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Building bridges and changing minds: Insights from climate communication research and practice

This brief synthesizes the “state of the art” on climate communication and highlights important questions and challenges that warrant further exploration, particularly regarding European policy
Multiple Authors


The Paris Agreement is widely seen as a turning point for climate policy. Despite its flaws, it lays out an ambitious agenda for reducing carbon emissions, adapting to unavoidable climate change impacts, and transforming the world’s economies to continue to build prosperity and human well-being while more sustainably managing natural resources.

The European Union has positioned itself to be a leader in this transformation. Yet translating the vision into action will require strong political momentum, combined with strong public engagement and support. Effective climate communication is crucial to building that momentum and on-the-ground engagement.

This brief*examines what science and practical experience are teaching us about effective communication, focusing on three key objectives: 1) building support for (and reducing opposition to) climate policies; 2) driving personal behaviour change to reduce our emissions and prepare for climate change; and 3) mobilizing citizens to push for more ambitious climate action by governments or businesses.

To a great extent, the principles of good communication are universal, but climate communication poses special challenges. It involves huge and complex issues, raises fundamental questions about our economy and our lifestyle, and seeks to engage individuals to tackle a problem that can only be solved through collective action. The aim of this brief is to synthesize the “state of the art” on climate communication, particularly as relevant for European policy actors, and to highlight important questions and challenges that warrant further exploration.

The key messages from the brief are provided below. To learn more about “the Francis effect”, the role of fear and trust in communication etc. be sure to read the full brief.

*Download the full text from the right-hand column or via links provided under Further Resources. The Key Messages from the brief are given below.

From page 4 of the brief: In Poland, where the economy is heavily dependent on coal, many people see climate action as a threat to their livelihoods. Above, the Túrow lignite mine. Copyright: Anna Uciechowska – Wikimedia Commons

Key Messages for Successful Climate Communication

Climate communication is an evolving field. Researchers and practitioners continue to learn about the role of values, personal priorities, relationships, and conscious and unconscious processes. The political, social and economic landscape around climate action is also changing, with green technologies growing rapidly, but also new challenges competing for policy-makers’ and citizens’ attention.

All of this means that there is no definitive way to “do climate communications right”. Like climate action itself, it is an iterative process. That said, some clear principles emerge from the discussion in this brief:

  • Know your audience. Climate communication is not one-size-fits-all. It is crucial to understand your audience, their values, needs and priorities, and tailor communication accordingly.
  • Set clear, realistic goals. Know what you want to accomplish, and translate that into viable calls to action. What specifically do you want your audience to do, and can they actually do it? Do not ask for the impossible, or confront people with problems without offering potential solutions.
  • Do not try to scare people into action. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it can also lead to paralysis and denial. Be truthful about climate risks, but avoid alarmism and hyperbole.
  • Earn and maintain trust. Trust is essential for making an impact. Be honest, forthcoming and reliable, and recognize that trust takes time to build and nurture. Be respectful and empathetic, acknowledging that some people may suffer due to climate actions.
  • Recognize the importance of values and social norms in shaping perceptions and behaviours. Do not expect to sway people with facts alone; explain how your message fits with their values and priorities. Be open to different perspectives as well: people may share your concerns about the climate but disagree with your preferred solutions.
  • Do not expect to “win” every time. Climate change is far from the only challenge faced by society at any given time; sometimes other priorities will eclipse your message. Some campaigns may simply fall flat. Watch and listen to your audience, learn from successes and failures, and keep trying!
From page 7 of the brief: The People’s Climate March in Copenhagen, held on the eve of the Paris Climate Change Conference in November 2015, brought together more than 10,000 people calling for strong climate action. Copyright: Brian Berg / / Flickr


This discussion brief was funded by the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament. It also contributes to the SEI Seed-Initiative on Climate Services funded by the Swedish Development Agency (Sida), and it is part of the Mistra-SWECIA Programme on Climate, Impacts and Adaptation in Sweden. We also acknowledge additional financial support of the Swedish Foundation for Environmental Research (Mistra).

Suggested citation

Vulturius, G., Davis, M. and Bharwani, S. (2016) Building bridges and changing minds: Insights from climate communication research and practice. SEI Discussion Brief. Stockholm Environment Institute. Stockholm.

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