Strategy, Content


Communicating the climate crisis
Isabel Wilson
Isabel Wilson
Communications Assistant

Science meets policy at the most critical challenge of our time: the climate crisis.

Climate change communication is about educating and informing people to mobilise and solve the climate crisis. At Cultivate we know that on a deeper level, climate change communication is shaped by our different experiences, cultural models and underlying values and world views. Therefore, we are conscious that how we talk about climate change determines the way people both understand the problem and the solutions alike.

As a communications agency, it is through our clients that we play a role in shaping public opinion and policy. We use a data-driven approach to communications to inform how we influence behaviour and attitudes, spread awareness and sharpen knowledge about climate change. Using Meltwater to monitor the media and social, we analyse past results to infer decision-making on future communication strategies, campaigns, audiences and language use.

Illustration by Kimberly Viloria for Cultivate Communications. Contact us to enquire about commissioning illustrations and graphic design services.

Narrative development

Storytelling has traditionally been the way for societies to pass on ideas and information. The digital revolution provides new opportunities to connect science with audiences through multimedia narratives.

At Cultivate, we utilise the creative multimedia landscape, removing scientific jargon where necessary to translate big ideas for general audiences. We recently made a video for the Global Commission on the Economics of Water to communicate the global water crisis and generate global action. This received more than 250,000 views across all social media platforms.

Last year we produced a video to promote CGIAR at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27). Climate action is at the heart of CGIAR’s mission is to deliver science and innovation to transform food, land, and water systems in the climate crisis. This video received more than 5,000 views across all social media platforms.

Language and terminology

Neutral language is out, evocative language is in.

The term ‘climate change’ no longer represents the environmental crisis as accurately as terms such as ‘climate emergency’, ‘crisis’ or ‘breakdown’. In fact, The Guardian have updated their style guide in response to the evolving situation. The editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, says that the phrase ‘climate change’ sounds passive and gentle when scientists are talking about a catastrophe for humanity.

The word ‘climate’ has been mentioned in the media more than 79 million times in the last year with just 16% of the mentions recognised with positive sentiment. The top keyword mentions that have been associated with ‘climate’ in the last 12 months are ‘climate change’ (34.3 million), ‘climate crisis’ (5.45 million) ‘climate emergency’ (1.58 million), ‘fossil fuels’ (6.5 million) and ‘emissions’ (16.7 million). As you can imagine, the collective sentiment of these media mentions is reported as only 2.6% positive.

An interesting insight to note is that whilst ‘climate change’ is still the most dominant phrase used, the phrases: ‘climate crises,’ and ‘climate emergency’ have shown a steeper mention increase compared to the previous year than that of climate change. ‘Climate emergency’ mentions are up by 819% and ‘climate crisis’ mentions are up 613%. This data reinforces the idea that passive terms no longer do justice to the dramatic findings from today’s climate scientists.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

When looking at translating science for policymakers, there is no better example to draw from than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); an organisation in place to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments of the climate emergency and put forward adaptation and mitigation options.

Most recently, the IPCC finalized the Synthesis Report for the Sixth Assessment Report in March 2023. The Guardian described the report as the “starkest warning yet” of “major inevitable and irreversible climate changes”. This sentiment was echoed by many media channels following the release of the report.

Looking Forward

This year, the UAE will host the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 28) to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) from November 30 to December 12. This is a pivotal moment for the world as it marks the first comprehensive assessment of progress against the goals of the Paris Agreement. Spoiler ahead… we are far from on track. Given the radical course correction required to meet the goals, the expectation is that communications maintain a sense of urgency and radicalism.

The United States will be hosting the AIM for Climate Summit on May 8-10, 2023. The Summit aims to bring together partners to increase and accelerate investment in and support for agriculture and food systems innovation for climate action. The summit follows several principles, one of those being to communicate a message of hope and resilience by highlighting opportunities. This represents the dichotomy we face between hope and fear.

Hope amid the crises

With renewables, innovation, decarbonisation, activism and global cooperation, the situation is far from hopeless.

Public awareness and the effective communication of climate change information are flagged as critical issues in the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is our job as communications specialists to constantly evolve our strategy to meet the current scientific and political landscape, coupling constructive hope (e.g. the rise of clean energy) with the seriousness of the threat to mobilise people to solve the climate crisis.