IPCC Communications Tips for Scientists Are Good News for Public Understanding

In late January, ahead of the anticipated release of a new IPCC report later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new handbook for their scientific authors on how to more effectively engage the public and communicate about climate change issues. The handbook, put together by European communications advisor Climate Outreach, was essentially a social science research literature review condensed into six communications principles, many of which should seem familiar to those among our Climate Interpreter community who have been through training with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI).

Frameworks Institute, the social science research think-tank that produced the communications recommendations upon which NNOCCI training is based, was directly cited in sections of the IPCC handbook. Additionally, many of the principles detailed in the report run parallel to concepts taught in the Strategic Framing™ model that’s been tested and proven by NNOCCI-trained Climate Interpreters across the country over the past four years. The handbook dives into discussion of topics similar to our familiar concepts of tone, social math, metaphors, values, solutions, and navigating the swamp, along with offering up some great tips on incorporating personal stories, choosing effective visuals (based on the Climate Visuals research) and generating appropriate data displays for non-expert audiences.  

The release of this handbook garnered positive media coverage by outlets such as The Guardian and Inside Climate News, the latter of which touted the project as an important effort to “address the stubborn and longstanding challenge of communicating science – and at a time when the message is existentially crucial.” Specifically, the article highlighted the timeliness of this work in relation to recent efforts by the Trump Administration to discount climate science. But this is also an important time for climate communications because there’s new evidence that the public dialogue around climate change may be reaching a tipping point in a positive sense.

Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton makes the case in his new book, “The Climate Swerve” that, due to increasingly visible evidence of climate change and our growing experience with its impacts, the public may be on the verge of a transition from fragmentary awareness – or a disjointed view of seemingly unrelated impacts – to a formed awareness, where cause-and-effect relationships are understood. If that’s the case, and public opinion is poised for a major shift, then truly, climate communications have never been more important. Effective communications that explain the mechanisms of climate change, and connect the dots in a way that makes appropriate solutions evident, have the potential to catalyze this shift toward greater public understanding, hope, and action.  

And from the perspective of Climate Interpreters across the country, the IPCC’s emphasis on effective, research-based communications strategies lends complementary top-down momentum to our frontline, grassroots efforts to put the best available tools in the hands of all types of climate messengers. From classroom teachers, to park rangers, to IPCC scientists, the more voices that join together in proven climate communications strategies, the stronger our message of hope for climate solutions will be.