“Connect with what matters to your audience” and “tell a human story” says IPCC

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a handbook to help its members better communicate the findings of a new IPCC report, due out later this year. The handbook, based on the science of science communication, lays out six principles that scientists can use to explain the complexities of climate science. These tips include “connect with what matters to your audience” and “tell a human story.”

In a forward, Roz Pidcock, the IPCC’s head of communications, writes that the handbook maintains a “focus on practical guidance for real public engagement scenarios” and notes that this is the first time the IPCC has produced a document of its kind.

Adam Corner, research director at Climate Outreach, the UK-based group commissioned to write the handbook, said being able to help people understand what the evidence shows is even more critical now.

“In the U.S., the landscape for communicating climate change has undoubtedly got more hostile since Trump began removing the capacity and resources from environmental science initiatives,” Corner explained. “So, there’s a renewed sense of urgency to ensure climate scientists are supported in the work they do, and to feel confident in engaging effectively with the public.”

Corner said the handbook “came from positive developments within and around the IPCC, who have finally begun taking communication more seriously and are investing in their own staff as well as outside expertise to become better equipped to connect beyond specialists’ circles.”

The U.S. government has gone in the opposite direction.

The Trump administration, which has been erasing climate change information from government websites and deserting science advisory boards across the government, disbanded an advisory panel whose role was to help policymakers and private-sector officials understand and incorporate the findings of the National Climate Assessment into their future planning.

That didn’t kill the effort, though. Rather than let the National Climate Assessment findings languish, Columbia University’s Earth Institute announced in January that it had hired the panel’s chair, Richard Moss, to reassemble the panel and resume the work.

“There’s been an upwelling of support for the committee, because states and cities and businesses want access to information that helps them prepare,” Moss said in a blog post. “They want a better network, and they want to keep learning from each other.” 

Communications Handbook for IPCC scientists

Corner, A., Shaw, C. and Clarke, J. (2018). Principles for effective communication and public engagement on
climate change: A Handbook for IPCC authors. Oxford: Climate Outreach.

Lead Authors
Dr Adam Corner, Research Director, Climate Outreach
Dr Chris Shaw, Senior Researcher, Climate Outreach

Contributing Author
Jamie Clarke, Executive Director, Climate Outreach

Editing & Production
Léane de Laigue, Head of Communications, Climate Outreach
Anna Stone, Project Manager, Climate Outreach
Elise de Laigue, Designer, Explore Communications –

Dr Stuart Capstick – Research Associate, Cardiff University
Dr Marion Ferrat – Head of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, IPCC WGIII Technical Support Unit
Prof Piers Forster – Prof of Physical Climate Change & Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, Uni of Leeds
Dr Jan Fuglestvedt – Research Director, CICERO Center for International Climate Research and Vice chair of IPCC WGI
Susan Hassol – Director, Climate Communication
Jonathan Lynn – Head of Communications and Media Relations, IPCC
Dr Valérie Masson Delmotte – Co-chair of IPCC WGI
Maike Nicolai – Communications Officer, IPCC WGII Technical Support Unit
Tim Nuthall – International Communications Director, European Climate Foundation
Prof Nick Pidgeon – Prof of Environmental Psychology & Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff Uni
Dr Anna Pirani – Head of IPCC WGI Technical Support Unit
Dr Elspeth Spence – Research Associate, Cardiff University


This communications Handbook was commissioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I Technical Support Unit. This is the first time such guidance has been produced for the world’s leading scientific body on climate change.

Dr Valérie Masson Delmotte (Co-chair of IPCC WGI), who reviewed the Handbook, said, “This is a beautiful Handbook and I wish I could have received such guidance when I was first involved as an IPCC author.”

The Handbook sets out six principles for effective communication, ahead of the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees special report later this year.

Just like the IPCC reports themselves, Climate Outreach believes the way IPCC authors engage with the public should be based on the best available evidence.

With a wealth of research on the science of climate change communication and a focus on practical tips and case studies, this Handbook serves as a valuable resource for IPCC authors – as well as the wider scientific community – to engage audiences with climate change.

