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  • Adam Harper

Code red, Confucius and the climate crisis

Reaction to the IPCC’s latest report on climate science is a lesson in framing technical content and using language to drive change.

Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash


Names, or at least the terms we attach to phenomena, matter. In the Analects, Confucius said that: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success."

Calling the report a “code red” for humanity captured the urgency and critical importance of its findings

Those who tried to frame the significance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report this week faced the challenge of finding language “in accordance with the truth of things” to accelerate global efforts to limit climate change (affairs being carried on to success, if you will).


UN Secretary General António Guterres rose to this challenge with aplomb. Calling the report a “code red” for humanity captured the urgency and critical importance of its findings as well as a growing sense – amid floods, heatwaves and wildfires – that the climate crisis is not a risk but a reality. No wonder it appeared in so many headlines.


This soundbite shows the power of using simple terms to frame perceptions, connect with the zeitgeist and get to the heart of the matter in just a few words. Even reports as important and widely anticipated as this one need to be framed correctly to maximise their impact. Language must be in accordance with the truth of things.


Three Cs


Of course, major research reports are a big investment for any organization. To maximise the return from even the most technical piece, an intelligent communications strategy should pay particular attention to Credibility, Coordination and Context.


In the case of the IPCC report, credibility comes from the breadth of its research and its sponsorship. The 3,949-page paper draws on 14,000 scientific studies and the contributions of 235 authors from 65 countries. It is also endorsed at the very highest levels, with the UN Secretary General leading the unveiling and global leaders quick to react.

Even reports as important and widely anticipated as this one need to be framed correctly to maximise their impact.

For any report, the support of senior stakeholders and spokespeople is especially important in focusing attention on the key messages. Who is talking often matters just as much as what they say.


Coordination, through a well-flagged publication schedule and intensive programme of engagements, allows an organisation to maintain control of how and where the messages are released. Pre-publication briefings or an embargoed release to a small group of trusted media partners can also be useful ways of ensuring impactful coverage.


Context is perhaps the most important tool available for organisations looking to raise the profile of a major report. It is easy for readers to see why climate science is important, but that message alone is not enough to guarantee blanket media coverage and millions of clicks, let alone influence decisions that will reduce emissions. Code red delivered all the context most people need in two words. It’s an example to leaders – and communicators – everywhere. In the social age of micro attention spans, distilling your key message down to two or three words is the language of success.


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