The story of climate change is one that people have struggled to tell convincingly for more than two decades. But it’s not for lack of trying.
The problem is emphatically not a lack of facts and figures. The world’s best scientific minds have produced blockbuster report after blockbuster report, setting out in ever more terrifying detail just how much of an impact we humans have had on the Earth since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Many people believe anthropogenic climate change – rapid and far-reaching shifts in the climate caused by human activity – is now the story that will define the 21st century, whether anyone’s good at telling it or not.
Nor is it merely a problem of delivery. The past decade has witnessed an explosion of climate change communication efforts spanning nearly every conceivable medium, channel and messenger. Documentaries, popular books and articles, interactive websites, immersive virtual reality, community events — all are being used in increasingly creative ways to communicate the story of climate change. Many of these efforts are beautifully designed and executed, visually and narratively engaging and careful to avoid common traps and shortcomings that have tripped up previous efforts.
As communications specialists who have each spent more than a decade observing and studying how people, media and organizations talk and think about climate change, we’ve come to understand that the climate change communication problem runs much deeper: It’s baked into the nature of the issue itself.
Climate change is abstract, uncertain, unfamiliar, impersonal, diffuse and seemingly distant, even as the frequency of climate-related events continues to increase in many parts of the world. This is not to say that the well-documented and well-funded efforts to sow misinformation, doubt and denial aren’t also real challenges facing climate change communicators and advocates; of course they are.
But even without explicit efforts to confuse and divide the public, climate change would still be a uniquely challenging issue to talk about in ways that motivate public engagement rather than inspire despair and fatalism.