Teaching Climate Change Communication Skills: The Role of Universities

A blog written by Matt Carew, Susie Ho, and Lucy Richardson at Monash University.

Do students know how to communicate about climate change?

Public concern about climate change is at an all-time high, particularly among young people and university students – but many concerned individuals are either unwilling or unaware of how to communicate their attitudes and knowledge of climate change in a way that will have a positive effect on their family, peers, colleagues, and ultimately, the world. 

Through our work in climate change and sustainability spaces in higher education, as well as in related UNFCCC constituencies, industries and NGOs, the authors of this article feel a strong responsibility to act on climate change. As a millenial, co-author Matt Carew feels the weight of climate change growing heavy on his shoulders, as do many of his generation. After all, they will be the ones who have to live with climate change’s greatest consequences. However, even though Matt’s PhD research is focusing on climate change , he has his own doubts and struggles with how to communicate his knowledge. 

Indeed, even with the backing of research and experience in the field of climate change, it can be hard to know how to use our voices to communicate our awareness and knowledge of the issue, in academic contexts as well as in our everyday and professional lives. As Matt says “university students are worried, and want action to be taken on climate change now — but a lot of us aren’t sure how we can use our knowledge and passion about climate change to communicate in a way that is helpful and effective.“

The recent IPCC report clearly shows that time is running out to address climate change, and that immediate and decisive action is critical to prevent catastrophic impacts. However, even the IPCC isn’t immune to criticism of their communication, with the report described as “dry reading” and in need of “information for different audiences”(read more here). Well-intentioned  people, including university students, attempting to address climate change may be left feeling overwhelmed by daunting technical language and misinformation in the public arena. As a result, those who want to effectively communicate about the issue, may not know how. 

In many cases, the use of effective communication skills can be the difference between helping or hindering change.

The important role of universities in teaching climate change communication skills

We believe, as many researchers and organisations do, that it is extremely important for young people to be equipped with the tools to constructively communicate about climate change. This will empower us all to take positive action. It is crucial to equip university students with these skills, as they prepare to take their places as the next generation of leaders, managers and decision-makers. Communication skills such as audience segmentation, message framing, and the use of social norms and personal stories will be valuable tools for students  in their professional and personal lives. After all, these skills are core to influencing change and they also help to deal with misinformation, which is rife around the issue of climate change.

Universities must step up to play a leading role in supporting students to address climate change by developing the knowledge about climate change and skills to effectively communicate their knowledge. This will help them to inform and influence decision- and policy-making, integrate climate action across a range of industries, NGOs/NPOs and levels of government, and engage and motivate local communities towards stronger action. 

Units such as Monash University’s  “Climate Change Communication”, coordinated by co-author Dr Lucy Richardson, aim to develop such skills, and leverage interdisciplinary approaches to engage a diverse range of students with the tools and approaches from a range of communication research fields. Students appear to enjoy and value the skills and perspectives units like this can offer.

Teaching interdisciplinary communication skills to future leaders is vital. However, climate change related teaching in universities has been criticised for tending to focus too heavily on climate facts and statistics – education about climate change –  rather than skills, and for conforming to rigid disciplinary domains. 

Researchers and experts from education, science and communications recommend the use of interdisciplinary approaches that 1) welcome more types of learners of diverse backgrounds and 2) develop a broad range of skills that can be applied to a variety of real-world situations e.g. presenting climate risk information to a company’s Board of Directors, commercialising research, writing a white paper on evidence-based climate adaptation strategies in government, or participating in intergovernmental negotiations.

International organisations such as UNESCO, along with researchers and academics, agree that effective climate change related education must include intentional skills development that teaches people how to communicate about climate change so they can have future impact. But it doesn’t seem as though educational institutions are fully embracing this recommendation.

Co-author Matt Carew is currently investigating this within an Australian context. He has compiled a database of all the climate change related units listed on Australian university websites. Of the units identified, only 39 of them had any explicit reference to communication in their title, course outline or learning outcomes – a meagre 1.6% of all relevant units.

If we want to position higher education students as future change makers, this gap must be addressed. Universities need to provide students with the opportunity to develop the climate change communication skills required to influence positive and effective change in diverse professional and interpersonal contexts.

Moving forward: Training educators to train the world

So, how can this gap be addressed? Co-author Dr Susie Ho suggests that a suite of actions may be required within universities, extending from the national curriculum to institutional and subject/unit levels. The broader challenge for university education is this: curriculum decisions are often in the hands of individual subject/unit coordinators and their department. There are generally no state or national requirements to include this skills development within climate change related units, or indeed to include such units at all. Given this, the authors believe that there is a need for stronger focus on the climate change communication skills curriculum, potentially at a national and intergovernmental level.

Climate change related units in universities should emphasise the aforementioned communication skills such as message framing and audience segmentation, as well as other solutions-oriented skills e.g. change management, leadership, policy and negotiation. This would require education experts to advocate for change, influence curriculum design, and work hand-in-hand with government and intergovernmental groups to contribute meaningfully to the development of skills-based indicators for quality climate change education. This work should arguably be undertaken as an approach to national capacity-building.

If we want to include communication skills within the curriculum of climate change related units, we must also provide relevant professional development to educators. Climate change educators from all disciplines need to understand the value of teaching these communication skills, and feel confident and equipped to do so. Research shows many teachers who do teach such units have no formal training or expertise in communication. Professional development opportunities need to be made available to climate change educators, to ensure that they prepare students with the appropriate communication skills.

Research is needed to underpin the development of a climate change communication skills curriculum. We also need to understand the most appropriate methods for enabling professional development within the framework of higher education and universities. 

The global Monitoring and Evaluation of Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) project, together with the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN), is working to help address these needs. The MECCE network produces research on climate communication and education in collaboration with policy-makers in state, national and intergovernmental organisations and researchers from around the world. Through a collaborative research model, the MECCE project aims to help enhance global climate literacy, improve communication skills, and empower citizens to lead climate action.

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