Rethinking Climate Change Communication after COVID-19

2021-10-01

 |  Making a Difference

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” Galadriel
might as well have been talking about climate change in the opening monologue to the
Fellowship of the Ring. Unfortunately, resolving the climate crisis is not as simple as tossing a
little golden ring into the fires of Mount Doom, somewhere in New Zealand. Whether it’s in
Middle-earth or on Planet Earth, the theme of collective action (or fellowship) to “save” the
world has become the common narrative. However, it is difficult to effectively communicate,
and therefore have unified action, on an issue that does not affect all populations equally.


Herein lies a major difficulty in framing and incentivizing action on climate change issues. Some
consequences such as sea level rise, flooding, severe storms, and droughts are easily observable
and high profile impacts. Such phenomena can be quickly picked up by media outlets and framed
with an urgency and severity that would otherwise be difficult to convey, if not for the stark
imagery of catastrophe and economic loss. However instantly impactful such stories may be,
they have two important limitations with respect to conveying a need for change to the average
person, over an extended period of time. First, they are spatially (i.e regionally) constrained to
the local population being impacted, therefore the physical impacts are not directly relevant to
everyone else. Secondly, they are temporally (time) constrained, as in, a severe event such as a
flood or a storm takes place, passes, and then is followed by rebuilding and recovery.


Considering the nature of such events, these impacts are not typically characterized by prolonged
and regular exposure to the phenomenon itself; however, that may change in the future. What
this can translate to is a set of high profile stories which cycle through the media every once in a
while, or whenever an ice shelf happens to collapse. Communicating climate change in this way
may result in reactionary responses to individual events, which fade into memory over the
following weeks.


This occasional “superstimuli” approach to climate communication may not be the best way for
increasing sustained support for this issue. I think a question worth asking is, how do we make
the issue of climate change more relevant to people on a regular basis? If the pandemic showed
us anything, it was that spatiality+temporality=proclivity toward action. In other words, once
COVID-19 finally became directly relevant to local populations and was “here to stay”, then
measures were taken by governments and individuals to address the issue. Even though climate
change has not reached this level of impact, it’s important to consider the media’s role in
communicating the pandemic with respect to these two limiting factors (spatiality and
temporality). The media have played a tremendous role in keeping the pandemic top-of-mind for
everyone, every day, for the past 14 months. Whether it’s been through local reports on daily
case counts, updates on vaccine progress, or now, total vaccination tallies, the media have
consistently reminded Canadians of the current state of the crisis, progress on solutions, and the
steps individuals can take to mitigate its impacts. Importantly, these stories in particular have not
been high profile reports with stark imagery of catastrophe and loss, however, their regularity in
the news cycle has functioned to help keep people engaged and informed on the issue, keeping it
local, and top of mind. This raises the question of how the absence of consistent and local media
coverage would have impacted COVID-19 attitudes, behaviours, and thus case counts.
Consequently, this brings to mind how the absence of consistent and local media coverage on

climate change may (or may not) be impacting attitudes, behaviours, and thus progress on the
issue. The role of the media over the course of the pandemic has shed light on the potential
benefits of tackling communication on the climate crisis in a different way.


Perhaps it’s time for a more holistic reframing of climate change story-telling, with a strong shift
toward more localized, personal, and consistent media coverage. Identifying local climate change
impacts, both temporary and chronic, high profile and low profile, past, present, and future,
together with consequences for communities, businesses, and culture, can enhance the circulation
of this issue. Communicating this through the aforementioned spatio-temporal considerations can
translate into a more regular and relevant dissemination of climate information, which may help
foster a renewed interest and engagement from everyday people. In this way, “even the smallest
person can change the course of the future.”

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the official
position of The Starfish Canada.