Why we must change the way we talk about climate to inspire positive action
How do you persuade people to take action on climate change?
Professor Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, is a climate communicator. Here she explains that she has to navigate often vicious comments and online trolling in order to get her positive message across to a range of audiences.
Watch the interview or read the transcript below.
Welcome to Talking About Thinking the Unthinkable, our latest leadership conversation and podcast. I’m Nik Gowing, Founder and Director of the Thinking the Unthinkable project.
These remain deeply unsettling times, sky-rocketing energy prices and inflation, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Overall, the stability we take for granted is simply unravelling. But equally overwhelming is the fast deepening climate emergency. With greater climate extremes being experienced everywhere on our planet.
The scientific data and consensus is ever gloomier. There’s ever greater urgency for all of us to cut emissions and to change the way we are used to living. And to do it rapidly. How to get that message over? How to convince everyone how serious the climate predicament is, where the challenge is communicating all of this.
So joining me is Professor Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society. Her main role is to do just that. To persuade people everywhere, at all levels, how to communicate the scale and the threat from the climate emergency, then take action. As we’ll hear, what she does can also produce a vicious, negative feedback response. Liz, a very warm welcome to Thinking the Unthinkable. Before you tell us about what produces a backlash, what is the big communication challenge which you talk about?
Prof Liz Bentley
Thanks, Nik. So the key thing for us is getting the science message out to those people who are in communication roles. So key roles where they have large audiences that they speak to, from all sorts of different backgrounds. Not only getting the scientific information, so the latest thinking about what is happening with our climate, the impacts of climate change, but really thinking about the solutions.
How we can empower people to make physical change, mental change, behavioural change, in order to take us on a journey that leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but also an adaptation to the changing climate that we’ve got.
So at the Royal Meteorological Society, we’re a very small organisation, we’re a small not-for-profit organisation, we have a good audience of people. But I know there are other people out there who have millions of followers - whether that’s on social media, or they work in a broadcast organisation - so they have millions of people who engage with them on a daily basis. And so I’m trying to upskill those people to be much more confident about talking about climate change, engaging in the subject with people of the general public, people who work in organisations and policymakers as well. And that’s been a key role for the Royal Meteorological Society in recent years.
How much of an uphill job is it persuading people? Not least those who are either sceptical or not that interested?
Prof Liz Bentley
Now, that’s an interesting one. We’re very comfortable talking to peers, you know, scientists talk to scientists about climate change. There are lots of people out there who are engaged with the subject and want to find out more. And that’s an easy route. That’s a really easy conversation to have.
The more challenging conversations are with those who are much more sceptical about climate change, and they’ve been around for decades. This is not new to the science. People have been challenging whether climate change is real, whether it’s down to human activity, whether it’s actually as extreme as we think it’s going to be. And the conversation maybe has changed over the decades, but there are still a number of people out there who are sceptical.
I think the important thing is that we need to have that conversation with them. It’s quite easy to try and shy away from this.
One example, and I know I’ve spoken to you about this before, Nik, but I try when I’m doing media interviews, not just to speak to people through say, The Guardian newspaper, or through the BBC News Channel, and where you expect to have an audience of people who have engaged on this subject. But to go and speak to audiences through, say, GB News or Talk TV who are going to be much more constrained in their view about climate change. They will react differently to comments that I make about climate change. And I will often get negative comments from that, but it’s really important that I, and others, engage with people through those media channels as well, because they’re the important ones that we need to change attitudes, need to change behaviour as much as those who are already on board and understand the climate crisis.
Science is now, as I said right at the beginning, is ever gloomier. A new report coming out and the Tipping Points, the planetary boundaries, being pushed out. Is there still, though, a resistance which is that ‘look, frankly, okay, we’ve had a very hot summer here in the northern hemisphere, certainly in Europe. But surely that’s only something which is going to happen from time to time. We saw the same thing happening in 1976’. Are there compelling ways in which you can get the message over and really multiply and accelerate all of this?
Prof Liz Bentley
Great example. And, you know, during the recent heatwave here in the UK, I received a lot of information as did other climate communicators, about ‘it’s summer, what are we worried about? You know, it’s supposed to be hot, warm and sunny. Why? Why are we complaining? Why is there a red warning from the Met Office saying, you know, we need to take action, because we’re in the middle of a heatwave’. And other people who say, ‘well, remember the summer of 76, we had extreme heat and drought. And it’s no different from that. Our climate isn’t changing’.
So they use these things as examples of why our climate is not as extreme as we think it is. And climate change is, maybe, not as big an emergency as we thought. But the key for me are the facts. And that’s always the way I would approach when I’m communicating about climate change, providing factual information and actually asking the person I’m having a conversation with, whether that’s through a news channel or with an individual, about where are their facts.
So people will quote to me the summer of 76. Yes, it was a hot and dry summer. But compared to the summer we’ve just gone through, it was nowhere near as hot. So we saw record temperatures this year, over 40 degrees Celsius recorded. The highest recorded in 76 was about 35 degrees, just over. So we’ve never seen temperatures like this before. We’ve never seen the scale and intensity of the heat that we saw this year. And although 76 was a hot summer, it will be seen as a relatively cool summer as we go forward in time and the summer of 2022 is going to become much more typical of our summers going forward.
And it’s the facts that are really important. So we we can look back, and there’s a context there. But we need to be really, really clear that the evidence is there that our climate is changing and changing at a dramatic rate.
What we hope is that there are leaders - that’s what Thinking the Unthinkable is about - leaders out there who need to be convinced, want to be convinced, should be convinced. But there are also, there’s clear data on this as well, that there are plenty of leaders who say, ‘this is just scare mongering’. This is just something which is being thrown out without any scientific background. And I’ve shared with you before, a remarkable commentary I heard back at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May of this year, where someone came to a meeting and said, ‘I’m hearing more and more, particularly from the corporate sector. They’re complaining, complaining that the science is too dramatic. Could we tone it down’?
Prof Liz Bentley
And again, I guess for me, it’s about going back to the facts.
So if somebody in an organisation or business or even an individual will say that it’s too extreme, it’s not an emergency, my question to them is, well, where is your evidence that it isn’t as extreme as the climate scientists would suggest? Where’s your evidence that you’re anticipating a future that may not be as dramatic as the climate projections are showing? And I’ll provide evidence in the opposite to that.
There’s a wealth of evidence out there showing that not only is there climate change, but looking at future climate projections, looking at where we’re going to be, the world global temperatures have increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius. So far, we are seeing climate change playing out in front of our eyes, here in the UK, and around the world on an almost daily basis. There are records being broken, there are events, high impact events, that are impacting on us as humans, on the ecology, ecological systems that are playing out almost on a daily basis.
Where is the evidence that they have to show that this is not down to climate change, or that this is just a one off event and we’ll get back to some sort of normality in future years? It would be pretty much impossible for them to find that. And that’s usually where that dialogue, that conversation starts to move people forward in a different direction. Because they don’t have that evidence.
It’s usually a recognition that those people in those businesses are reluctant to make changes because of other reasons. And that’s, I think, where the conversation then needs to change.
So you talk about the science and the facts, but then it becomes quite clear that we have to find connections between what we as climate communicators feel about the climate change and the climate emergency and those individuals and businesses. And where are those connections? Where are the values that we share or the the aspirations that we share? How can we try and have that conversation that will then move things forward, otherwise the conversation breaks down because it’s one person thinks one thing and the other person thinks another. So I think it’s important to get the facts, but then you have to shift that conversation and that’s why it’s really important.
As I said earlier, the role for the Royal Meteorological Society is not just for us to do that, because we’re a small organisation, I can’t reach all of those people and businesses, it’s about upskilling those people, and giving those other communicators, those who have the audiences, the large audiences in front of them, or organisations that are having to deal with the environmental emergency as it exists now, giving them the skills, the knowledge, the information. The facts are really important for them to go and do that conversation with those people in those organisations.
Let’s get back to that point I made right at the beginning in the introduction, when I mentioned about a vicious, negative response from some people, and growing in many ways, and there’s clear evidence, particularly from the United States that this is happening. Help us understand what you’re experiencing when it comes to putting the science out there. Going into places which don’t naturally feel comfortable listening to your message. But then what happens on emails and trolling afterwards?
Prof Liz Bentley
We noticed this during the recent heatwave in the UK, when there was a lot of climate communicators out there, the media was wanting to talk about this day, after day, after day. And so lots of my colleagues and friends who work in universities or in organisations were actively communicating climate change. So the number of people out there talking about climate change was rapidly expanded. And the response then back from individuals, from organisations that certainly ramped up.
There has always been a negative rebuff from people who don’t want to believe climate change is happening. In the past, I used to receive letters through the post, and maybe emails from people. Now with social media, there’s an awful lot more of people who will troll and make abusive comments, personal abusive comments on social media, or use their own blogs or websites to ridicule. And they don’t tend to have a conversation about the science.
