Concern about climate change is at an all-time high: According to a 2022 survey, 77% of people worldwide are worried about climate change, with 71% believing that we need to take faster action to address this critical issue. Meanwhile, 57% of people think that there has been little to no progress made to address the climate crisis.1 Despite growing concern, there is a significant action gap between what scientists say needs to be done to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and what governments, industry and the public are actually doing.2 How can we truly say whether climate advocacy is successful?
The discrepancy between awareness and action can be attributed to the way we communicate. The way we talk about climate change — as scientists, citizens, businesses, and campaigners — greatly influences public perception of the issue and its potential solutions. Despite knowing about the science of climate change for decades, countries worldwide still struggle to make the systemic changes needed to reach safe and just climate targets.
Often communicated mainly through data and reason, the climate change conversation has created an echo chamber for scientists and activists. We urgently need a communication intervention that involves media, culture, campaigners, businesses, governments, the scientific community, and citizens. To do this, we must address psychological barriers to climate engagement and action at both individual and collective levels, as well as consider the role of industries like fossil fuels and the media in accelerating or hindering progress on climate action.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, plays a critical role in climate change communication. Its reports are intended to inform policymakers and the public about the state of the science and the potential impacts of climate change. However, the IPCC's technical language and emphasis on probabilities can be challenging and confusing for non-scientists to understand and engage with. In contrast, the latest IPCC Synthesis report used a different approach, highlighting both the threat of climate change by issuing a “final warning”, as well as emphasizing hope and solutions with refreshing clarity and urgency.3
NGOs, scientists, and government officials tend to communicate effectively about the climate crisis among themselves, but their messages rarely reach the public. Additionally, in the majority of countries, climate isn’t officially part of the curriculum in schools. Consequently, many people lack a basic understanding of planetary science, from high school students to corporate and government leaders. A shortage of engaging and transformative climate reporting further complicates the issue: Although some thriving climate journalism exists, much of it is hidden behind steep paywalls. As a result, a lot of the climate information people pick up online is inaccurate or even misleading. We need a stronger media presence to reach the public and foster the political will necessary for meaningful change, and we are starting to see more funders stepping up to fill this space. Without an informed and engaged public, it’s hard to have the political will to achieve the changes that are needed — we need to get more people involved to build the support for the policy changes and the societal transformation required for a livable planet and a sustainable future.
Traditional climate communications have focused on presenting scientific data, stressing risks and consequences, and appealing to reason to drive action. However, logic and reason are not the key driver of human behavior — but rather, our values, worldviews, and embeddedness in socio-economic systems. We propose a new strategy to overcome ineffective climate narratives and utilize the power of storytelling to shape new momentum to tackle the joint crises of climate, nature, and social injustice — a global climate communications collaborative (see Conclusions) to help centralize reliable, accessible and actionable climate communications — both within and beyond existing advocacy spaces.
Governments have a formal duty under Article 6 of the UNFCCC to educate citizens on climate change, involve them in policymaking, and ensure access to necessary information. But despite the growing urgency of the climate crisis, marginalized and economically vulnerable citizens often remain excluded from climate change conversations. The UNFCCC's Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) consists of six core principles, including education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information, and international cooperation, all of which are essential for public engagement and holding governments accountable.4
To create meaningful public engagement, bold, positive campaigns should focus on fostering a sense of efficacy — empowering individuals and communities to feel that their actions can make a difference in combating climate change. Effective climate change communications should reflect people's values, identities, and concerns while also highlighting the actions of their peers. Governments must prioritize public engagement by combining social science, communication, and policy expertise with the input of businesses, citizens, and communities. As attitudes and concerns about climate change continue to shift rapidly, people are eager for change and seeking support and information on how to get involved. By turbo-charging public engagement, governments can tap into this growing momentum for transformative action.4