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Our main recommendations for how to improve climate communications...

Our Top Ten

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Unpack how climate change multiplies oppression, rather than simply state that it does.

People do not readily understand this, and need help connecting the dots through explanation, examples and comparisons.

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Although young people are much more receptive to this idea, most people don’t see how climate change impacts on existing injustices and inequalities—for example, that women make up 80% of people displaced by climate change, due to their roles as primary caregivers. We might be able to draw on the mainstream awareness of the racialised impacts of COVID-19 as an example of how crises tend to hit some groups harder. And we can use sentiments like: ‘we’re weathering the same storm but not all of us are in the same boat’ to illustrate the point that climate change is a universal phenomenon but with vastly unequal impacts.
Be specific about countries or communities, rather than using broad terms like ‘Global South’.

Most people don’t use ‘Global South’ and are confused about where and who it refers to.

We should name the nations, places or communities we are talking about, or at least give examples after using broad geographical or geopolitical terms. Many people use terms like ‘third world’ and ‘undeveloped’ rather than ‘Global South’, and, in any case, these terms tend to be used vaguely, often in a homogenising dehumanising way, sometimes including countries like China, sometimes not.

Emphasise the value of self-direction when talking about affected groups.

We should make the case that it is intrinsically important for groups affected by climate change to have a say in decisions that affect them.

We should talk about the need for ‘voice’, ‘self-determination’, ‘freedom’, ‘having a say’. We should also talk about principles like ‘we should all be able to participate in decisions that affect us’, and that ‘we have something important to learn from people with direct experience of climate change’. Be careful to avoid frames that suggest we intend to extract solutions from affected communities, or burden them with solving the problem.

Tried and tested In our frame testing, we found that the value of self-direction was powerful for encouraging a climate justice analysis (it was more powerful than frames appealing to ‘community’ or ‘security’). The self-direction value made people more likely to say that climate change impacts the most marginalised, and it also made people call for governments of poorer countries to have a bigger say in the solutions.
Focus on narratives of solidarity and shared humanity.

Solidarity is central. When talking about affected groups we should avoid ‘us and them’ narratives, while also avoiding ‘charity’ or ‘saviour’ framings.

Although the term ‘solidarity’ may not be widely used beyond activist circles, we can still infer it in other ways, for example by talking about ‘standing shoulder to shoulder’ and ‘working together’. We must build affinity between the people who are most impacted by climate change, in a way that focuses on our shared humanity, for instance emphasising the experiences, identities and concerns we have in common, rather than framing ‘them’ as ‘out there’ for us to ‘help’.

Tried and testedIn our frame testing, we found that a solidarity narrative particularly helped to make people receptive to the idea that the least responsible for climate change are the most affected, and that those affected should play a bigger role in developing solutions.

Address people’s distrust of government when appealing to government responsibility.

If we call for government policies, targets and actions then we need to build confidence that these measures will actually help address the problem.

This means talking about where resources will go, and the mechanisms that ensure they help the people intended. Wherever you stand on the role of government in responding to climate change, if we are calling on the government to take action then we have to acknowledge and contend with people’s lack of trust in government to act in our best interests.

This is particularly important when talking about international solidarity as people are wary of ‘corrupt governments abroad’ wasting aid money.
Use examples and metaphors to introduce the principle of system design.

Climate change is a systemic problem, but it is difficult to think in terms of systems. We can find ways in with relatable examples and metaphors.

We should talk about the social and environmental harms of consumerism, drawing on examples like the textile industry (e.g. cheap t-shirts on our high streets coming from Bangladesh), as an accessible way to bridge to more widespread and fundamental problems in the economy.

The good news is that people instinctively feel that consumerism is part of the problem. We need to build from there and connect this with solutions that are proportionate and involve system change (rather than, say, tinkering with technology). We should emphasise that systems are a product of human intention and design, which can be redesigned.

We should be careful to stress that it’s the system that is wrong, rather than human nature being fundamentally greedy and flawed. It is difficult to talk about systems because they are large, complex and abstract - metaphors, such as a ‘rigged game’, can help us with this.

