Communicating climate change during the coronavirus crisis – what the evidence says

Communicating climate change during the coronavirus crisis – what the evidence says

The world has changed — and advocates are having to change with it, adapting campaigns and plans to a profoundly new external environment. Commentators and campaigners are reflecting and re-writing plans. But what does the evidence say? The social science of climate change communication provides insights into what effective communications could look like during the current crisis.

Covid-19 can feel like a speeded up analogy for climate change, powerfully demonstrating the importance of good communications. Governments are suddenly grappling with questions of how to change the behaviour of their populations based on technical scientific information, while maintaining support and public consent.

They can’t do it by top-down orders alone. Behaviours change when social norms shift, people understand the reasons to act, these reasons resonate with their concerns, and they have the capacity to make the change.

Communications that speak to people’s values, like interdependence, compassion and community, are more effective at engaging people than jargon (“flattening the curve”). Government assumptions about what is “politically realistic” may themselves underestimate the changes people are willing to make when they are for the common good. The evidence shows that many people assume that they hold these “communal” values, but that the people around them do not. Communal values are strongly associated with taking action on climate change — and with supporting each other during a crisis.

The changed way we are living is also prompting conversations about our relationship with the environment — the vulnerability of our food systems, the myths and realities of “recovering nature” in the absence of human activity, our dependence on the natural world and each other for survival.

Climate change communications in a crisis

So is it a great time for campaigners to talk about climate change? The evidence shows that moments of shift — when habits are disrupted by major life events like moving house or having a baby — are also moments when people are more open to changing other behaviours.

But, crucially, research also shows that there are pitfalls in communicating at a time like this.

“Messaging” people about climate change close to or during a crisis can add to a sense that environmental campaigners are self-satisfied and insensitive to the needs of people who are suffering. The wrong communications at the wrong time — for example celebrating falls in emissions caused as a result of people losing jobs and being trapped in their houses — have a serious risk of backfiring.

But the evidence also suggests that a “window of engagement” may open up afterwards — a unique moment where people have the space to reflect upon what they have gone through, and connect their own experience with wider issues.

This may not be of long duration. At a moment like the one we are experiencing, it is easy to assume that shifts in attitudes, prompted by significant and deeply felt life events, will be permanent. But this may not be the case. Awareness of the risks of extreme weather events increases soon after a flooding event, but may soon diminish, for example.

Going “back to normal”?

After a traumatic event, there is often a strong drive to “get back to normal”, restoring a feeling of security and familiarity to life. But “normal” may not be possible — or advisable — any more. Instead, communications that focus on preparedness as well as support, resonate with people across the political spectrum, building a new idea of what is “normal”.

Research on climate engagement consistently points to the importance of efficacy — the belief that it’s possible to do something, and if you do something it will make a difference — as crucial in motivating action. People can cope with strongly negative information about climate change, if it is paired with a sense and understanding that they can do something.

But people who have experienced a traumatic event also have a right to recover. Research shows that communities that have suffered from flooding, for example, may strongly resist evidence showing climate change will cause it to happen more in the future, as it indicates it may happen again. People dealing with one crisis (Covid-19), understandably may not have the capacity to think about another (climate change), if they are struggling emotionally, socially or financially.

Challenging assumptions

As ever, communications need to be tailored to the audience. Responses will not be the same for different social groups and political perspectives. Some audiences may currently be experiencing trauma, while others have capacity and space for reflection. It is easy to make assumptions — for example that the link between climate change and health is well understood, when it is not.

People trust information coming from people who they perceive as authentic, and understanding the needs and values of their community. This often isn’t environmentalists. Research Climate Outreach undertook last year into how to have constructive day to day conversations about climate change with the people around them pointed strongly towards the need to focus on human connection — opening up pathways to exchange and engagement rather than seeking to “win the argument”.

The Covid-19 crisis has arrived at a moment of historically high levels of engagement and worry about climate change — doubling in the UK in the last four years. Concern about climate change in the UK has gone up and down again in the past, in the wake of the failed Copenhagen climate summit and the financial crisis. But we are now — tragically — living in an era of real-time climate impacts, and the arrival of another crisis may not have the same effect again in different circumstances. In-depth qualitative research will be needed to track what happens. 

Emphasising communal values

It is possible that human society is entering a period of long-term disruption — with rolling health, social, economic and even food crises emerging over a period of months and years. Countries that have encoded emissions reductions into legislation are largely wealthy. Countries without the capacity and resources to isolate their populations long-term may suffer a great deal more.

These changes could mean an increased emphasis on communal values and the public good. Alternatively, worried populations could turn increasingly to authoritarian values and barriers against perceived threats. There is no crystal ball. This points ever more strongly to the importance that climate campaigners emphasise the communal values of compassion and mutual support in a time of crisis.


Robin Webster is Senior Climate Change Engagement Strategist at Climate Outreach

Climate Outreach will be releasing a practical, evidence-based guide on how to communicate about climate change during the coronavirus crisis by the end of May. Sign up to our monthly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss it. The insights in this blog are based on previous research into how to engage the public on flood risks and climate change particularly communities that have been directly affected by flooding themselves – droughts and climate change, climate risks and adaptation and how to motivate behaviour change, as well as the fundamental tenets of engaging populations on climate change.



Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels