Talking Climate in YEG & YYC with George Marshall
While many of us have dedicated our lives to education and communications, climate change presents some new and unique communication challenges – including that we often struggle to have conversations with people different than ourselves. As part of the launch of Alberta Climate Connect, we worked with many of our community partners to host two workshops with acclaimed communicator George Marshall and Climate Outreach leading up to his keynote address at the Pembina Climate Summit.
Marshall is a leading climate communications specialist with an international reputation for pioneering programmes with audiences including youth, trades unions, people of faith and people with conservative values. His book, Don’t Even Think About It, is widely regarded as one of the most important books published on climate change communications.
Marshall is co-founder of Climate Outreach, Europe’s leading climate change communicators, bridging the gap between research and practice and helping to widen engagement across a broader spectrum of society.
We co-hosted this series of workshops to provide key insights and advice on how to break beyond the usual suspects, engage new audiences in climate conversation and how to more effectively weave climate change into our current programming.
Participants received an overview of what works in climate outreach and learned how to become mindful of the language and approached to avoid. They received practical advice on how to design and test climate language on a limited budget, and together, explored narratives with the power to speak across our current political polarization towards a shared sense of Alberta identity.
Perceptions on climate change
Marshall introduced the workshop with a short clip of public perceptions on climate change in the UK:
What is apparent is the sense of disconnect, disempowerment and “don’t think about it” attitudes those interviewed have towards the issue of climate change. There does not appear to be a coherent sense of what they think about climate change – yet there is a window into the story of their personal beliefs.
Beliefs are a social construction based on a narrative structure – one that reflects a person’s identity, and in turn reflects this back to that person’s network. We must understand this in order to create effective climate communication.
Understand how we are influenced by narratives
Narratives are powerful, but we are not always aware of their effects. Marshall showed us this clip:
What do you see on the screen? Is it good versus evil? Freedom and captivity? Bullying? We are unable to see the world around us without projecting a narrative.
For example, there is nothing in climate change which is inherently polarized, but we recognize it comes in the shape and form of people’s values. People turn away from an issue when their value set is not validated in its representation. Good communication starts with understanding who we are trying to speak to and what they care about.
Develop value-based narratives
What shapes people’s attitudes towards an issue is the stories and narratives built around their own identity and values. Marshall remarked that “psychologically, our response to climate change is extremely odd”. We do need scientific information, but we actually respond to climate narrative based on existing values, and seek the information that fits our existing narrative. “There is strong evidence base suggesting that facts and figures don’t persuade people – yet we keep trying to persuade them with this type of information”, says Marshall. Good climate communication stresses balance, is authentic, builds trust and understands that behaviour is complex.
For example, George frequently discusses the challenge of communicating climate change to people with centre-right values. “To engage this group more effectively, communicators need to drop the language and narratives of environmentalism that have only ever appealed to a minority of people. Climate change must become something that everyone has a stake in. A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change should begin with the values and concerns that this audience holds, and build a bridge between these and the values of a sustainable society” (COIN, 2014, p. 2)
Talk about climate change
Can we skip the conversation about climate change and simply work towards reaching our climate objectives by focusing our communications on renewables? George thinks not. Misconceptions multiply in a vacuum, so we need to talk about climate change, and address the silence by starting the conversation, without alienating certain groups. We need to place negative or fearful information in a narrative arc that leads to a positive resolution. We also need to place the issue of climate change with ‘us, here and now’; not ‘them, there and then’.
Marshall shared the ‘Sandwich Strategy’, describe as a way to “avoid aggravating opponents, while building support in the middle and, maintaining the support of base.” Words are powerful. Words are frames – containing values, identity markers and indications of attitudes and behaviours. We are motivated by shared values, identity and the joy of belonging, so we must use words that reflect this common ground back to our audiences.
Good communications pieces for one audience may look very different than what resonates with you personally. “Always test your outgoing communications with supporters and opponents”, Marshall advises.
More opportunities to Talk Climate
Talking Climate presented a great time to introduce a new collaborative project in our repertoire, Alberta Climate Connect. This network will serve as a place to learn, connect and accelerate climate action in Alberta. We welcome you to join us and a network of organizations intent on learning more about the issues and mobilizing their members on climate action.
Thank you to our co-hosts and our partners for their support: Pembina Institute, Alberta Council for Environmental Education, the British Consulate, Calgary Interfaith Council, City of Edmonton, City of Calgary, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Mount Royal University, the University of Alberta, ATB Financial, the Calgary Foundation, Momentum, and MRU Institute for Environmental Sustainability.