Google searches for climate change rose 261% the day following Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2016 Oscars speech[1] and nearly a quarter of a million people liked or shared Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2015 ‘I don’t give **** if we agree about climate change’ Facebook post.

One thing is patently clear, when it comes to influencing our global society about climate change, it’s not just what is being said, it’s who is saying it. Or who’s not saying it, as Media Matters for America reported in April of this year that ‘broadcast news outlets coverage of climate change dropped a whopping 66 percent from 2015 to 2016, making it the third consecutive year of declining coverage.’[2]

In an era of ‘fake news’, prolific use of social media and uninformed stories which gain traction because of social reinforcement,[3] communicating effectively about climate change can be incredibly difficult. This is the first blog in a series about the who, what and where of climate change communications, aiming to stimulate thinking and action.

According to a 2015 study,[4] most adults in the developed world are ‘aware of’ climate change and nearly 50% of a recent survey[5] of 31,000 millennials put climate change at the top of their list of global concerns; ahead of conflict, corruption and water security. This is heartening in terms of the issue being in the public consciousness, but how many people who are ‘aware’ believe climate change is real, and how can concerns and awareness be translated into meaningful action?

The paradox is that climate change is happening too fast for human comfort and for the survival of some species[6], but too slow to make the evening news as a stand-alone story. Climate change impacts may not be discernible day-to-day, so we focus on tangible news, like elections and train strikes. There seems to be a reticence to connect extreme weather events and climate change, with some media outlets reporting concerns that the term ‘climate change’ has been politicized[7]. Although Hurricane Irma seems to have reignited the connection, with climate change featuring more heavily in the media coverage[8].

The science of climate change requires a degree of ‘translation’ in order for it to be communicated easily. Messages should focus on issues and topics that the consumer of this information can control in our personal lives or at work. A handful of communications strategies have already proven successful at catalysing behavioural change, such as the ‘Three Rs’ Reduce, Reuse, Recycle campaign and its iconic triangular arrow logo. While its origins remain open to debate, this recurring global campaign has been described as “one of the main catalysts for the environmental movement as a whole[9].” If messaging is accessible and disseminated through relevant channels, civil society should be better informed to make more responsible and climate-friendly decisions in their personal and professional lives.

Discourse on climate change, which currently largely takes place on the environment pages, in industry publications, conference rooms and scientific reports, now needs to be embedded into everyday life. Stories that feature a climate change angle or impact should not be shunned to the environment section, but should get column inches on the front page and the business pages. Communications on this topic should be integrated into the adverts of primetime television, and emblazoned on the sides of buses to become part of the landscape as we go about our daily lives.

The potential of widespread advertising and fan engagement to reach millions of people with key messages about climate change is enormous, but under-utilised to date. Adoption of mainstream media communication strategies to effect changes in practice has been successful in areas such as health and exercise – Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign was found to have inspired 1.6 million women in the UK aged 14-40 to start exercising[10] – and represents a huge opportunity for raising awareness and catalysing action against climate change.

As part of this engagement, the face behind the message is crucial, and in our digital age, the cult of celebrity seems to be the most pervasive. We are seemingly obsessed with what certain individuals are wearing or driving, as well as how many goals they’ve scored or their latest film. This obsession is an avenue of interest for climate change communications. Already being tapped into, household names are becoming ambassadors for the causes they are passionate about, and should be expanded as a powerful communications tool, providing a ubiquitous network through which to engage and appeal.

Recent years have seen more of these climate ambassadors emerging[11], such as Leonardo Di Caprio using his 2016 Oscar acceptance speech to tell the world that climate change is “the most urgent threat facing our entire species.” Emma Watson graced the red carpet in a custom-made gown made from recycled plastic bottles, and rapper Akon launched an initiative developing solar-powered solutions for African villages. The exact impact that these ‘eco-celebs’ have in terms of galvanising action to combat climate change is difficult to ascertain. However, with 34.4 million people watching Leo’s speech[12] there is no doubt that the voice of celebrity can be a powerful tool to get people talking about climate change.

To stand a fighting chance in the battle against climate change, there needs to be a sea change in the what, who and where of communications; a shift in messaging with the aim of galvanising ‘bottom up’ action. At the top, the SDGs and the Paris Agreement represent crucial changes in policy and symbolic shifts in political engagement, but tangible outcomes are still a work in progress. By ensuring focus on grassroots engagement, real steps can be taken in the fight against climate change immediately and we can start walking the talk.