Tried and testedIn our frame testing, we found that using metaphorical language to talk about the economy helped make some of these ideas more relatable and accessible. All the metaphors we tested were useful, particularly in priming people to understand the inequalities built into the economy: The economy as a ‘rigged game’, the economy as an architectural ‘blueprint’ and the economy as a ‘shared meal’.

Connect the dots between colonialism and climate change using system design.

If we can build the idea of system design, we can show how some of these design principles have historical roots.

Making the connections between colonialism and climate change is crucial - but it’s no small task. For most people, these are entirely unrelated. Even though people can see how our current system contributes to unfair social and environmental impacts in Global South countries, there isn’t an understanding of how this might be related to a legacy of colonialism and trade. Good frames can help us with this, but there are several gaps in understanding to fill.

A good starting place to start is with the concept of system design. We can talk about how today’s exploitative ‘design patterns’ are centuries old - that countries in the Global North have a long legacy of fuelling exploitation elsewhere for our own ends. Where we can, we must name that the extractive mindset of colonialism forged the fossil fuel economy. We must also explain how system solutions for the environment must at the same time address racial injustice.

The incredible labour of the Movement for Black Lives, in bringing the legacy of colonialism into popular consciousness, might make it easier to make these connections.
Talk about local and global in the same breath.

If we are talking about internationality solidarity (or reparations) we need to reassure people that our problems here will be addressed too.

For example, in your communications you could: start a sentence with Yorkshire, end it with Bangladesh. We can emphasise where the problems and solutions are the same, whether we are talking about the climate crisis here in the UK or on the other side of the world. We can draw on the pandemic as an example of how crisis anywhere affects us everywhere. Many people need to feel reassured that our problems in the UK will be addressed, so if talking about international solidarity we need to actively address concerns like: ‘we’ve got enough problems on our own doorstep’ and ‘how can we trust where the money goes?’. We must counter the idea that it is a ‘zero-sum game’ - that putting resources to international efforts means we take resources away from domestic efforts.

Do not rely on emergency framing.

We should acknowledge the reality and urgency of the climate crisis, but not bombard people with heavy messages of emergency and doom.

We should dial down on crisis and doom when messaging climate justice, and make sure that our emphasis is elsewhere (i.e. on the need for solidarity).

Our research shows that most people already think that climate change is an emergency. And we know from other research into climate communications that “fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement” (O’Neil et al., 2009).

At this point, we need to put our efforts into motivating people that the right kinds of climate justice solutions are possible, not into making people more afraid about what’s ahead. Emergency frames have the effect of narrowing people’s perspectives, making them less open to complex and creative solutions.

Tried and testedIn our frame testing we found that emergency narratives (‘crisis of unprecedented scale’, ’irreversible harm’, ‘catastrophic effects’) move people’s thinking in both helpful and unhelpful ways.

A significant backfire effect, and the main reason we suggest exercising caution, is that they make people more likely to say climate change has no impact on existing injustices. In all of our messages, the emergency message was the worst on this front. In fact, it was worse than saying nothing at all because it actually moved people in an unhelpful direction.

Another consequence of using emergency frames is that they make people more likely to advocate top down solutions, from scientists and experts. If we are advocating for a greater role for frontline and indigenous communities, or generally more citizen-led direction on climate change, emergency frames make it harder to advocate for this.
Leverage the hope people do have!

People actually think we could still address climate change, if we take big and drastic measures. We should appeal to this hope.

This means focusing on positive, hopeful messages that motivate the feeling that it’s possible to act. We know that people are relatively hopeful about solutions in the longer term, even if not in the short term. We can celebrate the hope that has been inspired by responses to the pandemic: for instance hope in human nature, hope in community solidarity, hope in international cooperation. A long time communications rule is to ‘leave guilt and fear at the door’, but it's one we should still try to follow.

We should also emphasise how much other people care about climate change. People tend to underestimate this, assuming that others don’t really care. ​But research shows that when people are told about the huge number of people who actually support action on climate change, their own level of support increases. (Mildenberger & Tingley, 2017). So we should emphasise how much people both care about climate change and want it to be addressed - which will encourage people to care more themselves.

Framing Climate Justice

A 12-month project bringing together organisers from across the climate movement to tell the stories that matter, and strengthen our movement in the fight for justice.

Hosted by PIRC, & NEON.