Communicating climate change: A hot topic?

Communicating climate change: A hot topic?

Climate change presents all kinds of communication difficulties. Too often, the key message can be confused or lost because of intrinsic scientific uncertainties. This article discusses a few key points to shape effective climate change communication.

When you talk to someone who isn’t an Earth scientist about climate change, you’re likely to get one of two responses: flat-eyed indifference – boredom, even – or panic. People tend to view climate change either as a problem that belongs to someone else, somewhere else, in some distant time, or as something too enormous to fathom, possibly coupled with a sense of helplessness at ever doing anything to address it.

Why the difference in reactions? Our communications company believes it is because of the way the scientific community works. Science is meant to be an evidence-based pursuit, with any claim to knowledge or “truth” stemming from repeated observations of the world both within the laboratory and outside it. These observations are couched in statistical methods and phrases: a good scientist will never say “X causes Y”. He or she will rather describe a “strong correlation” between X and Y, and hedge their bets with a “confidence level”. To confuse matters even further, climatologists rely on scientific modelling – observing the world’s weather patterns over time, deriving rules from these observations and then constructing a model that allows them to predict what will happen to variable X if there are changes in variables Y and Z.

All of this serves to add complexity and uncertainty to climate change theories and forecasts. These are good scientific practices, and important requirements for furthering our understanding of the world and everything in it, but they don’t make for good communication. Humans are simple creatures, capable of absorbing only small chunks of information at a given time: according to Miller’s law, we can only hold between five and nine items in our working memory. All this considered, it is a terrible waste of mental bandwidth to use one of those knowledge points to convey uncertainty.

As a civil engineering professional, you play an important role in the fight against climate change. You shape the way we interact with our natural environment, whether by improving public transport systems or by building structures that reduce our energy and water usage. This means that, at times, you may be called on to communicate the importance of climate change to those who don’t really know about it (or, worse, don’t really care). We believe that playing to the narrower end of the attention spectrum and limiting your message to a maximum of five key points will help you in this endeavour. In that spirit we would like to highlight a few salient points when it comes to communicating about climate change.

At the Adaptation Futures climate change conference held in Cape Town in June this year, the deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Ovais Sarmad, noted that 18.8 million people were displaced because of climate change disasters in 2017. That’s 36 people
a minute. And over the past year, Cape Town’s extreme water shortages have placed South Africa’s vulnerability to climate change in the spotlight. Climate change affects everyone, and everyone needs to play a part in understanding, mitigating and adapting to its effects.

Climate change is already happening, but we can slow it down, prepare for its effects and – maybe – lessen its impacts. If we don’t act, the global situation will get worse … much worse. No one can accurately predict exactly what will happen or on what time frame, but the general consensus is that the way we use our natural resources needs to change. If we are to correct our planet’s current climate trajectory and secure the survival of our species, we need to stop damaging our climate systems by pumping out insane levels of greenhouse gases – and we need to do so quickly.

Most people are aware that greenhouse gases cause global warming, but it is incredibly difficult to change human behaviours to become more energy efficient. We have built an environment that divorces us so effectively from the means of energy production that few people make the connection between setting the office air-conditioner to 17 degrees Celsius in the heat of summer and the increase in the number of sweltering hot days. Even if they do make the connection on an intellectual level, they might just not care when faced with a very hot day. “I’ll just put on the aircon for half an hour,” they might say to themselves. “Half an hour won’t hurt.” This may be true until three million people think the same thing.

Changing the way we design and construct our buildings is one of the few ways we can reliably reduce energy usage. Hotel Verde in Cape Town, for instance, holds six stars from the Green Building Council of South Africa for, among other things, its innovative energy-saving design. The hotel is built on top of a hundred 65 m deep boreholes, each equipped with U-bend pipes. At this depth the temperature of the ground is constant, at about 19 degrees Celsius. Water gets passed down and up the pipes from the building’s heating and cooling system, dumping heat underground in summer and gaining heat in winter. The ground therefore acts as a huge thermal battery.

Climate change needs to become a mainstream concern. We all need to have an informed opinion about climate change and some personal anecdotes on what we are doing to combat it. We need to care about it as much as we care about the increasing price of petrol or our national sporting victories. Only when it becomes part of the fabric of our lives will we be able to act at the scale necessary to combat climate change.

