Column - On the Subject

Something different in climate communication at COP26

Kathleen Mar © IASS, Lotte Ostermann

Together with world leaders, 20,000 people are expected to be in Glasgow for the Climate Change Conference – bringing together a tremendous amount of diversity and expertise. With their transdisciplinary research on-site, Dr. Kathleen Mar and colleagues explore how new communication formats can take better advantage of this potential and support moving from talking to acting.

An editorial view from Dr. Kathleen Mar, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies

COP26 has just begun: the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, which will run until 12 November in Glasgow and is expected to be attended by 20,000 people. Six years after the Paris Agreement, countries are still negotiating the remaining details of how the historic climate pact will be implemented in practice – including rules for carbon markets and the reporting requirements needed to hold countries accountable for their climate commitments. The success of the summit will also be measured based on the extent to which world leaders signal increased ambition in the form of strengthened climate pledges and commitments to climate finance. 

Just outside the negotiation rooms, there is another COP going on – one in which stakeholders from all sectors of society and all corners of the globe are holding countless meetings and side events where they aspire to influence the negotiations, make their voices heard, and generally contribute to advancing climate action. Having attended the COP regularly since 2015, I can tell you first hand: it can be thrilling, hectic, and overwhelming. But the on-the-ground reality of attending COP as an observer (i.e., not part of a government delegation) is that I spend my days attending one panel discussion after another until my head is spinning. At IASS we asked ourselves – aren’t there other communication formats that could better harness the incredible diversity and collective expertise of COP participants? How could discussions (outside the negotiations) be structured to go beyond information input and foster productive reflection and dialogue in service of climate action?

This line of thinking inspired IASS and partners to launch the experimental “Co-Creative Reflection and Dialogue Space” at COP25 – a space for small group discussions, reflection, and learning, which was combined with a transdisciplinary research endeavour exploring the communication culture of the COP. Based on this experience, the team has developed recommendations for structuring discussions around three communication principles that we consider underrepresented in the COP setting: reflection, interconnection, and action-orientation. In combination, we see these communication principles as building blocks that can support moving from talking to acting.

In short, reflection means allowing space for participants to process information being shared, and to consider, either individually or collectively, how it relates to their own contexts, including their values and worldviews. Fostering interconnection means devoting meeting time for participants to get to know each other and explore each other’s perspectives, capacities, and expertise. Indeed, quality relationships, built on trust and shared values and objectives, are key resources in transformation processes. And since meaningful action often requires the formation of alliances that can bring together their capacities synergistically, practices to foster interconnection are also supportive of action orientation.

If you take a look at the official program for COP26, you will see a lot on ambition, action, finance, and solutions. Our proposition is that one building block that can support all of these is a communication culture that values reflection and dialogue, and is ultimately supportive of building the relationships needed to support collective action in addressing the climate crisis.


About the author
Dr. Kathleen Mar leads the research group “Climate Action in National and International Processes” at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam. Recommendations for climate communication within the COP setting have recently been published as an IASS Policy Brief and in the journal GAIA.

Meet the researchers at COP26
  • If you will be in Glasgow, we cordially invite you to visit the next iteration of our Co-Creative Reflection and Dialogue Space; more information including the schedule can be found on the IASS website.



1 November 2021

Picture credits: IASS/Lotte Ostermann



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