Claire Poole, Founder, ClearBright Consulting
We know that when it comes to news and communications, the source is as important as the message. We subconsciously consider if the source is transparent, credible and if they have a vested interest in what is being said. You’re doing it right now. Messages about climate change emanate from various sources – scientists, journalists, politicians, NGOs, celebrities – but in an era of fake news, high levels of scepticism call into question the credibility of these sources, posing a significant challenge to climate change communicators. Who is talking about climate change or, more importantly, who is being heard?
They capture headlines and dominate social media, but are celebrities an asset to the cause? With over 25% of Twitter’s 190,000 verified accounts being actors and musicians there is no doubt they have a strong voice, but it’s not always as simple as who has the reach. At the opening of New York Climate Week this year, following huge devastation in the British Virgin Islands from Hurricane Irma, Richard Branson urged for more action in the transition to a net-zero world, only to be trolled for being an airline-owning hypocrite. Leonardo DiCaprio’s international advocacy, and getting climate change into the Oscars dialogue, probably makes him our biggest celebrity backer, but critics are quick to point out the enormity of the jet-setting star’s carbon footprint. When it comes to leadership with a moral imperative, the general public definitely want somebody who is beyond reproach.
These are some of the hazards that need to be managed when well-known figureheads bring attention to a cause, but there can be huge benefits for both the cause and the individual. UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie is an exemplar of this, being widely applauded for her genuine and important work in raising awareness of human trafficking.
And what about the other way around? Not educating the celebrity, but making the expert well-known by the public. Brian Cox and Bill Nye the Science Guy are scientists who we know for making something that could be viewed as complicated and boring, accessible and fun. Their expertise and passion is authentic. A few figures of this ilk have emerged for climate change, including ex-NASA scientist Dr James Hansen who has appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show and journalist Bill McKibben, but nobody has really captured the public’s hearts and minds. This is an area that warrants further exploration. Supporting key personalities in the climate change space with the right press and communications support to raise their profiles could help us amplify the climate message to groups we haven’t yet been able to significantly access.
As climate deniers and right-wing conservative media outlets continue to skew the conversation, it’s more important than ever to identify strong channels through which to educate in a credible way. For me, teachers and sports have considerable untapped potential as groups who influence huge numbers of people in our global society.
Teachers are a wonderfully unavoidable part of childhood, with the ability to inspire us from our earliest years. They represent a huge opportunity for climate change education, but teaching what some view as a politically loaded topic can be fraught with difficulties. Some teachers are still confused about the cause of climate change – with only 45% of 1,500 in a US survey naming human activity as the main driver – and doubts raised by climate deniers has led to concern from parents about the evidence or facts students are being taught. It’s unsurprising therefore that teachers admit to avoiding climate change altogether.
A solution could be for the scientific community to work with education boards to develop a standardised curriculum and ensure teachers have up-to-date resources. Or if climate change is too much of a hot potato (I know, I know – but some people believe it is), teachers could be supported to engage kids in sustainability and the idea of healthy communities. Explaining how simple practices like walking or cycling to school, recycling and not wasting water can help tackle much larger problems. Instilling these habits could promote long-term behavioural change and broader climate action in an indirect way, as messages are taken home and pupils become the teachers in their families and communities.
Another avenue close to my heart and which work is ramping up on (watch this space) is sport; a sector with the ability to impact behaviour change across every cross-section of society on every continent. Athletes like Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler and British swimmer Lewis Pugh have raised a huge amount of publicity for climate change and oceans respectively. Sport sponsorship also offers huge platform to incite change. Corporations pay US$5 million for a 30-second advertising slot at the Super Bowl and Premier League shirt sponsorships have trebled in seven years, reaching £281m this season. This attests to the value of reaching this audience with your message. Teams can also influence the opinions and purchasing behaviours of supporters: a study of 30,000 Chinese football fans found two-thirds intend to buy products from their club’s official sponsor.
I believe we can work with big sponsors, leagues and teams to show them the impact climate change will have on their sport and ask for some of their resources and space to be put towards climate change advocacy. Fans from all walks of life unite around sport and rally behind their team, nation or athlete; if we could unite people around climate change in the same way, then maybe Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “sport has the power to change the world” could be realised in another very important way.
There are many channels to educate and engage, and many voices will speak out, but communication and education through credible, authentic and trustworthy voices will ensure that the message is actually heard.