EPA Climate lecture – Communicating Climate Change


Last Thursday evening the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted its annual climate lecture on “Communicating climate change – why so difficult?”, delivered by Prof. Chris Rapley, climate scientist at University College London, who spoke for about an hour to a packed room.

The lecture was introduced by Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA, who explained the role of the EPA in supporting the national dialogue on climate action, creating awareness, engagement and motivation to act. She said that the aim of the annual public lecture is to “engage a wider public dialogue on the issue of climate change”, suggesting that “the gap between science and society can lead to a disconnect between evidence and action”.

Chris Rapley spent the early part of his lecture presenting basic climate science, explaining how “humans have upset the energy balance of the planet”, causing “a change in the metabolism of the planet”. He used this graphic to illustrate the change in the average temperature of the planet between 1850 and 2017. He also highlighted that the small overall change has a big impact on hot and cold extremes e.g. as reflected in the temperature of 53.7C recorded in Ahvaz in Iran earlier this year. Prof. Rapley also showed a satelite graphic of the polar ice caps, stressing that we need to realise that “this distant place is connected to you and me in ways that are very poorly understood”. He summarised the impact of climate change as a “cascade of consequences of upsetting the energy balance of the planet”, as summarised in the slide below.


Prof. Rapley also spoke of his belief in human ingenuity, citing green technology and the reducing cost of renewable energy, a technological optimism consistent with ecological modernisation theory. He also spoke of his work with Shell’s scenario planning team, taking us through the graph below. He suggested that rather than the crash abatement program represented by the red line, we need a much more ambitious plan now, represented by the blue line.


The later part of the lecture looked at issues around communicating climate change. He suggested that it is a very difficult problem for us to deal with as it induces fear and anxiety, and “evolution left us incapable of dealing with it”.


Prof. Rapley argued that what we feel when we hear about climate change causes cognitive dissonance, and scientists have not thought through this emotional aspect, so we find ways to deny it. He stated that “the issue is a threat to the neoliberal belief system because it requires collective action, regulation and government interference in your freedom, anathema to neoliberals”. He suggested that individuals of a “more communalist” view will see climate change as a threat, and stressed the need to recognise the emotional and ideological aspects of climate change.


Prof. Rapley went on to explore the psychology behind climate change denial, drawing on the work of Kahneman, as seen in the slide above. He explained that 90% of our brain activity is unconscious, and we make sense of the world around us through automatic perceptions and associations. We respond to the reptilian brain, to emotion, and “we are much less rational than we think”. He also stressed that “we cluster with people who have similar views and values to our own, and tend to see the other side as the enemy”. He stated that “human beings are very tribal”, and like to go into an echo chamber where they reinforce their views.

Prof. Rapley finished by offering some advice on how to communicate climate change in creative ways. He explained that scientists use ‘information deficit’ mode to communicate, offering facts and evidence and trying to remove passion and emotion, but that this doesn’t happen outside the world of academia. He argued that people make sense of the world through storytelling, and that this is “the compelling way we engage the rest of humanity in making sense of the complex issues in the world around us”. He characterised effective storytelling as:

  • Engaging
  • Meaningful
  • Hopeful
  • Actionable
  • Experiential

Prof Rapley spoke of his experience in creating and performing in the play “2071“, which allowed him to deliver climate science in the informed expert mode, but in a different way. He suggested that this allowed the audience to engage in the emotional and ideological issues in a safe space. His parting message was that we must find a way of engaging people with the story of climate change but leaving them with hope. He believes that working with professionals in the arts community, and finding the fusion of skills in art and science can help us to deliver the message in a “hopeful but realistic way”.


Sheehy Skeffington School

The Sheehy Skeffington School is an annual conference on social justice and human rights and this year the focus was on human rights and migration. The conference aims to be a bridge between human rights, academia, and activism, and featured presentations and performances by academics, activists and artists on the theme of a humane approach to migration. As chair of the first session Carol Coulter noted, the theme is not just relevant on a global scale but in Ireland too; the 2016 Census revealed that 17.3% of the Irish population was not born in Ireland.

Prof Conor Gearty of London School of Economics gave a keynote address on human rights, migration and racism. He argued that until recently, racists felt that they had to hide behind intellectual arguments, but they no longer feel the need to. He suggested that the enduring legacy of Trump will be “a vulgarisation of politics”, and that Brexit was about a hatred of “the other”. Prof. Gearty argued that there is a dangerous idea that human rights is part of one culture but not another, that human rights does not apply to other cultures because “they’re not us”, citing the example of Israel claiming to be in favour of human rights but not signing any human rights treaties.

Prof. Gearty also discussed how the language of human rights can be a “fabulous activist tool”. He advised people seeking to make people aware of the human rights implications of particular situations to “find the issue that really matters to people locally and bring in human rights, because it builds the wider support and gives a strong sense of demand”. For example, pollution is a human rights issue, it is the right to be healthy.

An activist perspective came from Edel McGinley, Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. She highlighted that there are currently 63 million displaced people in the world, 24 million of whom are refugees. She remarked that societies need immigrants, that migration brings economic stability, and that there is a disconnect between xenophobia and racism and the needs of society. She argued that conservative voices are now seen as the middle ground and they are starting to frame the debate around migration. Edel concluded by calling for a legal framework for migration in Ireland.

Prof. Siobhan Mulally, a Professor of Human Rights Law in NUI Galway, spoke on workers rights, and how international and Irish laws interact to mitigate workers rights. She highlighted the power imbalance when employers get visas for their workers and can then threaten deportation. Prof. Mulally also drew our attention to the work of the Council of Europe on human trafficking.

Sorley McCaughey of Christian Aid spoke on the relationship between climate change and violence, looking at the relationship from both sides. He began by explaining the concept of “climate security”, where climate change is seen as a threat to global security, citing a 2014 report by the Pentagon. He noted that while the Pentagon might be defenders of climate science, they are not defenders of climate justice, and suggested that climate security and climate justice may be incompatible. Sorley made a number of points on the relationship between climate change and violence:

Does violence effect climate change?

  • Violence weakens societal structures and traditional coping mechanisms don’t work e.g. in the case of the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 when Somalia was more affected than neighbouring countries.
  • Violence destroys evidence of weather patterns
  • Violence can mean that aid packages e.g. for drought, get diverted from people who need them
  • He noted that climate adaptation is an inherently political process, citing the example of the Jordan Valley, where aquifiers were used as a bargaining tool in the Israeli-Palestine conflict

Does climate change effect violence?

  • There is no direct causal link, but climate change is an aggravator of the drivers of conflict
  • A 2014 IPCC report suggests that climate change will increase displacement of people
  • Climate change leads to slow onset disasters like drought, so people move more slowly e.g. looking for work
  • For example, in Syria, microfinance had been stoppped and co-operatives shut down, leaving people vulnerable when drought occured

Sorley lastly discussed the Christian Aid approach to dealing with climate change and violence, which is to develop resilience in tandem with confronting human rights issues, land rights, governance etc. He stressed that conflict resolution work will increasingly need to consider the impact of climate change.