Community Engagement and Environmental Issues

Word cloud of hands shaking to establish cooperation.

Getting Off on the Right Foot 

A key component of science communication is in communicating scientific issues to the community-at-large, many of whom do not have a scientific background. This communication can be the first step (of many) in engaging with a community concerning environmental issues. Perhaps the next step you hope to develop is building a mini-public for a deliberative democratic community discussion or workshopping of a potential restoration or pro-environment initiative. Think of the old adage, “there’s never another chance to make a first impression.” On your first encounter, whatever the circumstance (in-person, print, or online) you want to leave your best impression. This is a firm, assuring handshake (back when we did that sort of thing) with accompanying essential eye contact. It establishes that you see and hear the person you are interacting with and that you value their perspective. Successful initial engagement with a community is essential to begin paving the way for future collaboration. Some research shows that psychological priming can go a long way in establishing a meaningful and lasting rapport. 

Illustration with people of various colors of the rainbow with thought and comment bubbles above their heads.

Know Your Audience

Establishing a voice and rapport is key to building a necessary connection to community members with whom you may want to work on future projects. It is common best practice, in communication of this sort, to interject credentials and information (right-off-the-bat) that legitimizes your position and establish credibility (as advocated in rhetoric as far back as Aristotle). It is, however, important, first of all, to know and understand your audience. Who are you communicating with? Will they be put-off by fancy titles and academic references or will they only listen if they know you have a graduate degree? It is impossible to write a public piece that speaks to every reader, it is important to remember to undertake language and tone that is not off-putting to the broadest number of recipients of a message. Don’t “talk down” to your audience but do your best to meet them where they are. Describe and explain information in a way that is relatable and doesn’t employ any more jargon than is necessary. [An article about a de-jargonizer tool.] On this subject be mindful of power asymmetries in language.

Authentic Objectivity Is Everyone’s Friend

It should go without saying that communications around scientific and environmental efforts need to be apolitical, unfortunately, now, with the lines between advocacy, politics, and ecological efforts blurred, that task is even more challenging. Rise to the occasion and reserve your advocacy for non-project related activities. It is already a daunting circumstance, in our contemporary world, for some to attend to environmental and scientific messaging. There is no need to construct greater barriers to engagement for a given audience. As a scientist be authentic in your desire to maintain objectivity. In other words, you’ve got to MEAN IT. Enter this engagement with an open and accepting perspective, regardless of how different your values, opinions, beliefs and attitudes might be from your intended audience. Be mindful of your biases. You are bridging a gap and that takes reflection, determination, and intention throughout the process. 

Finding of Yale Project on Climate Change Communication survey showing segments of population with highest to lowest beliefs in Global Warming.

Know When to “Cut Bait”

While the Overton Window has shifted in recent years towards a greater number of people who are alarmed about environmental and climate change issues there is still a significant portion of folks (11%) that have anchored their cognitive bias far from these issues. For these people there simply is no messaging that will be impactful. In fact, according to the researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, pushing someone who has a stance that is diametrically opposed (referred to as “dismissive” in the literature) to your messaging will most likely lead to their not only digging in deeper but will spur them to take opposing action. (The proverbial stubborn mule). 

Illustration showing "Science of Storytelling" with different shapes saying things like, "Our brains become more active when we tell stories."

Sometimes it’s the Feels that Matter Most

Remember that storytelling and narratives have a strong influence on people. If political perspective (ethos) stands in the way, find a meaningful through-put related to universal human experiences and start there. (For my part, I like to ask people what their favorite childhood climbing tree or nature experience was and relate my own experience to that piece of their personal narrative). While most scientific-minded people may be influenced by logic (logos) it is paramount to employ (positive) emotional appeals (pathos) when seeking to engage with the greater public (even on an individual basis). Asking a co-communicator to delve into memories of joyful childhood experiences with nature helps to open an emotional connection that can subvert initial reservations based on ethos (e.g. politics, culture, affiliation, etc…). 

Six segment image each with UV image of ozone layer for different years showing recovery and potential recovery.

You’ve Done It Before — You Can Do It Again

One final point: research around behaviors related to environmental issues has shown that the most effective environmental communication that enables behaviour change is messaging that illustrates the effectiveness (efficacy) of previous pro-environmental activities. A prime example is the hole in the ozone layer that became a public concern around 1985. Policy makers and governments around the world signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer which hastened in regulations and changed industry standards that have lead to the recovery of the Ozone Layer. This and other environmental accomplishments are an ideal vehicle for illustrating the effectiveness of pro-environmental efforts.  

If you want to dig in deeper on science and climate change related communication: Here is a great article on science communication overall from Physics Today (and another, and another and one on specifically climate change communication). 

 I hope you find some useful tips and information in what I have shared here. Read my soon to be submitted (and hopefully published) editorial, 17,066 Holsteins or The Statue of Liberty?!” for the Stone County Gazette, my hometown newspaper.

Full editorial letter to Stone County Leader congratulating them on success of recycling program.

Did I hit the mark using the guidelines offered above? Let me know in the comments section below.

[All images Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification – creative commons licensing.]

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