Responding to Environmental Breakdown: the need for effective communication

This Is A Crisis.

This is the title of the new Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report on the world’s current state of environmental breakdown. Human activity has negatively impacted our natural world to such an extent that the world has now reached a critical state, whereby economic instability, conflict, famine, large-scale migration and societal and economic collapse will unravel if we don’t act now: we are in a crisis. The report calls for urgent and radical reform to generate transformational change in a rapidly closing widow of opportunity. Yet also curbing these environmental impacts, such as climate change, soil infertility, pollinator loss, chemical leaching and ocean acidification, can lead to a better and fairer society.

To mark the launch of the report, IPPR held a conference on how to respond to this environmental breakdown. Seahorse Managing Director, Isabella Gornall, spoke on the event’s Politics panel, outlining the ways we can communicate environmental breakdown to the public to spur policy action as well as the barriers we may face in doing so. How we communicate these messages was a key theme throughout the day and unsurprisingly generated interesting conversations. Here we outline a selection of points raised at the event by Isabella and the other panellists:

Is ‘crisis’ the appropriate term for the state of our planet?

This was the reoccurring question throughout the day, with some arguing that describing our current state as a ‘crisis’ was alarmist and disengaging; ‘crisis’ can fuel images of apocalyptic doom and gloom, creating dragons of inaction. Yet, the main consensus in the room was that ‘crisis’ was the correct word because frankly it’s impossible to capture the scale of the story without this narrative. The key, however, is to ensure that messaging also presents pockets of optimism, especially around individual help and action.

What are the barriers communicators face?

Environmental breakdown is a difficult topic to communicate. Using climate change as a specific example, it presents numerous psychological challenges. Last week, the Met Office warned that global warming could exceed 1.5C within five years, yet we are unable to properly apprehend what this temperature increase because the temperature fluctuates, on average, considerably more than 1.5C every day with no disastrous consequences for our wellbeing. This means that we can subconsciously feel detached from climate change, believing it’s a future problem for a different place. 

This links to how climate change is complex; its narrative is encased within scientific and complicated terms. Climate change is framed around percentages, statistical errors, potent greenhouse gases and average trends…The topic is difficult to understand and consequently disengaging. Encased within technical language, tackling climate change can lose its urgency simply because the message isn’t getting across.

So how can we improve messaging?

Firstly, messaging around how we tackle environmental breakdown needs to be less technocratic and less scientific; climate change, and indeed other environmental crises, has been framed around big multinational conferences, big business and government. It’s created an image that climate change is simply a problem that voters cannot truly have a say in.

Ultimately, messaging needs to place the voter at its core. We need to make messaging personal, emphasising the impacts happening at home – for instance, we know that climate change helped fuel this summer’s heatwave and drought; let’s talk about climate change within these terms. Let’s show how acting locally can have an influence globally. UK100, for example, is a network of local government leaders who are seeking to transition and push for cleaner and greener cities, towns and rural areas.

We need to demonstrate the other benefits of tackling climate change to incentivise action. Unsurprisingly, the policies that work to curb climate change tend to have socio-economic benefits. For instance, incentivising active transport leads to not only reduced fossil fuel car use but also benefits our health and leads to safer roads, reduced congestion and cleaner air. Retrofitting our homes would lead to healthier and warmer homes, with more affordable energy bills, alongside reduced carbon emissions.

These types of policy, however, require long term vision and investment, which has traditionally led to reduced support for these of policies. A perfect example of this is the Zero Carbon Homes initiative, which would have required new-build homes to have a net zero release of any carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this initiative was scrapped in 2015, but a recent report found that if it was implemented occupants of these types of homes would be saving more than £200 on bills every year.

Ultimately, messaging must envisage a new type of world that voters can support; a future that’s better, fairer, cleaner and healthier. Messaging must connect voters to local places and show why and how this matters to them, whether that’s reduced energy bills and warmer homes and an active lifestyle with cleaner air. We will not be able to tackle this crisis without effective communication that gains the vital support for urgent policy action.

Read IPPR’s This Is A Crisis report here: