post-normal science/ co-production is

the ideal - not linear-rational or information-deficit models.

People who generate their own unwelcome

messages are more likely to accept them.

Communication of uncertainty is under-explored.

Over-reliance on geoscientific language can frame

climate change as unstoppable and catastrophic, or in
terms of global mean temp. limits that fail to resonate.

Neglecting insights from psychology has been a

waste. Fear messaging can be counter-productive
(leading to disengagement, defensive avoidance or
rejection), if not accompanied by information for
remedial actions.

Certain framings of the challenge appeal to some,

but repel others, depending on the values they reflect;
the term adaptation may not resonate for many

Stressing implications for localities where people live can improve engagement.

So how should these messages be communicated?

The worst-case, not accurate prediction, is most relevant to risk-based decision

making. But on this there is relatively little communication, even from IPCC AR5.

Avoid arbitrary future cut-off dates, which can exclude largest impacts.

Pay less attention to the central tendency (what is most-likely), and more to the
significant chance that climate sensitivity is high, and the implications.

Communicate the impacts important to specific decision makers.

Utilise individuals who could be great communicators in their own networks.

Tools and wherewithal to use knowledge are necessary; peer-to-peer learning

can be especially useful (see Mayors Adapt EU cities initiative, World Banks Turn
Down the Heat MOOC)

Highlight to planners the analytical frameworks available for robust decision

making that can reduce complexity in dealing with myriad decisions.

For the wider public, dont always start with climate, but with places people
value, then showing how climate affects them. Include narratives and stories; more
experiential learning activities.

Moser, S.C. (2012) Getting real about it: Navigating the psychological and social demands of a world in distress. In: Rigling Gallagher,
D. et al (eds), Sage Handbook on Environmental Leadership, SAGE.
Moser, S.C. (2014) Whither the Heart(-to-Heart)? Prospects for a humanistic turn in environmental communication as the world
changes darkly. In: Hansen, A. and R. Cox (eds.), Handbook on Environment and Communication. London: Routledge.

Towards principles of communicating unwelcome climate messages

To avoid being narrators of doom, but instead foster adaptive
coping strategies, communicators must move:
1. from delivering unwelcome messages
to participating in difficult dialogues
2. from delivering scientific findings
to making a human connection
3. from thinking we just speak to the mind
to deliberately engaging the heart
4. from merely giving bad news
to taking people on an emotional journey
5. from triggering fight-or-flight
to motivating active engagement
This presents significant new demands on communicators, and the venues in which they
communicate, requiring a move beyond traditional formats for communication such as lectures
and debates.
To build a relationship with particular audiences takes more time and attention to process; first to
hear audience concerns, then to offer science and help conceive of possible solutions. This is
likely to need multi-disciplinary teams and new skill sets among communicators.
Drawings by:
HELIX is sixteen climate research organisations funded through the EU to work together to explore
consequences and responses to the challenge of high-end global warming.