Communicating climate adaptation: what could go wrong?

This past week I have attended the Climate Adaptation 2018: Learn, Collaborate, Act Conference in Melbourne that gathers scientists, policymakers and non-governmental organisations to hear the latest discussions and science on climate change adaptation.

I was asked to chair a panel session on Communicating around Climate Adaptation with four super stars: Karl Braganza, Doug Parsons, Hallie Eakin, and Merryn McKinnon. Each one of them brings a great depth of knowledge about communication in general and adaptation in particular.

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Doug is the host of the podcast America Adapts and has really forged a consistent pathway in communicating climate change adaptation to the broader masses while finding amazing guests on the show who really know the ins and outs of climate adaptation.

Karl is a climate scientist who works at the Bureau of Meteorology and truly understands what it takes to communicate science to non-scientists.

Hallie is Associate Professor at School of Sustainability in Arizona State University where her research focuses on exploring climate adaptation and sustainability challenges in countries like Mexico, and the invisible factors that impact on our decision-making.

Merryn is a lecturer at Australian National University with a PhD in science communication and holds workshops for scientists on how to communicate.

What did we learn

The aim of our session was to discuss experiences in communicating climate change adaptation, how to target particular audiences but also to explore whether climate adaptation communication differs from more general communication around climate change.

Instead of the norm of having Questions and Answers from the audience, we flipped the Q&A and asked the audience questions instead during the session (thank you for everyone who participated in such a lively manner!).

We began the discussion with a question “what is the main message about adaptation is that we need to get across?”, with an added bonus question: if you had 30 seconds with Donald Trump, how would you deliver a punchy message about adaptation?

Maybe wrong person to pitch that to but the discussion was particularly lively and further reflections also led to questions about communication’s effectiveness and what we determine as a success in communication.

I was particularly impressed by one participant’s communication strategy and how he has started evaluating “success”: his focus nowadays is more on decision-makers and getting meetings to explain science behind climate change and its implications.

The success of his communication is therefore measured in securing the next meeting with a policymaker rather than the number of times people have cited a piece of data.

Best fails revealed  

One of the questions that I asked the audience was their experience of failing in communication. I am a big fan of experience-based knowledge and that the greatest learning opportunities are in those moments when something has actually gone wrong.

I am glad to say that a few brave souls did step forward and told us their personal stories, which I found fascinating.

A lady discussed her experience with an international organisation where she had been a junior staff member and was asked to travel to a developing country to give a briefing on how that country could apply for more climate funds and become accredited to a particular fund.

She did not do much background research on the country, and went to deliver the presentation. The lengthy presentation was full of details on the mechanisms how such accreditation processes happen and how this country could position itself better in the process.

The government officials were very polite, thanked her for her detailed presentation and the information she had delivered. So far, so good. Then the officials, in the nicest way possible, added that the country, in fact, was already accredited to this particular fund.

Another scientist reflected on her experience in communicating weather and climate information to indigenous communities in Latin America, and realising from an audience question that the format that they were using to communicate rainfall was completely misunderstood by the community members.

But this only became apparent during the presentation when an old lady posed a question: is that bar (that was supposed to signify amount of rainfall) the location of my house?

While these specific examples are not necessarily about pure climate adaptation, these kinds of experiences are precious and should be cherished, not forgotten, because they remind us about the many things that can go wrong when trying to communicate with an audience that we don’t necessarily understand well.

Know your audience and what they prefer

One of the consistent themes in this panel discussion was the old but true wisdom of knowing your audience: do your background work and research who you are talking to, what information do they actually need, in what format, and who should be presenting information in the first place.

For example, some participants lamented “death by powerpoint” presentations that are usually the norm in conferences as presenters try to cram in as much information as they can. In the end of 3 days of conferencing, people are exhausted.

But others who worked with businesses noted that powerpoint was often the best method to deliver information because the people in business expected powerpoint presentations.

Another audience insight related to the way we run our conferences. We should make conferences testing grounds for different communication and engagement methods where we could see what works, and learn from each others’ experiences.

For example, we could organise discussion forums about the best methods to deliver adaptation relevant information to a particular audience based on our experiences.

But we also reflected on what our own communication preferences are: for example, when given the option to do a 3-minute TED talk at a conference, no one opted to do so as other formats (normal 10-minute presentation) gave them more time to say more.

With today’s technology, there are more and more opportunities and ways to communicate but we must also be willing to test such opportunities ourselves so we can understand how a particular method or format works.

Insights to be remembered

Summing up the insights is hard but here are a few that I will be keeping in mind:

Adaptation brings often a more hopeful message than mitigation (e.g. you should drive less and cut emissions): adaptation is an opportunity to reframe some of the negative discussion around climate change.

We should focus on what people are doing already in terms of adaptation, what they could do better, and how we can support them. If they come back for more information, then we have been effective.

Scientists are not always  best placed to do the communication especially since very few scientists have undergone actual training about how to communicate. Knowledge or communication brokers can help in simplifying the main message.

Do your research beforehand and know your audience, understand what communication methods they usually prefer, and what is most of value to them.

Think about which decisions they have to make and what information would be most useful.

And as Merryn noted, when we try to communicate a complex issue, we do not need to “dumb it down”.

Good communication (and the whole panel agreed on this) is practice practice practice: you can deliver crystal clear ideas even on complex issues but you need to be prepared to do the hard work of training yourself to do so.

(Apparently testing different communication styles on your friends and family can work but be careful: they can only show genuine interest a limited number of times).

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