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Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide

This guide will help you explain to colleagues or the broader public how the climate is changing and what they can do about it. It includes insights from working in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Multiple Authors
Women mapping climate action. Credit: Red Cross


CDKN’s Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide, the revised 2019 edition is full of tips for communicating climate change effectively, drawn from CDKN’s experience in South Asia and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. It is by practitioners and for practitioners.

If you have ever tried to explain to colleagues in your organisation, policy-makers, or the broader public how the climate is changing, how it affects them, and what they can do about it, then this guide is for you.

About this guide

The guide is intended to fill a gap in sharing practitioners’ experiences about climate communications in the Global South. The guide is written by CDKN’s Knowledge Management and Communications staff, whose experience spans dozens of low- and middle-income countries. They have been working since 2010 to raise awareness of:

  • the impacts of climate change on poverty and development;
  • the potential for building resilience to climate change; and
  • the opportunities of embracing a low-emission economy.

Audiences in developing countriessee the evidence before their eyes: in searing heatwaves and increasing numbers of heat-related illnesses and deaths; in failing and flooded food crops, and inundated coastal zones. What these audiences need is to ‘make sense’ of what they are seeing: to understand their lived experience in a scientific context, to know what the future climate might hold, and to decide what they should do about it.

This guide has therefore examined opportunities to make connections between the big picture and people’s local experience;between scientific and local knowledge.

These communications tips are sensitiveto developing countries’ needs to tackle persistent poverty and basic development needs (such as the provision of drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare, housing and energy), which are needed for a dignified life.

Finally, this guide is geared toward convincing people to take climate action now, not tomorrow.The reality is that climate change jostles for people’s attention with many competing stories. It takes ingenuityto bump climate change to the topof the agenda and ultimately give it the politicaland public focusit deserves.

Building on readers’ feedback

The guide was initially launched in late 2018 (at COP24 in Katowice, Poland) with a call for stories and feedback from readers. As a result of wide consultations, the guide has been fully reformatted and updated for 2019. It now includes many new case studies – including experiences in using performance art and high school competitions to engage new audiences around climate change solutions. The CDKN team is especially pleased to have teamed up with researchers and communications officers from the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) and Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) to capture some of their experiences.

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The text below provides an overview of the key messages and lessons from the guide. See the full text for much more detail!

Key findings

Each section of this guide offers information on different aspects of climate communication. Here are the key findings in brief from each section.

General principles for effective communication

  • Identify and understand your audience.
    • Start by identifying the stakeholder group(s) who can affect positive change, what information and analysis they need and how you can help meet their knowledge needs.
    • Work to identify who the best ‘messengers’ are for your content: Who is most likely to capture the attention of your intended audience?
    • Request audience feedback often, and revise and update messaging, content and engagement activities to improve when things aren’t working well.
  • Tailor knowledge products and use multiple formats.
    • Craft knowledge products and services that frame the information in ways that are tailored and relevant to the stakeholder group(s).
    • Produce diverse formats when the budget allows: Tell the same story, where possible, in multiple formats to cater to people’s varying personal preferences.
    • Make content easy to access, easy to use, easy to share.
  • ​Recognise how digital and face-to-face communications can amplify each other.
    • Devise digital outreach campaigns that elevate serious climate change messages in the midst of huge online ‘chatter’ by using well-tested tactics – such as high-quality imagery, innovative infographics, clear copywriting and even memes – to make content compulsively shareable.
    • Combine face-to-face engagements in smaller groups with digital outreach via larger broadcast communications, as a way to achieve both depth and breadth.

​Getting the climate change framing right

  • Government and public policy audiences.
    • Highlight the risk that climate change may undermine the achievement of major public policy goals, especially on eliminating poverty and reaching fiscal targets.
    • Highlight obligations and opportunities for meeting international commitments to climate action, such as the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC.
    • Highlight obligations and opportunities for meeting national commitments to climate action, such as national climate change strategies, action plans, policies and laws.
  • ​Business and economics focused audiences.
    • Look for examples of risks to company profit – or to a company’s entire business model – posed by climate change impacts on assets, work force, production systems and supply chains.
    • Highlight that action on adaptation can create a resilient firm with longterm prospects for business growth and stability.
  • ​General audiences.
    • Find the ‘human interest’ stories – in other words, people’s own words about their own experiences – that tell how climate change has negative impacts and undermines development progress. By reporting the stories of affected people, you give your audience something they can relate to.
    • Highlight that action on adaptation can prevent the loss of livelihoods, assets, health and well-being – even loss of life – from climate change impacts.
    • Show the power of positive solutions. People don’t want just bad news, they want inspiration!

