Jem Bendell – The biggest mistakes in climate communications, Part 1: looking back at the ‘Incomparably Average’

Another excellent article on climate science and its implications

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria, UK

Read Part 2 HERE

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Tomorrow’s wheat fields? (Western Sahara today).  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Sahara#/media/File:Sangar_western_sahara.jpg

Bye bye Colorado River, the Rhine and Yangtze Rivers. At least for now. Bye bye Okjokull glacier. Bye bye regular rainy seasons in East Africa. Bye bye water, food and energy security. And bye bye our assumptions of uninterrupted human progress from the cave to the stars. Just when the changes happening before our eyes might help remove any doubt that the global climate is changing at a pace that is devastating for ecosystems and societies, a group of scientists and non-scientists publicly declared that “there is no climate emergency”. When reading that, people who have worked on this climate issue for decades, such as myself, roll our eyes, exclaim to the heavens, and wonder why people could still be so silly. But then when our friends and colleagues echo such doubts, that tells us something’s up. It means we need to do more than just expand our sense of exasperation or seek draconian ways to shut down the ideas that we believe to be wrong. Instead, we need to consider what has gone wrong in communicating the reality of the changing climate and what it means to all of us. And then change how we communicate, and fast. 

If we want to learn about being more effective in communicating about climate, we need to be open to considering that whatever we are doing has not been working. Well, there is one objective measurement of that – the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been spiralling, whatever strategies and tactics of the people and children who are aware of that fact and the damage it is already producing. There are many reasons for not bending the emissions curve, related to incumbent power and economic systems. But part of the reason is that climate communications have not worked well. When considering why that is so, we need to be open to the possibility that scientists and science communicators have failed to understand how to communicate. That became clearer to me when observing some British and American scientists discussing the summer heatwaves of 2022. I witnessed a calming, not alarming, effect on the public. I began to wonder what might be happening at the subtle levels of what we in the field of ‘strategic communications’ call ‘framing’. We all process new information in relation to frameworks of meaning-making that we have derived from previous communications on related themes. Those are our shared frames. As I looked closer at the frames that are used in climate communication, I identified what I think could be one of the biggest mistakes in climate communications. Fortunately, it is something that can be rectified quickly, though not fast enough for the many who already suffer displacement, hunger, disease and anxiety due to existing climate chaos. 

A broad consensus amongst scientists had been reached by the late 1980s that climate change was being caused by humans and posed a significant hazard, but that consensus was then undermined by the fossil fuel industry. That is superbly documented in the book Merchants of Doubt. However, such devious industry efforts to shape the debate can only be successful if climate change communications from the rest of us has been poor. As a recent summary of this field notes, “Communicating climate science with the public has emerged as a significant goal among climate scientists, but there is no consensus on how to do it effectively.” To improve that effectiveness, we need to consider our own failures – and there have been quite a few. For instance, focusing on “parts per million” of CO2 means nothing to the average person unless explained in some detail. The existence of the group “350 dot org” hasn’t changed that (it refers to 350ppm). Focusing for decades on what might happen in 2100 meant people like me thought, mistakenly and for many wasted years, that we had generations to achieve a transition of society and economy. Focusing on emaciated polar bears worked for some fundraising campaigns, but it didn’t help us understand the threat of humans becoming emaciated from climate chaos. Focusing on disasters in countries less fortunate than their own did not help people realise that their own children’s futures are being ruined by industry lobbyists. More recently, this enabled Bill Gates to front-up the story of how to respond to climate change, which did not allay the view that climate policy is another attempt at disaster capitalism by unaccountable rich people. Yet there is something worse than all of that in how people heard information about our changing climate but did not feel it. It is something that appears not to have been addressed in the growing field of analysis of climate communications. And yet I believe you will agree that it is something quite basic. 

Both analysing communications and advising political leaders on their own communications has been an area of my work for some years. I am going to share my insights on the failings of communicating about climate change (or, depending on your preferred term: the climate crisis, climate emergency, climate chaos, climate breakdown, climate tragedy, global heating or, um, the climate scam). I will make the case that one of the biggest mistakes in climate communications has been to overly focus on global average increments in temperatures without stating the actual baseline, so that people have no idea about the relative size of the change or what it feels like to them. That is true whether one is describing current levels of warming or targeted warming maximums. I will describe how it is such a big mistake because of how climate change has been framed over the past decades as relating to heat. 