Join the Handbook’s lead author Dr Adam Corner (Research Director, Climate Outreach) in a webinar on Monday 5 February at 3pm GMT as he presents key insight from the Handbook.

He will be joined by Dr Roz Pidcock (Head of Communication, IPCC WG1) who will introduce the webinar, and there will be time for a discussion with participants.

Can’t make it? Register anyway to receive a recording.

Watch this 90 second video for a quick glance at the 6 principles presented in the Handbook.

Also, our Handbook was featured in this Guardian article: Communicating the science is a much needed step for UN panel

As several decades of awareness-raising and initiatives to engage the public have shown, climate change doesn’t communicate itself. 

A burgeoning evidence base on the social science of climate change communication now provides many explanations for why engaging on climate change can be challenging. Climate science is filled with uncertainties, a notorious stumbling block for communicating with non-scientists. For some, the topic can seem abstract and intangible. For others, the abstract statistics that define the climate discourse can feel distant from their day-to-day experiences.

In some nations, the issue is politically polarised; in others, the absence of a public and political discourse is the problem.  But the same social science literature that documents the challenges posed by engaging the public with climate change also provides some robust guidance for how to communicate more effectively. That our worldviews, values and social norms dictate how we receive information and apply it to our own lives is well understood. It has also long been recognised that the messenger is at least as important, if not more so, than the message itself. Scientists are trusted in society and there are a wealth of opportunities to engage the public around key moments in the climate change calendar, such as the release of IPCC reports. The purpose of this Handbook is to offer guidance to IPCC scientists on how to make public engagement at these key moments as impactful, effective and evidence-based as possible.

By synthesising evidence and recommendations from primary social science research, and existing communication ‘guides’ and resources, this Handbook sets out a series of principles for effective communication and
public engagement, tailored specifically for IPCC authors.

Why a Communications Handbook for IPCC authors?


The work builds on the substantial body of knowledge and experience in climate science communication, particularly in the UK and other Englishspeaking countries – but the insights it contains are relevant for engaging
communities in all regions of the world.

What those social science insights tell us is that it is possible to communicate climate science in a way that makes that message easier for non-scientific audiences to understand, and makes it more relevant to
their lives and experiences. Connecting with your audience on the basis of shared values builds trust between the communicator and the audience.

There may be no ‘magic words’ that will resonate universally, but there are better and worse ways to start a conversation about climate change; more and less effective ways to use language and narratives. There is guidance available on talking about the link between weather and climate, and the uncertainty inherent in climate science. And even in largely ‘untested waters’ in terms of public engagement – such as talking about negative
emissions technologies – there are some basic principles to keep in mind that will help ensure conversations are constructive.

This Handbook is fully referenced but with a strong focus on practical guidance for real public engagement scenarios (e.g. preparing a presentation for a public meeting, or thinking about material for a discussion with a local
community group). Like the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) produced from the longer IPCC Assessment Reports, the aim of this Handbook is to distill the most relevant and useful information.

This is the first time the IPCC has produced a guidance document of this kind specifically for authors. I hope this Handbook will be a tool for IPCC scientists to feel confident in going about public engagement in the best
possible way, based on the best possible evidence.

1. Be a confident communicator.  

Scientists are generally highly trusted. By using an authentic voice, you can communicate effectively with any audience.

2. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas

Although they define the science and policy discourse, the ‘big numbers’ of climate change (global average temperature targets and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide) don’t relate to people’s day-to-day experiences. Start your climate conversation on common ground, using clear language and examples your audience is more likely to be familiar with. 

3. Connect with what matters to your audience

Research consistently shows that people’s values and political views have a bigger influence on their attitudes about climate change than their level of scientific knowledge. Connecting with widely-shared public values, or points of ‘local interest’ in your communication and engagement makes it more likely that your science will be heard.

4. Tell a human story

Most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs, so aiming for a narrative structure and showing the human face behind the science when presenting information will help you tell a compelling story.

5. Lead with what you know/focus on “knowns” rather than uncertainty

Uncertainty is a feature of climate science that shouldn’t be ignored or sidelined, but can become a major stumbling block in conversations with non-scientists. Focus on the ‘knowns’ before the ‘unknowns’ and emphasize where there are areas of strong scientific agreement around a topic.

