Summary by Bridget Stuart
To kick off Hilary Term 2021, we were joined by George Marshall, the Founding Director of Climate Outreach, and Matthew C. Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.
George started off by impressing upon the audience the social justice and ethical element of climate communications. He stressed that all people have a right to adequately understand climate change and the impact it will have on their lives, so that they are able to make informed decisions. A lack of information leaves people vulnerable to misinformation, which can make climate change an “amplifier of the existing schisms in society”.
George pointed out that the narrative around climate change is socially constructed, conveyed through social and normative mechanisms. The identity of the communicator is also important, and to be trusted they need to reflect the listener’s own identity and values. Therefore, people’s perceptions and processing of climate information represents a nexus of identity, values, social norms and group affiliation. As a result, individuals are susceptible to polarisation on issues of climate.
George proceeded to talk about some work carried out by Climate Outreach. He emphasised the importance of connecting with the people, establishing shared identities and values, and framing communications in a way that is culturally significant. He finished by asking the world to unite its different narratives into a cohesive broad public mandate with a shared purpose.
Professor Matthew Nisbet began by defining this time as a critical transitionary moment in which important work needs to be done to translate the findings from climate communications research into material applications. Climate communications has its work cut out for it in this regard as even the definition of climate change is thorny. Misinformation campaigns have capitalised on that fact, creating debate around objective science rather than subjective values and ideologies.
Professor Nisbet described the different historical frames which have described climate change: an issue of market failure, of tech innovation, and now of social justice. He presented a series of climate opinion polls in America, pointing out that support for policy can exist independent of agreement on the science. He rounded off his presentation by talking about the importance of socially cohesive movements in providing a window of opportunity to create positive systemic change.
The presentations were followed by a lively Q&A session, summarised below.
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