The communications fiasco of global average temperatures 

You may have heard scientists say that we need to stay below 1.5C warming above pre-industrial temperatures or risk dangerous impacts. Or heard them say that it is too late for us to stay below that target and instead that we must do everything to stay well below 2C average warming. These figures refer to averaged annual global surface temperatures. Such average figures include the poles and the equators, the night and the day, the summer and the winter, over oceans or land masses. The use of these figures comes from the way scientists and the IPCC have chosen to simplify their way of discussing findings from sophisticated computer models on climate change. However, using that way of describing climate change outside of those scientific and policy deliberations has been completely unhelpful, because they are outside our way of relating our experience of temperatures to the conversation about temperatures. We are influenced by meteorologists to judge our experience of daily temperatures by the maxima and minima, with every news report giving a forecast for today’s highs or lows. We experience a range of temperatures during a day but have no way of sensing what might be the average temperature over 24 hours. So just as no weather forecaster ever says “today your region is going to experience a 12.5°C average temperature” there is no sensible communications rationale for a climate scientist to communicate to the public with such averages alone. Every non-climatologist I have spoken to in the last 5 years hears about 1.5°C of warming and thinks that cannot be so bad, as they compare it to their lived experience of summer highs of around 30C. That is even the case amongst some colleagues of mine who work on sustainable development issues!

Try a simple internet search for “global average temperature” or “global average preindustrial temperature” and you will find you cannot obtain a quick answer for either of those data points. Instead, nearly all magazine articles and scientific papers mention variations from baselines without giving a figure for those baselines so we can develop a sense of the significance of the anomaly. The pre-industrial baseline temperature that scientists use is from the period from 1850-1900 (as the current consensus view is that a baseline should average temperatures over 20 to 30 years to remove interannual variation and that 1850-1900 is the earliest period of reliable global observations). But stop reading for a moment and try for yourself how to find what the average global temperature was back then in pre-industrial times. You may be gone a while.  

Is it not ridiculous that people can’t get quick access to information where they can assess, for themselves, the significance of current amounts of warming? 

Effective public communications requires a simple statement of reality which elicits an intuitive and emotional response from the audience. Away from climate communications, one never gives a statistic on a non-percentage variation from an average without providing that average. For instance, if we hear that 100 more people died of a particular disease this year compared to last year, but have no knowledge of how many people actually died we have no way to judge the significance of those 100 extra deaths. In climate communications, not mentioning a baseline is critically important because of the way the information is naturally framed as relating to ‘warmth’ and ‘heat’ and therefore temperature highs. Without being told a baseline of global average surface temperature in 1850-1900, then intuitively the people I talk with compare 1.5°C warming with how they experience current highs. So they think of summers with highs of 25°C and therefore think that 26.5°C will not be that bad. 

The way people interpret this data is not because they are not clever, or not paying attention or are approaching the topic with a partisan political bias. Their response is to be expected when the ‘frame’ has been established in society that we are talking about ‘global warming’ or ‘global heating’ i.e. our mind will naturally go towards thinking about temperature highs. Frames are not optional in communications, as they always exist and influence how information is processed. One needs to connect with existing frames in order for one’s information to be instantly received and have an impact on emotions and memory. If someone can intuit the significance of information by relating it immediately to their existing frames, then they will feel that truth and will be more likely to act upon it. If the meaningfulness of the information needs explaining then the communication has already failed. That is why US President Ronald Reagan famously said “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Any scientists having to explain why 1.3°C existing warming matters, or a 2°C maximum target matters means they have already lost in the information era of constant messages from people, corporations and politicians. This is the lasting damage of an ‘incomparably average’ means of communicating about climate change – with incomparable averages.

To overcome this problem, I realised I really needed a number for the global average temperature above land and sea in the period between 1850 and 1900. If you searched for it yourself, then after a time struggling with results from your favourite search engine, the first relevant result might have been about a book by historian Spencer Weart on the history of the climate change topic. It gives 13.6°C as the average for the period between 1850-1890. But that was just a blog, not a scientific paper. After looking at a range of scientific papers to get this crucial and basic data point, and scouring websites of campaign groups like “Scientists for XR,” I resorted to going back to the IPCC reports themselves. Frustratingly, even the 2021 IPCC assessment report did not state the actual 1850-1900 temperature baseline, only the variations since then. Stumped, I had to ask a researcher to calculate a number by using a Berkeley Earth dataset from 2021 (it is also one of the time series used by the IPCC). He crunched the numbers to discover that the average temperature for the year 1850 was 13.6°C and the global average over the period 1850-1900 was 13.8°C. Finally, some figures upon which to make sense of current anomalies! 