They’re not questioning the comments that I’ve made, they’re usually quite personal. So they might be, you know, the fact that I’m a female. There has been early career scientists who’ve been ridiculed in the recent climate conversation, by actually people who are working in media, which is, you know, from my perspective, a real issue. So it’s not from individuals, it has actually come from media channels that have allowed this to happen. And they’ve made comments about early career scientists, because ‘what would they know?’ I think the comment that came out was ‘recently out of nappies’. So it’s trying to highlight this person is too young to really know what they’re talking about.
Prof Liz Bentley
And for me, from the role of the Royal Meteorological Society, what we try and do is support peak communicators, and particularly encourage early career scientists to go and talk about their science. They are experts in these areas. We want them to engage with other people, the public, talk to the media to do interviews.
So we support them, we provide them with training and information and encourage them to do this. And then, when they get the trolling and abuse, I’m very conscious about their mental health, their welfare, but also I want them to respond to this in a positive way and step back then from from these communication activities. You want them to learn from that.
For me, I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so. You kind of get a thick skin. It comes with the territory. That doesn’t make it right. But, you know, that happens. But if you’re new to this, if you’re just starting out on your journey as a climate communicator, the personal abuse that you can get, it can be a real negative, and those individuals may think ‘I’m not up for this, I really don’t want to do it’. So we try to support them.
And things have changed. Social media is helpful, it’s a communication channel. But it can be a real negative. People are happy to say very negative comments quite openly on social media, because they can hide behind, I guess, an online wall and feel they can say things differently than they would if they were in face-to-face environment.
But I think the second thing is the fact that we can use this as a positive. For example, the BBC have introduced misinformation officers. People who are actively going out and looking for when there’s incorrect information, or that the information has been exploited in some way to make it more extreme than it should be. And we have been working quite closely with them. Particularly during the recent trolling event of the UK heatwave in the summer, to look and just have that conversation. Bring this out in the open that this is happening. It’s part of everyday life if you’re involved in climate communication. What can we do about it? How How can we improve it? How can we support people in the community to improve on this? How can a professional body like ourselves do that? So the communication there is happening as well.
Let’s do a quick handbrake turn in the last two or three minutes we’ve got, Liz. There are those who will say ‘God, more doom and gloom, I can’t cope with it, we’ve got enough going on, quite apart from what’s happening in the climate. Let’s just forget about it’. What about the positive way that this can be taken forward? Because in all our work at Thinking the Unthinkable, that’s the thing that comes through loud and clear. It’s all very well understanding the problem, but it’s encouraging people to realise there are positives about what you can see, even if it feels pretty awful at times. What is your message there?
Prof Liz Bentley
Absolutely. Time and time again, when we do climate communication training, people feel part way through the course, ‘well, this is too big a problem to solve. It’s very depressing. What can I do about it?’ And the key for me is always, whenever there’s a conversation, is leaving people feeling empowered.
So what are the solutions? What are the actions that individuals, businesses can take in order to make a difference? And so thinking about all the positive things that are happening. And there are many around the world. There are technical solutions, there are examples of people and businesses where they’re making transformational change. To provide that information to empower people.
I will say one thing, we’ve been doing some forums with the general public about how we can help them when that. We’re communicating climate change. And the word ‘protect’ has come out very clearly throughout these forums. They want to know how to protect themselves and their families, and protection for me comes to fault. So it’s about how can we protect the world? How can we mitigate against climate change? How can we make changes to limit the amount of warming that we’re likely to see in the future? But protection is also about adaptation? How can we become more resilient, because our climate is already changing. And I think protection is a really useful word when we’re trying to communicate with the general public. People want to protect themselves, protect their families, and protect the world around us. And so how I can provide information and examples of how they can do that is just as important as telling them the whole message of what we’re seeing with climate change, and what we’re likely to see in the future.
Seeing the way you speak and the kind of conversations we’ve had previously. I don’t think you’re going to say yes to my question, but do you despair that actually the scale of this is so large, that the enormity is so great, that getting enough momentum, getting enough acceleration, getting enough multiplication, and getting it beyond the science is going to be a formidable task, particularly when there are those out there who say, we’re never going to achieve net zero anyway.
Prof Liz Bentley
So it wouldn’t be the word despair that I’d use, it would be frustration. Frustration with the lack of action that individuals, governments, businesses are taking.
The enormity of this emergency is very clear to us all. The science is clear that our climate is changing. But we have solutions out there that will take us towards net zero, and we need to be working at pace to get to that. This is the decade that we need to make that change. Action is needed now. And so the frustration for me is really just the lack of action that’s needed, rather than maybe despair, that we can’t get to a positive solution.
Liz, thanks so much. Let me just underline that - lack of activity. We need changes now, not in a decade. Literally, a few years only. Thank you so much. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society. Thanks for joining us.