Re-strategizing climate change communication – a cultural story

Since the 1980’s, climate change has undoubtedly inched its way up the global agenda. Our desperate efforts to understand, prove and of course, mitigate global warming through conferences, policies, public outreach, and innovative technology certainly indicate our growing commitment to one of the most overwhelmingly complex issues of our time.

Unfortunately, research suggests that existing low levels of public concern about climate change will prevent us from keeping the annual global temperature increase in check and will certainly slow our progress to attaining a renewable energy future.

In fact, despite scientists’ efforts to communicate evidence of melting glaciers and journalists’ attempts to paint an apocalyptic picture of the future, political resistance and social scepticism of climate change persist. Surprisingly, national public opinion surveys reveal that within the last few years, societal acknowledgement of and commitment to the urgency and importance of climate change have deteriorated within countries such as the US, the UK, and Australia (Scrugss & Benegal, 2012). Rigorous climate policies and mitigation efforts are still not seen as deserving of political or economic attention within many countries.

There was even a considerable presence of climate change scepticism (e.g. the sceptical think tank event held by Heartland Institute) at this year’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris – one of the most significant and promising climate conferences to date!

So what’s going on here? Has climate science and evidence not been nailed into our heads by now? Have we not been bombarded enough with doomsday climate videos and emotionally charging photos of drowning polar bears?

Perhaps this is where our problem lies. Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes argues that “the story of catastrophe and apocalypse” which climate change communicators have been reciting for years points to what could be the “largest science communication failure in history.”

How can we reach concrete climate action if we still struggle with communicating the climate change story?

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, but having the opportunity to assist with the communication campaign of the University of Waterloo’s delegation to COP21 has shed some light on the issue. During this process, I’ve realized a few things about climate change communication worth mentioning.

First of all, it is without doubt that intensifying storm events, decreasing biodiversity, displaced communities and dwindling resources are a terrifying reality. However, studies show that while climate change scare tactics may help change attitudes, they are now more likely to cause the public to distance themselves from the issue, leaving them overwhelmed and hopeless, rather than inclined to act (O’Neill & Nicolson-Cole, 2009).

Perhaps, mobilization by fear and doomsday information overload should be put to rest. Some researchers suggest that pro-environmental values, incentives, perceived benefits, social support and practical assistance prove to be a better communication strategy (Moser & Dilling, 2010). Still, I think we could go further.

In the blitz of climate change news surrounding COP21, I came across a radio interview with author and activist, Naomi Klein, who as usual, eloquently reminded us that “climate change is as much a cultural and spiritual issue as it is an environmental and economic one.”

In light of this, why don’t we put aside the political storm of anxiety and fear brewing around climate change for just a moment, and focus on communicating the issue as having globally unifying potential for inspiring solutions? By no means am I undermining the seriousness of climate change, nor am I suggesting that we should stop educating the public on the socio-ecological ramifications of fossil-fuel guzzling economies. I do, however, believe that there is merit in focusing on the opportunities that widespread climate change mitigation provides for strengthening our global community, enriching our sense of place and invigorating our cultural connection with the environment. I’m advocating for the refocusing of our communication efforts from scaring and guilt tripping the public to inspiring, creating, voicing, teaching, learning and innovating to build a global culture surrounding climate change that is defined by talent, passion and positive action.

What would this communication strategy look like you ask? Let’s take a moment to reflect on the inspiring initiatives that have surrounded COP21 over the last few weeks. From September-December 2015, ARTCOP21, a global festival of cultural activity on climate change has connected hundreds of thousands of people to the climate challenge by offering nearly 300 events throughout Paris (and worldwide), including art installations, plays, concerts, performances, conferences, workshops, family activities, screenings and other powerful demonstrations of climate action. What a brilliant idea to engage regular members of the public, as well as influential players in the climate change game!


A group of internationally renowned street artists, and the CARE France Association, offer an initiative called “Climate on the Wall.” This ARTCOP21 event consists of public walking tours throughout the city that discover artistic works, such as paintings and collages that deal with the implications of climate change including human rights, food security, housing and social justice.

7295654Another innovative communication initiative called Rainforest Listening was launched during Climate Week NYC 2015 as an augmented reality project that layers rainforest soundscapes in iconic urban environments to inspire ecological engagement. The project also brought the rainforests of the world to Paris, by providing the public with a rainforest soundscape experience (via their mobile devices) as they walk through the city curing ARTCOP21.

Images are incredibly powerful tools for communicating climate messages, as they can evoke emotional responses and motivate behaviour change. Most common are graphical representations and photographs depicting the consequences of climate change (e.g. the greenhouse effect, or the drowning polar bears I mentioned earlier). We have to be careful with these. Fear-inducing images may capture public attention and communicate climate importance, but they can also psychologically desensitize viewers (O’Neill et al, 2013). Positive images depicting action and adaption to climate change (e.g. climate protests, leaders signing agreements) have been proven to make people feel more able and inclined to act.

rtx1wbk3Here’s an excellent example of recent inspiring climate communication. In response to the cancellation of the Paris Global Climate Change March due to the November attacks on the city, Parisians symbolically demonstrated their commitment to climate change by placing over 10,000 empty shoes in the city’s Place de la Republique.

We also can’t forget #EarthtoParis, a brilliant social media campaign that aims to send a resounding message to global leaders involved in climate negotiations at COP21. Check out the campaign video and this blog post written by my colleague Michelle Gordon about our UW delegation’s presence at the #EarthtoParis event on Monday, December 8, 2015.

Communication efforts such as these prove that our planet’s trajectory is everyone’s business by extending climate discussions beyond political offices and negotiating halls. Leaving gloom-and-doom climate communication in the past, and refocusing our efforts on generating meaningful global community engagement through innovative cultural demonstrations may re-sensitize the public to climate action.

Of course, this strategy will invite criticism and scrutiny of its own, as cultural-story telling is by no means the be-all-and-end-all solution to achieving widespread climate action. However, if climate change communicators shift gears to embrace the social, cultural, community-driven potential of climate change advocacy and combine it with rigorous science and effective policy design, we may find ourselves more than capable of tackling the greatest challenge that has ever faced humanity.

If you’re interest in climate change communications, I highly recommend checking out and The Psychology of Climate Change Communication by Debika Shome and Sabine Marx.


This piece was written by Sara Ganowski. Sara is a third year University of Waterloo student double majoring in Environment & Resource studies and Speech Communication. She is also the Communications Lead on the #UWCOP21 Home Team.




2 Comments Add yours

  1. Isabella says:

    Very well-written and informative piece! Looking forward to how climate dialogue might change over the course of the next while — on both a local and global stage.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, we’re glad you enjoyed our piece! The next 90 days will be particularly important for the Canadian government as a self-assigned deadline to create a new national framework on climate change:

      You will find lots of other ways to stay involved online through the Ministry of Environment (both levels of government) as well as your local government, ask them what they are doing to tackle climate change! One of the best actions we can take as citizens is keeping our leaders aware of our priorities and the urgency to take action, whether in a consultation or simply giving them a call/sending a letter. :]

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