With this baseline in mind, I began discussing with friends and colleagues their reaction to both the current warming figures and the official focus on 1.5°C or 2°C warming. When they realise that the old baseline of 13.8°C witnessed highs of well over 30°C degrees in many parts of the world, they sense the potential significance of current global warming is at least 1.2°C above that baseline. That is because they realise intuitively that current warming is already 10 percent above zero degrees. That is a relatable figure because it is widely understood as the freezing point of water. When I point out over land the temperature rise is already 1.8°C compared to 0.8°C over the oceans, then the magnitude of this change is highlighted even further. That appears to add to an immediate and intuitive sense of how these changes are significant to ecosystems and agriculture. 

The key here is that the very first bit of information needs to make intuitive sense within someone’s existing frames. If it does, then there is already an appetite for more information, rather than resistance, or misleading sense-making due to existing frames. In recent times I have been able to progress the conversation with more information. I explain that the current 1.2°C increase in average global temperatures is during an unusually long La Niña period, which cools huge areas of the planet, so we will likely see a spike if that ends next year as expected. As you may also be feeling the truth of these data points more than if you had nothing to compare 1.2°C or 1.5°C degrees with, you will understand how the conversations can rapidly progress to questions about how bad is it, how much worse might it become, how we feel about that, why has it got so bad, what are the options, and what could we do next. At present, I can only speak of anecdotes from such discussions, or feedback from people like you reading these words, but the theory on the critical importance of frames for understanding data is well established. It is also well established within climate science communications, though not in relation to the issue I am focusing on here.

Technical expertise can become a handicap in communications 

In the past I have said to climate scientists that we should be including such absolute temperatures when discussing anomalies. What I heard in response from some physicists is that it would not be the best scientific way to talk about climate change, for a number of reasons. First, because absolute temperatures are elusive. Modellers use temperature anomalies, not absolute temperatures, to even out differences between datasets and make re-analysis easier as data improves over time. “In simple words the absolute temperature may be different in downtown, up the hill or near the sea in the same city, but the difference in the anomalies should be similar, i.e. when it gets warm in the city, probably it gets warm everywhere,” explained Makiko Sato, co-author of another dataset used by the IPCC. Second, giving specific baselines like 13.6°C or 13.8C can lead people to make assessments of the percentage change in atmospheric temperatures which are not necessarily correct if we did not use the arbitrary baseline of the freezing point of water being zero. Physicists prefer talking about Kelvin measurements, for instance. 

Perhaps that illustrates my point about the problem with climate communications. Reasoning that is valid and necessary within the scientific community can preclude ways of communicating that are immediately intelligible to non-physicists. The public need to feel the truth, instantly, when communicated with, and certainly not have to dig around in an IPCC report and once stumped, hire a researcher to get the basic data. As I wrote in my “Don’t be a climate user” essay, any scientist saying “1.5°C is dead” or “Keep 1.5°C alive” are not speaking to the general public – especially without known comparable baselines. So who are they speaking to? Their peers? Their future selves? If communication is about other people, not about making ourselves feel better, then we must critically assess the habits of the way we communicate and realise when they are not helpful for being heard. 

Instead, people need to hear how it matters to them, in simple and immediate terms.Science editor Jackson Ryan notes the problem of always talking about average increments in temperature: “..if I turn the thermostat up by 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius in my apartment, I would probably struggle to notice the difference.” One way to convey a better sense of the warming would be to use a metric that accounts for real impacts on humanity, such as averaged land-based daily highs. That could be provided with month-by-month granularity as we already see for climate indicators on holiday websites! Most people check the typical climate of a place when travelling there for the first time, and therefore are used to that way of interpreting data. 