6. Use the most effective visual communication

Choosing images and graphs is just as important to do in an evidence-based way as verbal and written communication. The Climate Visuals project, plus new guidance from the Tyndall Centre, offer a useful set of tools for how to communicate effectively in the visual medium.

This Handbook provides a resource for IPCC scientists in their public engagement and communication activities. It captures key research findings from the social science literature and relates them to practical examples and situations a communicator might face.

Here’s what you need to know about each of the six principles:

6 principles for IPCC authors to use in public engagement


What you need to know

PRINCIPLE 1:  Be a confident communicator 

Scientists are generally highly-trusted. By using an authentic voice, you can communicate effectively with any audience. Scientists are generally well-trusted by wider society.1,2 There are certainly some exceptions to
the rule, but even among a challenging audience it is possible to build trust by communicating confidently and authentically.  Use your credentials.  Trust is also driven by the extent to which a communicator speaks authentically, drawing on their own experiences and perspective.3,4

IPCC authors all have different specialities and areas of expertise, but public audiences will typically not confine their questions and comments to one specific area. Instead, communicators are increasingly called upon to speak across the vast array of topics that collectively comprise the content of an IPCC report. This is likely to mean talking about how the climate is changing, impacts on human and natural systems, and options for limiting climate change.

There is no one ‘correct’ role for a scientist to take when communicating about their research, or the wider field. What one scientist may consider ‘advocacy’, another might view as simply communicating the implications of their findings. The late Stephen Schneider believed it was possible to be effective in communicating climate change to a non-specialist and retain credibility as a scientist, but that navigating this ‘double ethical bind’ came down to personal choice.5

Where your expertise allows you to give an informed perspective and you are comfortable doing so, it will often be better than letting another less-qualified voice fill the void. In general, being clear about whether you are speaking in a personal or professional capacity will help your audience interpret the information you give them.


Being aware of public opinion 

Research suggests there is widespread concern about climate change and support for climate policy in both the US and Europe. For example, a recent survey found public support for renewables – such as solar, onshore and offshore wind and hydroelectric power – exceeded 70% in France, Germany, Norway and the UK. In general, most people in most countries surveyed accept that climate change is a reality and is at least in part caused by humans, and are concerned about it to some extent. So there is no need to worry unduly about widespread scepticism towards climate change.6,7,8 However, on other policy options there is less agreement. In the same survey, 40% of respondents in the UK had positive views on nuclear power, whereas only 14-23% did in Germany, Norway and France. Hydraulic fracturing was perceived positively by 7% of respondents in Norway, 8% in France, 16% in Germany and 19% in the UK.

Emerging research suggests that people are likely to hold very different opinions about the cluster of technologies falling under the banner of Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs). These opinions range from largely positive (e.g. reforestation, weathering) to cautious or negative (e.g. ambient C02 capture).9,10,11 NETs are increasingly part of the scientific and policy discourse – especially around ambitious mitigation goals, such as limiting warming to well below 2°C – but they are not yet part of the social consensus. Being aware of these dynamics in public opinion can help ensure that communicating as a scientist can be done in a way that is sensitive to public opinion.

What you need to know

Although they define the science and policy discourse, the ‘big numbers’ of climate change (global average temperature targets and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide) don’t relate to people’s day-to-day experiences. Start your climate conversation on common ground, using clear language and examples your audience is more likely to be familiar with.

Although they are the ‘go-to’ metrics for discussing climate change, global temperature targets or atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are unlikely to be understood or seen as personally relevant by a majority of the public.12,13,14 A focus on abstract, global metrics such as temperature may also provoke an unintended reaction – for some parts of the world two degrees of warming is welcomed, if it means winters will be less cold.15

One challenge presented by the use of global scale numbers or long term trends is that it can reinforce perceptions that the problem is an abstract technical issue that has little to do with people’s everyday lives. This makes it easier for audiences to engage in what’s known as ‘psychological distancing’, dismissing climate change as a problem that only matters at some distant point in the future for people who live far away.16,17