In the same way that there were still people watering their front lawns in the height of Cape Town’s drought, you will come across people who are oblivious to climate change concerns in your professional life. Perhaps it’s an architect who still designs like its 1999, or a financier who is too focused on short-term profits and fails to consider the long-term sustainability of projects.

If you find yourself in the position of trying to persuade others to consider climate change in their approach to work or life, the pointers in the box on page 22 may be of help. These are the bedrock of effective communication in any form, regardless of the topic. Don’t be deceived by how simple they seem: they can be incredibly difficult to implement correctly.

Communicating clearly and directly is often harder than we expect. It is hardest when communicating about complex problems like climate change. But this is an unavoidable step in convincing more people to take action on climate change. Engineering and built environment professionals in South Africa perform to global standards of excellence. Shouldn’t our communications about the environment match?

Three steps to communicating clearly

The three steps noted here are interrelated: once you know your audience, you can distil the essence of your message. Once you have a clear message, you can focus on a few tangible examples of action. These steps are the basics that apply regardless of the length or format of your communication. Effective communication is a powerful tool. We hope these steps increase your effectiveness in fighting climate change.

1 Think about your audience
Frame your message in a way that resonates with a specific group. This demonstrates that you understand the target group’s needs and context, which in turn builds trust. For example, if you are an architect talking to a builder, you may want to point out that lower volatile organic compound paints have become cheaper over the past few years. (You may also need to play an educating role. Not all builders necessarily know that volatile organic compounds are compounds that easily convert to gases, creating that “new paint” smell, polluting the air and contributing to climate change.) Similarly, if you are talking to potential investors, you may want to highlight the increasing returns on green building or on renewable energy in South Africa.

Knowing your audience is about more than just appealing to their interests or informing them of the facts. It is also about tailoring your message so that they can understand and engage with it. Is the language you’re using appropriate? Will they understand what you are trying to say? If not, consider simplifying the terms you use. You may also need to think about your tone and your objective. Do you want to inform, engage or provoke your audience? Your intent will differ depending on context – a provocative debate on climate change may be appropriate in lecture halls, but not at a municipal infrastructure indaba.

2 Keep your message clear and simple
Limiting your message to Miller’s five to nine key points is particularly difficult when it comes to technical topics that involve lots of research and facts. Climate change is backed by an overwhelming amount of publicly available evidence. It is tempting to build an argument by citing fact after fact, but – despite the saying – the facts don’t speak for themselves. It is up to us to use facts to build a clear, direct argument that our audience will understand. For example, if the message is that climate change is expected to devastate Africa, you probably won’t need to mention climate research focused on the Philippines. Instead, you could pick two to three relevant facts and build an argument around them. Practical examples usually help people absorb an argument.

Convincing your audience requires engaging them with a message that they can visualise and remember. Think of how much of the information on climate change has been distilled into three simple, relevant messages: global warming, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. These messages are widely known because they are easy to understand. However, they are not the full picture and you may need to draw on other information to make your argument.

If you find yourself having to talk about climate change in a more formal setting, like a presentation, remember that humans are visual creatures. Figures, graphs and infographics are a great tool for conveying information in ways that are instantly comprehensible. Free online infographic tools like canva. com may be useful here.

3 Include a call to action
Many people don’t want to think about the bleak future that awaits due to climate change. It’s natural to want to ignore a hopeless situation. But our situation is far from hopeless. We are a planet of 7.6 billion individuals who can reduce the effects of climate change if we all pull together. There is good reason to communicate a measure of optimism. Couple this with a call to action tailored to your audience, and you may just bring about change that exceeds your expectations. For example, if you are the CEO of a construction company thinking about how to build in a greener way, you could start by using the Green Business Council’s green certification tool as a metric to help you understand where you need to improve. It is much easier to commit to a tangible action, such as using the tool for each project, than to commit to a nebulous final goal such as “building green”. The City of Cape Town illustrated this point when it targeted individuals and companies with water restrictions; once these dropped to 50 litres per person a day, there were numerous ads illustrating how a household could use this quantity of water. These ads gave people a clear goal and increased their awareness of water use.


This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Civil Engineering. Read the full magazine here.