I mentioned earlier the problem in which using global average temperatures even misleads people who are professionally working on environmental issues. People who believe that technology will solve everything can be particularly attracted to being misled into thinking climate change is not so worrying. One such person is the tech billionaires’ favoured ‘longtermist’ philosopher William MacAskill. In his new book, he writes of his “best guess” that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions.” His footnote on that statement elaborates that “lethal limits for the major food crops are between forty and fifty degrees Celsius (King et al 2015). Although some places in the tropics pass these limits for part of the year with fifteen degrees of warming, North America, Europe and China would not.” Because there is no climatology that states that 15C of global annual average warming over pre-industrial levels is something that ecosystems or outdoor agriculture could cope with, this “best guess” appears to be from MacAskill simply adding 15C onto current temperature highs and thinking that won’t get near 50C in most parts of the world. As you already know, even 1.3C of global warming is now generating maximum temperature events of 40C in the UK. MacAskill’s imagined viable future for croplands is a global average of 15C above the pre-industrial global average of 13.8, making it 28.8C average annual temperatures, the same as the current annual average in the Western Sahara at 28.97C. That is a desert region that doesn’t export any grains and where the terrestrial agricultural produce has mainly been nuts, berries and goats. It requires the mining of fossil water and protection from sunlight and wind, as well as chemical inputs, to produce some tomatoes and melons

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An agri-project in Western Sahara – nice venue for a longtermist’s fact finding mission.

What is key is to achieve resonance immediately when communicating with simple information, without requiring further explanation. The new problem is that the opponents of action on climate change can use the current emphasis on changes in average temperatures without baselines to have an immediate and intuitive resonance with their audience. They can ask the rhetorical question “why should we destroy the economy to prevent 2 degrees of warming?” In public communications it doesn’t matter if you have detailed arguments to address such a question. Because key to public communication is that if you are needing to explain what you mean then you have already lost to people who achieved immediate intuitive resonance with an existing widely-held frame. That is because public communications is about the most number of people engaged for the amount of communication effort applied. This is often difficult for experts or advocates to either understand or accept. Because they know a lot of the detail, and are often driven by their passion for the topic, they want to convey lots of ideas in their communication. This was something that I both explained and applied when working on strategic communications with the leaders’ office of the British Labour Party during the UK General Election of 2017. It was key to not let the expertise and passion mean that the communications might not immediately and intuitively resonate with a wide selection of the general public. That was not about political ‘spin’ but understanding how to meet people where they are at and with how they see the world. 

Once there is some resonance with an audience, then they are willing to listen further and the conversation can continue. With the climate, once there is a connection with intuitions on weather, then the current and projected temperature changes can be given further context. For instance, the unprecedented nature of the temperature changes for human civilisation can be made clear. The paper “Future of the human climate niche” explains that humans settled in a narrow climate niche of ~13°C mean annual temperatures in the last 11,700 year period called the Holocene. Then the pace of warming could be explained as important as the total amount. The ‘Scientists for XR’ group realise this and focus on rates of warming in their explainer:

Over the past 45 years, our planet’s temperature has been increasing a whopping 170 times faster than the baseline rate of cooling over the previous 7,000 years. Indeed, our current rate of warming is unprecedented over the last 10,000 years. Over the rest of this century, future temperature rises are predicted to be taking place not just much faster than it did during our recovery from the last ice age but hundreds of times faster than any extended period of warming in the last 65 million years.”

They are right to emphasise the pace of warming, because even in the 1980s it was understood by the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases that avoiding dangerous climate change would require limiting both the total amount of heating, and the rates of heating. The AGGG warned that warming rates above 0.1°C per decade would likely lead to increasing risk of significant ecosystem damage. That is because ecosystems take a long time to stabilise in relation to the climatic conditions. So what is the current rate of global warming? In 2021 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) assessed that temperatures were already 1.1°C above pre-industrial times. However, some data sets (e.g. Berkeley Earth) even show warming has reached more than 1.3°C relative to 1850. That means current rates of heating threaten to exceed 0.3°C/decade for the coming 20 years, double the rate of the past 50 years, as top climatologists have warned us since 2018. It is worth remembering that only 7 years ago it was alarming to the world’s scientists that the planet had reached 1°C warming over pre-industrial levels.