To counter this, it is important to use language that positions your science in a way that is relatable for your audience (known as ‘framing’). All information is ‘framed’ in some way – framing simply means using language to convey an idea in a particular way, or in a certain light.18 For example, the growing use of solar panels could be framed economically (in terms of the rapidly reducing price of producing solar energy) or environmentally (in terms of reduced carbon emissions). In both cases, attention is drawn to a particular aspect of the issue, and a considerable research effort has been dedicated to documenting the effects of different frames on public engagement with energy and climate change.19

PRINCIPLE 2:  Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas

Examples of frames and the audiences they are helpful for engaging

Avoiding wastefulness. The frame of avoiding wastefulness has positive connotations
for all audiences and resonates particularly strongly with conservative audiences. This is
a powerful frame for energy efficiency narratives.20
Health benefits. Research from the US shows that emphasising the health benefits of
cleaner air, less traffic on the road and increased levels of cycling and walking met with
a positive response across a broad cross-section of the public.21
Balance. Balance is a frame that speaks to the core values of centre-right audiences.
Balance in this context means avoiding overly grand or ambitious claims and taking a
common sense middle of the road approach.22 For both centre-right and faith audiences,
balance is also a frame that can be used metaphorically, for climate change as a symptom
of the natural world being ‘out of balance’.23,24
Bicycle rush hour in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen/Copenhagenize Design Co./Copenhagen
10 CLIMATE OUTREACH • A Communications Handbook for IPCC authors
Metaphors and analogies are a type of framing, and offer a way of seeing the unfamiliar in familiar
terms by carrying over knowledge from one domain of experience to another.25 Metaphors and
analogies are especially relevant to how we make sense of largely abstract, complex problems
like climate change26 by describing the unfamiliar in more familiar objects and language.27 They
can act as mental shortcuts for people to evaluate complex information,28,29 and make climate
science messages more inclusive and relevant to a broader spectrum of the public.30,31 They can
potentially circumvent the polarisation that characterises responses to the presentation of facts
and statistics.32
Using metaphors and analogies
to communicate climate science
Scientists have been using the metaphor of ‘loaded dice’ to illustrate that whilst it is still
difficult to predict when and where extreme weather events will happen, and though we
cannot say an extreme weather event is caused by climate change, we do know climate
change is loading the weather dice, making some types of extreme weather events more
likely.33 Be careful not to suggest with the ‘loaded dice’ metaphor that scientists are ‘fixing’
their findings to show a certain result (as this isn’t the case – but a gambling metaphor could
unintentionally suggest this).34
The metaphor of greenhouse gases acting as a ‘heat trapping blanket’ has tested to be an
effective metaphor for communicating the basic principle of the greenhouse effect.35 More
greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels make the blanket thicker, raising the
temperature of the planet.
The idea of the atmosphere as a ‘bathtub’ filling up with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse
gases has also been shown to increase comprehension and support for stronger policy
action on climate change.36 The idea to get across here is that even if we ‘turn off the tap’,
existing carbon dioxide emissions will stick around (the bath won’t suddenly become
empty). This could be one way of introducing the idea of Negative Emission Technologies,
which would seek to reduce the level of water in the bath.
CLIMATE OUTREACH • A Communications Handbook for IPCC authors 11
What you need to know
Research consistently shows that people’s values and
political views have a bigger influence on their attitudes
about climate change than their level of scientific knowledge.
Connecting with widely-shared public values or points
of ‘local interest’ in your communication and engagement
makes it more likely that your science will be heard.
There is now a large body of evidence demonstrating that public opinion about scientific subjects
such as climate change is not linked to levels of subject-specific knowledge or general scientific
literacy in a straightforward way.37,38,39 This doesn’t mean that accurate, clearly delivered factual
content should not be at the heart of any scientific communication, or that the facts are somehow
not ‘relevant’ for effective communication. But if accurate facts are necessary for good science
communication, they are (for better or worse) not sufficient for effective public engagement.
Achieving this requires connecting with the values of your audience.
People’s values (that is, guiding principles in their lives such as ‘security’ or ‘equality’40) and their
political ideology (i.e. progressive vs conservative; left vs right) are much more fundamental in
shaping views about climate change than any other issue.41,42,43 In practice, what this means is that
