This article first appeared in the December 2016 edition of Eingana, the journal of Environment Education Victoria.
How do you tell a Melbournian what their city’s climate will be like in the year 2070? You could explain that, if the world gets its act together and manages to lower its emissions of greenhouse gases, average temperature will rise by about 1.5°C. If emissions continue to be high, the temperature will rise by about 2.6°C.
Then you could say that extreme temperatures are likely to increase at a similar rate to average temperatures. Melbourne will endure more hot days, those hot days will become significantly hotter, and warm spells will last longer.
If their eyes are yet to glaze over, you could add that winter and spring rainfall are likely to be less than today, and that the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events will rise.
But how do you really convey what does all this mean? What will be the impact of this sort of temperature rise and rainfall reduction? There has to be an easier way of quickly communicating this complex, important information.
Thanks to CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, there is. You can just say that in 2070, the climate of Melbourne will be more like the current climate of Adelaide. Most people know that Adelaide is hotter and drier than Melbourne, so they should immediately get a feel for what Melbourne’s climate will be like in future.
[Photo: Paul Holper]
That city comparison comes from a communication tool called ‘climate analogues’. You will find it – and much, much more – on the Climate Change in Australia web site. The web site contains all the information underpinning the national climate projections released by the agencies in 2015.
The tool matches projected rainfall and maximum temperature with the current climate experienced in another location for 20-year periods centred on 2030, 2050 and 2090. You can find climate analogues for hundreds of Australian locations.
Regional climate change
The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology projections are the most comprehensive ever prepared for Australia. However, their use at an intra-state/regional scale is limited.
The Victorian Government commissioned CSIRO to prepare regional climate projections for the state. The government were then faced with the challenge of conveying this information – so it informed people about their changing climate, explained the likely impacts of climate change, and described how best to adapt.
The Victorian Government contracted me and colleagues Karen Pearce from Bloom Communication and Rohan Hamden, a climate adaptation specialist, to prepare communication products that met this challenge.
The project represented the perfect opportunity to put into action some of the latest thinking and advice on communicating complex science.
Lakes Entrance in Gippsland, one of the regions for which the Victorian Government has prepared climate change brochures. The other regions are Greater Melbourne, Barwon South-West, the Grampians, Loddon Mallee, and Hume. [Photo: Paul Holper]
The psychology of communication: Here and how; not gloom and doom
Decades ago, science agencies began employing information officers, communicators, public relations people and the like to pump out the facts. These staff wrote media releases, newspaper features, brochures, pamphlets and books describing scientific, technical and environmental findings.
The approach was based on the ‘empty bucket’ or ‘deficit’ model. It assumes that people have information gaps in their brains ready to be filled with facts, and that if a little fact pushing doesn’t work, then increasing the flow of brochures, newspaper articles, and radio talks will help.
The problem is that the deficit model has limited effectiveness. Often it fails completely, having the opposite effect of what was intended.
Climate change is an example of the failure of the deficit model. Despite massive communication efforts, a considerable proportion of people still do not accept that climate change is caused by human activities. A 2014 CSIRO survey (Leviston et al., 2015) found that 8 per cent of Australians don’t think that climate change is happening, 8 per cent have no idea whether it is happening or not, and 39 per cent of Australians say that it is happening, solely due to natural causes. Brulle et al. (2012) suggest that climate science has little direct influence on public opinion on climate change in the United States.
Propagation of more and more information is not the way to engage people with complex issues like climate change. Social scientists have long realised that inclusion and dialogue are essential.
Dr Sander van der Linden is a Social Psychology lecturer at Cambridge University. In a paper entitled ‘Improving public engagement with climate change: five “best practice” insights from psychological science’, (van der Linden et al., 2015), he provides recommendations on this topic. The five insights apply more widely than climate change.
Paraphrased, they are:
- our brains value experience over analysis;
- we are social and mimic peer behaviour;
- the here and now is more important than something that may (or may not) affect us profoundly in future;
- we like to win; and
- human motivation is powerful.
Applying these insights to communication means that we should:
- highlight personal experiences and local examples;
- describe effective local action;
- emphasise local changes;
- accentuate the positive (for example, reducing emissions equals cleaner air); and
- seek to build a better tomorrow.
So rather than ineffective messages of gloom and doom, the more effective communication approach relies on familiarity, hope and optimism
The Victorian Government commissioned six brochures, covering each of the state’s regions, and an overall state-wide publication. The set, entitled Climate-ready Victoria carry the description: ‘Getting climate-ready involves understanding how climate change is likely to affect you and your region, and working out ways to adapt.’
We sought to develop content that:
- has a clear, positive, empowering message/narrative;
- provides a clear regional context in terms of climate, economic and demographic information;
- highlights regional impacts of a changing climate; and
- showcases real examples of climate-ready actions that are already under way.
We also catered for the many ways that people interpret information by incorporating:
- clear, plain English and textual signposts;
- pictograms and infographics to provide clear visual cues and summaries; and
- different styles of graphs and tables to convey data.
Presenting technical information in a variety of ways can help people absorb information. The Victorian climate change brochures use a variety of graphics to convey information.
Throughout the process, the content development was refined by feedback from stakeholders and scientists to ensure that the information was accessible, useable and relevant to the particular region, but also that the underlying science was not lost in translation.
The brochures included the climate-related risks for primary production, infrastructure, tourism, health and the community, and the environment. They describe potential impacts on each sector and relevant adaptation measures.
Climate risks for primary production include lower rainfall, more heat days and increased fire weather. Potential impacts are likely to include earlier flowering times, changed distribution of pests and diseases and reduced water security. Adaptation measures could include considering enterprise diversification, different crop varieties and sowing times and regularly accessing long- and medium-range outlooks, as well as short range weather forecasts.
Warmer conditions will bring adaptation challenges for agriculture. [Photo: Paul Holper]
Supporting the brochures are regional data sheets for a range of climate variables, presented annually and by season.
‘The brochures present great information about climate change that is easy to read and understand. They help start the conversation about how the potential impacts of climate change could affect different industries and business, especially for understanding the potential risks and whether these should be considered in budgets. They also provide great references to where to get further information,’ said Sandi Bowles, Sustainability Programs Officer, Port Phillip Region, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
Ben Craven from Emergency Management Victoria, said ‘The brochures have been a valuable resource, combining all the relevant information into a single, easy to understand source. There’s the right amount of detail to bring people up to speed on the projected impacts of climate change. This information is useful in helping us understand Victoria’s needs for the future.’
References and further reading
Brulle, R., Carmichael, J. and Craig Jenkins, J. (2012) Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Journal of Climatic Change.
Leviston, Z., Greenhill, M., & Walker, I. (2015) Australians attitudes to climate change and adaptation: 2010-2014. CSIRO, Australia. Available at https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP158008&dsid=DS2 https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP158008&dsid=DS2
van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015) Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
The climate change projections for Victorian are based on material from the Climate Change in Australia website, produced by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, at www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au.
The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at www.climatechange.vic.gov.au/understand, under the ‘Being Climate Ready’ tab.