How to talk about climate change

This collection of resources - toolkit, short guide and cheat sheet - sets out the challenges of talking about climate change and presents effective strategies to address them.

Authors and their affiliation

Toolkit - Jessica Berentson-Shaw & Marianne Elliott

Short guide - Marianne Elliott & Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw

Cheat Sheet - Marianne Elliott & Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw

Key features

This collection of resources is based on research undertaken by The Workshop, a charitable trust research organisation in New Zealand, for Oxfam NZ. The toolkit is a 22-page report that sets out the challenges and effective strategies to address them based on a literature review. The short guide presents a more user-friendly version in 20 pages. The 12-page cheat sheet is intended as a quick memory aid of key principles.  

The resources focus on effective strategies for encouraging collective action on climate change by:

  • “lifting people's gaze from individual consumer action to systems change that resets the default action to be climate positive
  • helping people focus on upstream factors like urban design rather than downstream impacts on, for example, personal choices about transport
  • framing stories about individual action as a stepping stone to collective action, i.e. inspiring people to act together to demand governments give them better infrastructure.” (The Short Guide, p. 5)

In particular, the strategies are designed for contexts where the problem is not an information deficit (which can be fixed by simply providing more information) but where a combination of information overload and cognitive shortcuts make it difficult to have productive conversations that challenge narratives that are wrong but dominant.

Key messages:

  • Lead with a vision.
  • Be clear who can make the change.
  • Avoid negating or myth busting.
  • Sell the cake, not the ingredients.
  • Show people they are not alone.

The framework for planning communications is:

“WHO - Decide the characters and agents – the characters in your story. This could be the reader, the writer, a child, a politician, a fossil fuel executive, even a system.

WHAT - Articulate a vision, a better future. Be specific and concrete, e.g. “an economy based on 100% renewable energy, new jobs in wind farms, solar and sustainable buildings, workers paid a living wage to produce renewable energy”.

WHY - Identify helpful intrinsic values. Why does this matter? What are the helpful big problems throughout history, and we can rise to this one”.

BARRIERS - Specify the barriers to achieving the vision – attributing cause and effect based on evidence, with agents named. There may be multiple causes, barriers and effects so try to keep it simple.

HOW - Solutions – attributing better outcomes based on evidence of the cause, e.g. “we can limit this warming by limiting the amount of rampant carbon we put in our atmosphere by urgently accelerating the work many people are doing to build a 100% renewable energy system”.

ACTION/RESOLUTION - This needs to be in proportion to the size of the problem you have described. Be specific, e.g. “politicians need to recognise the opportunity we have right now, urgently commit to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and redirect all their attention and resources to support people who are already building a new economy based on renewable energy”. (The Short Guide, p. 19)

Importantly, the resources recommend avoiding starting with the language of crisis:

“Avoid leading with crisis or catastrophe frames instead focus on problem-solving and urgency to act frames

When messages are tested, negative appeals (e.g. to fear or guilt) are mostly counterproductive. Based on their findings, the FrameWorks Institute and other researchers recommend that we avoid starting communications with a “crisis frame” especially when working with those who are not in your base.” (The Toolkit, p.16)

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

I have used these resources to reflect on my own experiences and others' experiences in communicating about climate change and related policy changes – especially the tendency to get bogged down in facts and figures and crisis language rather than inspirational visions related to values.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

The material is accessible and well-founded and provides very specific guidance on crafting communication messages to be effective in a context of information overload, disinformation, misinformation and polarisation.