Unfortunately, rather than a focus on dangerous rapid heating, instead new stories are promoted by some establishment institutions that might calm concern. For instance, recently there has been emphasis on how warming more than 1.5°C could be “temporary”. Is such a view significant compared to the possibility of passing 1.5°C decades ahead of when it was projected just 20 years ago? There appears to be a pattern where some people change the scientific stories to avoid difficult conclusions. For instance, prior to the political influence of the creation of the IPCC, the AGGG warned an increase of greater than 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels “may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” They were referring to an even cooler baseline than the one used today by IPCC when warning that 2C average global warming might trigger such impacts. What has changed since there is the emergence of a vast array of institutional and commercial interests seeking to shape the climate narrative so it does not threaten incumbent power.

Admitting wasted years to refocus on the future

It is with a deep sense of grief and regret that I summarise these problems with climate communication. Like many people, I worked for decades on environmental issues under a false impression of the nature and urgency of climate change. Like nearly everyone else in my field of sustainable development cooperation, I relied on the IPCC, which I had assumed was the best possible source of knowledge on climate reality. They even won a Nobel Peace Prize, so they must be doing a good job, I had thought. But now I realise that not only did their methodologies lead to an understatement of existential risk, but their discourse framed climate change as a technical challenge of achieving incremental change. I now realise that the focus on carbon parts per million and average global increments of temperature did not help me to feel the truth. Instead, climate became a topic to study and learn the relevant jargon – to be ‘professional’. The regular commentary on what may or may not happen by 2100 felt like eternity to me, so I assumed we had generations to change. I was already working so hard on sustainability issues, taking risks with my career and making sacrifices in my personal life, that I thought I was already radical enough. All of that – the worldview, the identity, the struggle – was based on a lack of understanding of the true nature of the threat. Now as more of us awaken to the extent of the threat to human civilisation and life on Earth, we all have some personal realisations and readjustments to go through.

After I took a year out to study climate science for the first time since the mid 1990s, I realised my reliance on the IPCC had been misplaced. But that was the least of it. Because by feeling the truth of the climate tragedy, I had to say goodbye to my old stories of self, society, and world. Only then could I work out what might be a meaningful way for me to live in the future. That process of reconstituting my life and work is still ongoing. And part of that process is to see how I can help other people, yourself included, understand and communicate better about what the science of climate change is indicating lies ahead for humanity. It was a shocking summer, but thankfully the Colorado, Rhine, Yangtze and other rivers will return in the coming months. But their wildlife has been severely damaged. Nearby soils have been severely desiccated, some of them salinated by encroaching seas. The river-feeding glaciers will likely continue to recede, as they have done for decades since the industrial revolution began. But what we are definitely saying goodbye to now is security, certainty and progress. Unless we recognise that, then we are liable to make even worse mistakes in climate communications in future. That is what I will turn to in Part 2 on the biggest mistakes in climate communications that are emerging now.

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you Jem. I have often slipped into all the complacencies you detail. I particularly struggled to ‘explain’ to friends what is wrong with 2deg. I now have the answer!

    We have set up the Climate Party with the single issue demand of zero carbon by 2030 (and nature restoration – double demand).

    • Why do you use so many words? Explain. In a few words. They were absurdly unnecessary which leaves me distrusting you. You are, thereby, contributing to the stall.

  2. I too have spent over 15 years attempting to communicate the climate crisis. The Ecological Footprint, measurable in global hectares, can otherwise be expressed as Overshoot Day. This seems to have caught on. I prefer planets required to support a lifestyle. My latest attempt, based on a submitted academic paper’s method, suggests gamification. Set up here for the city of Calgary, Canada.

  3. Great piece thank you. One question: is this XR quote supposed to say ‘cooling’ in the second line? That immediately threw me off being able to follow the logic.
    “Over the past 45 years, our planet’s temperature has been increasing a whopping 170 times faster than the baseline rate of cooling over the previous 7,000 years. Indeed, our current rate of warming is unprecedented over the last 10,000 years. Over the rest of this century, future temperature rises are predicted to be taking place not just much faster than it did during our recovery from the last ice age but hundreds of times faster than any extended period of warming in the last 65 million years.”

  4. Thanks. I just came across a brilliant talk by Will Steffen available on YouTube that explains climate change in exactly the way Jem is suggesting. Highly recommend it for clear and simple statements that demonstrate how anthropogenic changes to the climate and biosphere compare with the past. Search “The Anthropocene: Where on Earth are we going? as part of the European Winter School at UPF”. (Not allowed to post the link here).

  5. Thus is very important, so I agree with the comment above to please create a shorter, consise version so it is accessible by the average reader.

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