Partnerships for impact

  • Crowdsourcing information to support climate action.
    • ​Informing the community and engaging with them helps to capture and compile their relevant knowledge to address climate challenges.
    • Once compiled, this often scattered information may often provide the basis for a government’s strategy for climate-compatible development.
    • To successfully gather and build on this knowledge, it is vital to engage the community in dialogue through events, workshops and information campaigns.
  • Turning up the volume of voices that haven’t been heard.
    • Innovative forms of partnership and communication can empower women and other socially excluded groups to make their voices heard in broader climate-compatible development processes, and also empower them to access services (e.g. through ICTs) that were previously unavailable.
  • Mainstreaming climate messages.
    • Climate change needs everyone’s effort to tackle its effects and to limit global warming.
    • That means working with partners in the ‘mainstream’; teaming up with organisations, influential individual bloggers and spokespeople who are willing to talk about climate impacts and solutions and who are working outside environmental organisations.
  • ​Exposing new angles and telling the human stories through investigative journalism.
    • Journalists and their editors and producers are undoubtedly potential allies in raising public awareness on climate change and engendering well-informed debate and urgent action.
    • Common myths and lazy story angles on climate change – like the discredited notion that there is a trade-off between jobs and the environment – are the enemy of civilised and productive debate.

Creative presentation

  • Data visualisation techniques can be tremendously powerful as a communications tool.Some of the ways that data visualisation has been used to great effect in the climate change arena are: 1) Mapping changes in the climate itself over time (e.g. temperature, rainfall, sea level rise) and climate-related hazards (e.g. flooding) over time. 2) Mapping exposure and vulnerability to climate change (e.g. poverty, sub-standard housing and infrastructure, crop vulnerability to climate changes and climate-related risks (e.g. food security risk, risk of incidence and spread of water-borne diseases, etc).
  • Discover some examples from CDKN:
    • This interactive map highlights environmental status of the Amazon basin.
    • This short film, from the Raising Risk Awareness initiative explains the process behind attribution science and its importance in preparing for the future.
    • This infographic sets out why attributing extreme weather events is critical and how the process works.

Engaging with public policy and its implementation

  • Appealing across government.
    • Climate change is a particularly thorny issue for policy design and implementation because its impacts and solutions affect so many aspects of society and the economy.
    • In governmental terms, climate solutions call for coordination across ministries and departments, and across national, regional and local administrations.
  • The power of witness.
    • ​Testimonials from climate-affected people, as well as people on the forefront of solutions, are a powerful storytelling technique to illuminate climate impacts, risks and management techniques and to introduce audiences to practical management tools.
    • If you invite climate-affected people or local leaders to give first-hand testimonies at a public event or on a media platform, ensure they have adequate briefing and support to perform at their best.
  • Engaging with opposing views.
    • Most governments are still subscribed to tax, subsidy, and other fiscal measures, as well as state investments, which actively support polluting developments such as coal-fired power stations and diesel-fuelled energy access.
    • Strategically, campaigns to mobilise cross-government support for climate action need to aim at highlighting and dismantling harmful policies as well as promoting helpful policies.

Making good science go viral

  • Consider how to make complex concepts understandable at a glance – both through straightforward language and through infographics, with the help of a clever designer.
  • Make individual image and infographic files available for download where possible, with clear instructions about how people can use them and who they must credit.
  • Make your materials creative commons licenced, so that people know they are welcome to re-use them.

Walking the walk

  • It does not make sense to communicate about climate change and be part of the problem. Climate communicators can do much to avoid greenhouse gas emissions in the course of their work and still create impactful engagements.
    • Naturally, the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has revolutionised the way that people can access climate information and the way that climate communicators can interact with information users.
    • The previous generation of broadcast communications, such as radio, were one-way. ICTs enable two-way conversations, including digitally based peer-to-peer mentorship and knowledge exchange.
    • ICTs can support virtual meetings, the strengthening of professional networks and the exchange of expertise on climate topics, and so replace expensive and environmentally damaging travel.

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