Opening session at BusinessGreen’s Net Zero Culture summit sees former BBC science editor call on climate communicators to take care when ‘translating’ environmental concepts and terms for the wider public

Players from across the climate movement and green economy need to sharpen up their language if they want to cut through to audiences and enlist citizens in the next phase of the net zero transition, according to veteran broadcaster David Shukman.

Taking part in the keynote interview at the opening of BusinessGreen’s Net Zero Culture Summit this morning, the former BBC Science Editor, who left the corporation at the end of last month’s COP26 Climate Summit, argued the language used to discuss climate change remained “obscure” to many people and needed to be simplified to prevent the public feeling alienated by the shift to a low carbon economy.

“There’s a burden on everybody involved in these fields, whether the Chief Sustainability Officer of a company talking to senior executives, whether they’re journalists, a campaigner, a scientist,” said Shukman. “This is a massive challenge of translation. Unless they are properly engaged, people are not going to tune into this.”

As an example, he pointed to how terms like ‘loss and damage’ and ‘raise ambition’ had dominated much of the discussion at the COP26 Climate Summit, but they were frequently presented to the public without a decent explanation as to what they actually meant and why they mattered. “The language around COP26 has now become so obscure,” he warned.

That said, Shukman conceded that messaging around science and public health as it relates to climate change has improved significantly in recent years. “Things are a lot healthier than they were even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, when there was a much more muddled picture, when the messaging was more confused,” he said.

Shukman took part in the opening session at BusinessGreen’s Net Zero Culture event, which saw leading business people, academics, campaigners, and authors discuss the importance of creating the right narratives to drive climate action and engage the public with the net zero transition. 

In his interview, Shukman stressed public engagement would be critical to the next phase of the net zero transition. Awareness of climate has risen amid increasingly visible and dramatic climate impacts, but polling has also shown that the public at large is yet to fully grasp what types of lifestyle changes are needed to put the global economy on a safe decarbonisation pathway.

“That message has not got through,” Shukman said, reflecting that this was largely because progress on emissions reduction to date has happened largely behind the scenes.

Clear communication was needed for the next phase of decarbonisation, he warned, which is going to be far more invasive to people’s lives, requiring people to change the way they eat, travel and heat their homes. “The changes that are needed now are going to be much more significant and much more difficult,” he said. “And I think that’s why they’re more controversial.”

Reflecting on his experiences reporting on the net zero transition to date, Shukman said he was encouraged by the increased involvement of business in the climate debate, noting that in the latter years of his stint at the BBC his inbox had become increasingly cluttered with emails from pension funds, companies, and banks.

“That’s a cultural shift,” he said. “It may be sincere in some cases, and it may be less sincere in others.” But regardless of the sincerity of companies’ intentions, it is “positive” that firm feel they need to engage in the debate, he said.

Shukman also reflected that a “silver lining” of the ongoing pandemic was that the UK’s vaccination programme had significantly raised the profile of publicly-funded scientific research, as well as the importance of robust public health communication.

“People have seen the benefits of government determination behind a scientific effort to bring about a public health good,” he said. “That mindset ought to be able to drive improvements in air quality, ought be able to drive a massive push for a zero carbon economy and to carry people on that journey.”

Catch up on all the session’s at today’s Net Zero Culture Summit, a fringe event of BusinessGreen’s Net Zero Festival, by signing up for a free pass. All sessions will be available on demand from later this week.

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