One of the climate communication workshops

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it” 

said Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist. It’s a celebrated quote that chimes with one of the dominant themes of the UN’s Climate Conference, COP26. Billed as the ‘last chance’ to rein in climate change before global temperatures break-through through the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, COP26 has presented a clear and unequivocal message from the scientific community. Whether it’s fires, floods, or wholesale loss of biodiversity; all of the indicators of the climate emergency are pointing to the fact that it is happening and it’s going to get worse.

Outright denial that climate change is happening simply isn’t credible any more since the effects are increasingly visible. A recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics in October 2021 suggests that there’s widespread concern about climate change among people of all ages in the UK. Younger age groups were slightly more likely to report being very anxious about the future of the environment and global surveys point to high levels of ‘eco-anxiety’ among teenagers.

Last week, we had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues in the Green Zone of COP26, when we presented the findings of a research project on young people and climate communication. Part of the Creative Associates programme at the University, our project – Visualising Climate: Young People’s Responses to the Climate Emergency – involved us going into schools across Devon and hosting workshops with 16-18 year olds on this topic. Working with Devon-based photographer and designer Carey Marks and filmmaker James Ellwood of Fotonow, we used an interactive game (created by Carey) featuring illustrated visual icons to encourage the pupils to open up to us. What they shared provided a fascinating insight into how they access information through traditional and social media, and the role that ‘trust’ and brand/platform loyalty plays in how they process it.

Environmental Issue: Underwater image of Plastic in the Ocean. The location here is Phi Phi Islands, Krabi, Thailand.
Coral reef research
Soil erosion

The first take-away from the project was confirmation of the commonly-held view that young people are very concerned about climate change. But we also learned that they have a greater awareness of the impacts of climate change compared to the causes, which can lead to the conflagration with other environmental issues such as ozone depletion.

Secondly, young people (and I would argue, all people) do not relate to technical language, and while they feel strongly about fairness and justice, they prefer images that relate to everyday life and which connect to them. In this case, proximity better equates to urgency.

The third area concerned where young people do or could source their climate information from. They recall seeing content most regularly on social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, but crucially, they identify with and distinguish between specific social media platforms more than they do with the original sources of content posted. This means that they are not always aware of the provenance of what they’re viewing, and therefore they’re less likely to detect potential political bias. Away from their screens, they view teachers as a trusted source on climate issues but say that the curriculum is failing to provide climate education outside of core scientific areas. 

Finally, the young people told us that informing people accurately may not be enough on its own – the nature of the message itself is crucial. So, doomsday scenarios, however fact-based and well-intentioned, are likely to disempower and disengage them unless they are accompanied by positive solutions.

Ecology and Evolution Research Group. frog
Ecology and Evolution Research Group

As the inheritors of this planet, it’s vital that we listen to our young people. And COP26 heard cries of frustration directed towards world-leaders by the likes of Greta Thunberg, who feel their environmental concerns – and their activism – are being paid mere lip-service. But we must also take heed of what they’re telling us in relation to the nature of communication itself.

As we mature, our belief-systems grow ever more complex and individualised, and we filter information through our socio-political, cultural and religious values. Put simply, the same message can be interpreted in entirely different ways by different people. In a study I recently published in Nature Astronomy – on the role that astronomers can play in the climate communication (like teachers, a similarly trusted source of information) – I wrote that we’ve moved on from the days when we believed that people merely lacked information with regard to climate change. Research has shown that those who strongly identify with personal ambition and materialism have a tendency to be more sceptical of climate change messaging – but may be more receptive when it is framed as energy efficiency and waste avoidance.

The point is that communicators need to tailor their messaging in the knowledge that different audiences will require varied approaches. This includes tapping into people’s motivations and values through our understanding of sociological and psychological factors. And it is necessary to be mindful that the political climate and the tone of the media debate will play a significant role in how we move forward – or otherwise we risk losing people to tribal allegiances, or fear and hopelessness.

Solar cells
A shelf of plants in the Plant factory
Offshore wind farm at sunset. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood” 

said Marie Curie, a two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize, with words that resonate with this issue and more besides. 

“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”

The chief drivers and solutions to climate change are social, political and economic. This has long been recognised by the Economic and Social Research Council who fund policy driven research on topics such as social norms and behaviour change, climate justice and global inequality, and the role of the media. This provides an evidence base to guide communicators as to what works best when communicating with particular groups. Also research into media framing exposes the power dynamics that shape this debate. The tone and content of media reporting plays a particularly significant role here, since this is where the battle to influence the public and political agenda plays out. There are many powerful actors with strong vested interests who are seeking to shape this discourse especially through social media. In the age of fake news it’s important to uncover misinformation and concerted attempts to encourage distraction and delay.

Featured Researcher: Professor Alison Anderson

Alison’s research expertise is in the area of science communication including mass media and culture, risk, nanotechnologies, marine pollution and environmental sustainability.

Alison is a professor of Sociology in the School of Society and Culture.

Find out more about Alison's research
Alison Anderson, Professor in Sociology

Supporting COP26 – United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021

The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.

The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.

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