The climate crisis and what tech PR can learn from scientists

David Radestock
By David Radestock | 4 May 2023
David Radestock.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its final report, known as AR6, and while the findings make for grim reading, there are valuable lessons to be learnt for the technology sector and those responsible for telling its stories.

The window to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees - the long-held target to limit catastrophic impacts - is rapidly closing. With an ever-narrowing pathway, radical action will be needed, from deeper and more rapid emissions reductions to increased climate finance to fund adaptation efforts.

The report also makes clear there is a significant and increasing role for technology alongside these measures.

In Australia, the role of technology in combating climate change can cause disquiet. Scott Morrison’s ‘technology not taxes’ mantra was widely derided, and has risked an environment where technology is seen as a way of avoiding necessary tough choices and major investment.

The Labor government has upweighted messaging on its efforts to legislate an emissions target and negotiated changes to the safeguard mechanism. Technology remains a key plank of its plans to decarbonise Australia, but does not lead headlines as it once did.

But what the IPCC report makes clear is that technology will play a major role in the increasingly narrow pathway to 1.5 degrees. The latest and final AR6 synthesis report states “Innovation in climate mitigation technologies has seen enormous activity and significant progress in recent years” and “digital technologies can promote large increases in energy efficiency”.

From research and development to innovation, commercialisation, distribution, and installation, technology sits ever closer to the centre of a multilateral planet-saving effort.

The stories we tell have a huge bearing on the potential success of this effort. The solutions exist, but will not be developed by businesses and adopted by governments and consumers without the societal behaviour change good storytelling can deliver.

This means breaking through the catastrophising, explaining the technicality, and engendering a sense of empowerment. It means storytelling around climate technology has to move away from vague terminology and amorphous impacts, instead embracing a heady cocktail of high vision and detailed practicality.

This is not easy. But the example of how to achieve it comes from the very climate scientists and advocates responsible for the IPCC report and public response.

The last few years have seen a significant uptick in how climate scientists and the broader movement have broken through the noisy debate and established a widely-shared truth and drive for action. In ensuring the potential of technology to help combat climate change is maximised, we must learn lessons around embracing nuance, offering hope through solutions, and harnessing the power of a pithy phrase.

Embracing nuance

Reports from the IPCC don’t require an advanced doctorate in a scientific discipline to read, but it helps. Climate science doesn’t deal in absolutes, but the public debate often does. The combination of detail and nuance with emotional resonance and moral absolutism has been highly effective. Whether client scientists learnt this from Tim Minchin, the other way round, or if it's just a happy coincidence is a matter of conjecture.

What isn’t is that applying the same approach to the role of technology can help combine necessary technical detail with the inspiration and urgency to accelerate change. We should not shy away from nuance, but must consider different audiences and how to dial up and down detail accordingly.

Hope through solutions

With the window to achieve 1.5 degrees of warming rapidly closing, hopeful rhetoric can often come across as hollow. Communities in Australia and around the world at ever greater risk of extreme weather events do not need hope, they need answers.

By setting out the road to survival, and being clear about the measures and means of getting there, climate scientists have offered hope through solutions.

Those responsible for telling the stories of technology must do the same - acknowledging the scale of the challenge while being clear and ambitious on the immediate and long-term impact of the solutions.

The power of a pithy phrase

“A highway to climate hell”. “A battle for our lives”. “A code red for humanity”.

These are just some of the phrases deployed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to convey the outcomes of reports and conferences held by the organisation. They are also proof that the power of language can prove the difference between a passing glance and the trigger for major behaviour change.

That this responsibility falls to oft-maligned communications professionals should act as a spur to action. We have enormous power to set the agenda, and trigger action which can contribute to government policy, encourage private investment to back R&D and innovative startups, and inspire generations to develop the skills and focus their talents on a problem that sometimes seems insurmountable.

By learning from those responsible for defining and articulating the enormous challenge of the climate crisis, we can tell the stories which ensure technology lives up to its societal promise, drives critical solutions, and ultimately contributes to historic change.

David Radestock, Director of Technology PR, Icon Agency


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