people ‘filter’ the information they receive – on climate change and other topics – according to
whether it fits their values.
Notoriously, this has produced political polarisation on climate change in some English-speaking
nations. For example, research suggests those on the right of the political spectrum may reject
the conclusions of climate scientists (e.g. that a rapid drop in emissions is required to prevent
dangerous climate change) because the conclusions are perceived as threatening their values
(e.g. that tackling climate change may require federal and/or state regulation).44
The facts and figures of a scientific message should be grounded on a platform of shared values
wherever possible: in short, try to find common ground with your audience.
Connect with what matters
to your audience PRINCIPLE3
12 CLIMATE OUTREACH • A Communications Handbook for IPCC authors
Key values that underpin perceptions
of energy system change in the UK
In an analysis of public perceptions of the changing energy system in the UK,45 researchers
at Cardiff University identified the following values that underpinned people’s views
about a range of energy technologies, as well as ‘demand side’ changes to household
energy use:
yy Reducing waste and increasing efficiency
yy Environmental protection, the importance of ‘naturalness’
yy Secure, stable and affordable energy
yy Maintenance of people’s autonomy, choice and freedom
yy A just and fair system which embodies principles of honesty and transparency
Although this is a case study that applies to one country in particular (the UK – a lot of
climate change communication research focuses on UK and US audiences), it provides
a useful starting point for conversations about tackling climate change.
A woman installs insulation in her home. Photo: Nick Nguyen
CLIMATE OUTREACH • A Communications Handbook for IPCC authors 13
As well as engaging with people’s values, connecting with local points of interest is important.
This means knowing something about the kinds of things the audience are likely to be interested in
(so you can start the conversation on terms they are familiar with) and using this as a platform to
introduce facts, figures and statistics (rather than leading with the science, then explaining why this
is relevant to people’s lives).
With limited time and resources, the extent to which any communicator can truly know an
audience has limitations. But if for example you’re planning a talk, taking a small amount of
time to reflect on the obvious demographics of the area, the typical attendees for the location
you’re speaking in, or (as the section below emphasises) liaising with a local partner to connect
what you’re saying with local concerns will pay dividends. For example, if speaking to amateur
gardeners, talk about changes to the growing season that they will inevitably have noticed. This
provides a bridge into discussion of national and international policies designed to limit the impact
on the things that people love.
Build a point of connection with your audience
1. Research the place where you are speaking. Find a fact or story about the place that
relates to you, which you can share with the audience.
2. Partnering with a local group or organisation is a powerful means of connecting with
your audience. Find out about the audience from a representative of the group and
start your presentation or event on terms they are familiar with. (Note that if you are
speaking in an IPCC capacity, you should avoid the perception that you are advocating
any particular policy – so do your research first.)
3. Professional organisations, such as a farmer’s union, will offer the opportunity to speak
to shared experiences of weather and the seasons. Groups organised along the basis
of hobbies (e.g a sports club) or faith groups also mean you can quite easily speak to a
theme that the audience will have in common.
What does your audience care about that is affected by climate change?46
Ask your audience what they love, or care about, that is affected by climate change.
Share with your audience one thing you care and are passionate about – something that
many people can identify with – and the risk climate change poses to that.
Research a few climate projections around broad themes, for example; food, landscape,
leisure activities, or biodiversity, which can be used in conversation with your audience
about how climate change affects the things they love.
14 CLIMATE OUTREACH • A Communications Handbook for IPCC authors
What you need to know
Most people understand the world through anecdotes
and stories, rather than statistics and graphs, so aiming
for a narrative structure and showing the human face
behind the science when presenting information will
help you tell a compelling story.
The IPCC is an incredible, in many ways unprecedented undertaking. But it has historically been
perceived as a dry, bureaucratic and even unapproachable organisation, and this is in part due to
the absence of ‘human faces’ behind the science. Who are the IPCC scientists? What are their stories?
What is involved in an IPCC process, at a human level? Science communicators understandably
seek to keep their language balanced and unemotional when describing research findings and
summarising data.47 But the personal stories of scientists – who they are, why they do the work
they do, what inspires and motivates them, what they care about and are fearful of – are an
incredibly valuable resource.48
Tell a human story