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.


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).

Cyclone Gita and the perils of organising conferences in a changing climate

This past week hundreds of people gathered to Wellington, New Zealand  , to attend the second Pacific Climate Change Conference 2018. The conference, organised by the Secretariat of the Pacific Environment Regional Program (SPREP) and University of Victoria, focused on showcasing the latest research in the Pacific Islands and featured several international keynote speakers from Professor Dan Nocera from Harvard University, Emeritus Professor Will Steffen from Australian National University, and Professor Michael Mann from Penn State University.

One topic that was clearly on everyone’s minds was that of increasing extreme events. Several talks, including Michael Mann’s, reflected over the current cyclone categories we have in use and whether these needs to be changed given that, for example, Cyclone Winston that hit Fiji in 2016 exceeded the current category 5 in wind strength (highest category currently in use). SPREP’s Director General, Kosi Latu, also noted that we are seeing a change in the nature of cyclones hitting the Pacific region.

This is not just a purely academic exercise in terms of categories but one with real consequences. As Michael Mann pointed out, a better understanding of the exact nature of the expected strength of a cyclone means that people and communities should and can take measures that reduce their risk to adverse impacts.

Tropical Cyclone Gita that had devastated much of the Pacific island nation of Tonga during the previous week impacted the conference itself. The basic recovery in Tonga is assumed to take at least 6 months  but this is a conservative estimate given that recovery of communities and livelihoods is likely to take much longer. Tonga for the record has not had a major cyclone in the last 60 years.

As I am based in Australia, I received on Sunday night an international travel warning prior to the conference about Cyclone Gita. The warning itself sounded like attending the conference would not be a good idea: potential state of emergencies, heavy rain, road closures, emergency packs.

I managed to get in but many others were stranded in Australia and the Pacific: keynote speakers couldn’t fly in, the conference organisers started sending emails to people to confirm where they were, could they attend, whether they were still planning to attend, and when.

The conference began with a lot of reshuffling of schedules, replacing speakers, all however in a relaxed atmosphere as people were doing their best to attend and cope with the changing schedules. I was very pleased to see how well the conference organisers handled all the changes and uncertain conditions during the conference.

This conference however is not the only one this year to be impacted by weather and climate. Although not confirmed yet, the Adaptation Futures 2018 Conference in Cape Town , the bi-annual gathering of international adaptation scholars and practitioners, is also reconsidering whether the conference can go ahead. Cape Town is running out of water, and the current advice is not to lock in travel arrangements until we have more certainty about water availability in the Cape Town area. This is obviously nothing compared to the people living in Cape Town who have to deal with drastic reductions in water availability on daily basis.

Changing ways of where and how we communicate?

This all has got me thinking that part of our changing climate with more intense and extreme conditions will also impact on our scientific and policy communities in ways that we are not yet even aware of. This also reflects the very powerful way that industries, such as tourism, will need to start considering a future where there is a higher likelihood of business disruptions.

In a world where we should be cutting down on air travel and where we might have to for the simple reason that the planes are not going to fly because of extreme heat or extreme storms, we should start looking at other ways and technologies that could assist us in communicating the way we would do at a conference.

There are already examples of on-line only conferences and even courses. The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has installed their first international virtual classroom that is only the second such installation in the world . The teachers can interact with up to 84 participants in the classroom, split them into groups, and even monitor their attentiveness level during the session.

But what has truly inspired me is Chris Fussell and the way that McChrystal Group is approaching global communication. The US Special Forces use a daily session via videoconference that includes all Special Forces members globally. This is thousands of people online at the same time in an online forum where information is shared and discussed across all levels of the organisation. This includes also a chat room function where members who need to discuss a particular matter quickly can connect at the same time and share that information.

Although the book in question, One Mission, is focused on creating agility and better decision-making processes within one organisation, there are many lessons that can be applied also to wider communities, such as those working in climate adaptation.

These platforms are emerging and could be used more effectively in the future as well when it comes to conferences. For example, as a single parent, it would be great to be able to participate via online option in cases where I simply cannot travel to the town or country in question where the conference is being held.

Having access to Internet is of course something that most of us in the developed world take granted. But given its increasing availability, this could also open up doors for developing country participants to attend conferences even if they don’t have secured travel funding. The education sector is a great example of these kinds of options where online courses can be taken even to secure a degree such as Coursera.

Most of us are already taking advantage of such platforms as Zoom. Coaching for Leaders Academy for example runs on Zoom platform and enables people from across the world to connect with the fellow Academy members and progress their leadership development regardless of timezones and location.

The point?

The point here is that just this year two major conferences are already being impacted by factors outside of their control relating to weather and climatic conditions. But this is not just a matter of securing enough water for participants or re-arranging presentation schedules in the aftermath of a cyclone.

For me, here lies a more fundamental point: we do need to start considering what these activities look like under a changing climate. The message that came through during this week’s conference is that we have already passed many thresholds and limits, and that business as usual life is unlikely to be the norm in the future.

This has also serious consequences to for example private sector. Disruption of supply chains for example is a major issue that will have cascading impacts on our food supplies, domestic and international tourism, access and availability of medicines. The list could go on because in our globalising world most systems are by now interconnected.

Yet, rather than looking at these things as major challenges, perhaps we can find significant opportunities in having to re-think some of the more traditional ways of convening large groups of people. How can we foster personal connections online that can enhance the way we share knowledge? What would it take to convene a conference solely online where people still feel like they actually connected with each other? Or to change the operating rhythm of a scientific community as Chris Fussell outlines in One Mission?

And no, the irony is not lost on me on what am proposing: most of our global communication channels, including Internet, are also at the perils of extreme weather events. But at the same time the new technologies offer great opportunities for increasing connections globally and sharing knowledge in ways that we have not seen before.

If you do have experience in using technologies with large groups of people, or have seen some really innovative ways to do this, please do share.