Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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Leave your bubble – connecting climate communication to its users

Impulse text by Dr. Cornelia Auer, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany

Keeping global warming to well below 2°C is going to require global systems transitions that are unprecedented in scale. It is also going to necessitate significant emissions reductions in all sectors of society (IPCC – SR15). Accordingly, a broad variety of stakeholders from each sector will need to be involved in implementing this process. As policy increasingly turns towards making commitments to carbon neutrality, and as new diverse stakeholder groups continue to emerge, the short time frame in which to supply simultaneously digestible and rigorous information is likely to place enormous pressure on climate communicators. As the actors and stakeholders involved will need to undertake strategic planning and make informed decisions, the communication of climate information across a broad spectrum of users will be essential if these transformations are supposed to be successful. At the moment, it appears that a global social tipping point towards substantial climate protection is on the horizon, and this will need to be served successfully in order to materialize. Communication projects today often take on the character of “single-shot” opportunities to provide groups with as much information as possible in a short period of time, with learning and trial-by-error reduced to a minimum and quick progress sought in the uptake of information. With this situation in mind, this impulse paper takes a step back to focus on what we see as an essential factor in determining the success of climate communication efforts, namely user integration. In other words, instead of placing the full weight of responsibility on the shoulders of communication producers, our idea is to actively integrate the intended users and stakeholders into the production process. The insights contained in this paper were gained in the course of the SENSES project, which aimed at making complex information, such as climate change scenarios, more accessible to key stakeholders active in policymaking and business. We believe that the key insights from that project also hold for other climate communication projects.

While climate communication certainly needs to be re-imagined in terms of new images and formats, we argue that a similar transformation must take place in the way this communication is actually produced. We plead here for a deeper interconnection of scientific knowledge as a way of meeting the high quality standards required in the short time available. We see the path towards achieving this higher connectivity in the act of linking information closer to its users, i.e. by actually co-producing information together with users.

Figure 1 (left): User questions do not match with the information provided, prompting the user to search beyond the public interface. Figure 1 (right): Scientific information is recompiled to match user questions. The user has orthogonal access to the reqired information.

Climate change information is not always directly usable and useful (Lemos et al., 2012), because it first requires an appropriate translation and communication to fit the particular context in which it is going to be applied (Cash et al., 2003). The context of climate information has to be related to the reality of the users, and this requires a change in perspective on the part of the information provider. Involving the user in the communication design process can help to start directly from user questions and provide useable and useful information.

Figure 2. Recompiled data matching the user question "Is individual or freight transport producing more CO2 emissions?" allows users to directly infer instructional knowledge as to where large amounts of emissions can be avoided.

In science, it is often the case that information is merely displayed without making sure that it addresses user questions in a comprehensible manner (Fig. 1 left). This makes the provision of information inefficient, as users must then go beyond the provided information and search for relevant information by themselves. It even bears the risk of leading to misconceptions and/or misuse, for example when specific information is picked without regard for context (e.g. using projections of high fossil fuel use in the future and ignoring associated negative emission technologies required for such a pathway). In contrast, in a best case scenario, relevant user questions are directly addressed and appropriate information/data compiled or newly produced. Users are given “orthogonal” access to the required information (Fig. 1, right). Of course, this requires that the ‘right questions’ are elicited, which can be demanding. Still, besides being efficient, this approach comes with multiple advantages, including the following:

  1. Reduced complexity: Orthogonal access to information providing answers to user questions makes it possible to remove a lot of complexity and enhances the broad uptake of information (outside of the academic sphere) by everyone from business executives under significant time pressure to citizens with little climate background. An example of citizen communication can be seen in Figure 2. In this case, a user asked where the largest opportunities for reducing CO2 emissions were in Germany and whether individual or freight transport was the greatest contributor to transport CO2 emissions. Surprisingly, this information was not available across transport studies. Only by recompiling data to address this specific question was it possible to provide Figure 2, with the simple and clear statement that individual transport produces nearly twice as much emissions compared to freight in Germany.
  2. Enhanced relevance: Taking the effort to recompile data or even produce new data to serve tangible user needs also generates positive feedback with regard to the relevance of scientific output and the convergence process between user questions and science (Lemos et al., 2012). Compiling information that matches user questions makes data instantly relevant to users and provides actionable, instructional knowledge that can be directly employed in the working context of a decision maker (McNie, 2012; Perrels et al., 2020). Furthermore, credibility levels increase when information is not hidden in the background but instead compiled transparently at the forefront.
  3. Information quality & robustness: Taking other perspectives into account also has a strong positive impact on the realism and legitimacy of scenarios. It fosters important mutual information sharing between users and producers of climate information. Presenting data from a new perspective can potentially come with unpleasant surprises, e.g. when data suddenly appears inconsistent or no longer comprehensive. This effect can be compared to the agile testing concept in code development. The general idea behind this is that if objects are always used from the same perspective or person, problems such as misconceptions and inconsistencies often don’t become apparent and remain unrevealed. Forcing climate science to probe outcomes from different angles also has a strong validation effect and makes the information more robust. Considering the challenge of climate neutrality that lies ahead, this value cannot be underestimated.

Undoubtedly, it is crucial that we continue to develop new images and formats of climate communication. However, we can no longer afford a situation in which climate communication does not meet tangible user needs. Co-producing climate communication with actual users fosters the success of communication endeavours. And, although it comes with the burden of additional work and exchange, experience has shown that this path also generates a very rewarding opportunity to witness how science and communication can become truly relevant and useful. It would also behove us to acknowledge that scientists and users of academic output live in entirely different universes of interests, assumptions and professional jargon. Communication can bring this broad spectrum together by convening the various actors, by co-producing targeted information and by building bridges between the groups. Fortunately, there have been many contributions made towards this target in recent years (among others, Cay et al., 2020; Dörk et al., 2020). This is crucial in helping scientists leave their ivory towers and create networks to user groups that can enhance the relevance and uptake of their research findings.


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