Have we improved the way we talk about climate change?

Better communication may be key to sustain efforts to save the planet, writes Kamyar Razavi.

By: /
September 19, 2019
Environmental advocates join Washington, DC-area students at a school strike for the climate near the White House in Washington U.S., September 13, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who has become the focus of both admiration and ire and who arrived by sailboat from Europe to attend climate action events this month in the United States, makes no bones about calling out who she sees as the ‘bad guys.’

Here is what she said in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual gathering of global elites last winter: “Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we will have created, but that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame.”

Calling for global climate strikes may be her goal. But calling out who she perceives as the villains is her MO.

“Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people,” she said.

Just this week she boldly told US lawmakers they weren’t doing enough. “Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything,” she said at a Senate meeting.

Her techniques are not new. In a famous 2012 piece in Rolling Stone called “Global warming’s terrifying new math,” Bill McKibben argued that what the climate movement needed were clear enemies. “So: the paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts,” he wrote. “A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies.”

That’s exactly what Thunberg is doing. But is it working? The answer seems to be yes, to a point — judging by the thousands of people she has mobilized, many of whom will march in cities around the world over the next two weeks. The conversation and actions have certainly evolved in the five years since the People’s Climate March, when hundreds of thousands of people across 150 countries marched in support of climate action. Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement is one of the higher-profile developments since those rallies. But is it enough? The answer is a bit more complex.

The trouble with climate alarmism

Conventional messages about climate change have long been shaped around the notion of alarm. Take TV news stories about climate change. Most of them are full of pictures of calving ice sheets and references to rising seas and scorching heat waves.

The assumption of a lot of climate communicators (including scientists, journalists and politicians) has long been that people would finally take action if only they had more information about all the scary impacts of climate change.

However, research in social science and psychology shows that the relationship between how much people know about the science of global warming and how concerned they are about it is not linear. More facts do not necessarily translate into more concern.

In an influential 2012 study, Yale professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues demonstrated that people’s worldviews, which includes their politics, played a more important role in levels of concern over global warming than how much people knew about the science of climate change.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning professor of psychology and economics, has famously described the interplay between the ‘System 1’ brain, which handles things like intuition and familiarity, and ‘System 2,’ which is responsible for analyzing information. System 2 is lazy, he says. When it comes to polarizing issues, System 1 almost always comes out on top. People know that climate change is real, but it still takes cognitive effort to think about it, and to do something about it.

“More facts do not necessarily translate into more concern.”

This dynamic between the intuitive System 1 and the lazy System 2 also helps explain why people believe in false information, or why repeating something is a sure-fire way of getting people to believe things that are untrue.

Here are a few of the many ways human psychology doesn’t fare well against the science of climate change: The effects of climate change are still largely associated with a distant future as opposed to events happening right now (we place a higher value on what is near, not what is far). Carbon dioxide is invisible, so there is no visual reference (unlike, say, the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer). Taking action on climate change requires making uncomfortable financial, economic or lifestyle sacrifices (like flying less). There is no instant gratification. People are wired to avoid thinking about catastrophic events. There are no clear enemies and no simple solutions.

These barriers, not to mention the social and political contexts in which the climate conversation often takes place (e.g., conservative versus progressive politics, the role of religion in science communication) makes tackling the climate communication conundrum all the more challenging.

Catastrophe versus hope

It seems obvious to focus on the consequences of climate change to motivate people to take action. (That’s what Bill Nye ‘the science guy’ tried to do earlier this year by taking a blowtorch to the planet in a segment on Last week tonight with John Oliver.)

But stories about all the devastating consequences of climate change are only effective to a point. Narratives about climate change that strike fear in the hearts of the audience may be good at drawing attention to the subject. But too much fear messaging risks alienating members of the public.

“Climate narratives focused primarily on catastrophic impacts are almost guaranteed to alienate audiences across the political spectrum, as individuals become desensitized and fatalistic about the future,” according to Climate Access, a non-profit research group. “Worry,” the group says, “more often leads to resignation and hopelessness.”

In other words, all those images of melting ice sheets and dying polar bears may drive home the point that climate change is a really big deal. But such messaging begs the question: what can I, as an individual, actually do to solve those problems?

Knowing your audience

One of the most crucial requirements of good communication is the need to know the audience in as much detail as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of climate communication, including climate journalism, treats audiences as a monolithic whole, equally interested or disinterested in the climate crisis.

Over the past decade, the Six Americas project at Yale University has been studying the different audiences for climate change communication. The project breaks the American public into six distinct groups, depending on individual levels of engagement with climate change. Here are the findings from the most recent survey:

Six-Americas-2018-Dec-1024x488.png
Yale University / Six Americas project

It’s encouraging that the largest subgroups are those who are alarmed and concerned about climate change. That is, until you consider that 40 percent of the American population isn’t alarmed or concerned. There is a whole lot of work still left to do.

There is another finding that is telling. In 2013, a year before the People’s Climate March in New York, just 14 percent of the American population fell into the ‘alarmed’ category. Five years later, that number had soared by 15 points to 29 percent. This increase suggests that the messages from Thunberg and other climate activists underscoring the urgency of climate change are having an effect. It’s likely that people who were previously in the ‘concerned’ camp are now becoming ‘alarmed.’

But what about the people who are less engaged? Should they just be ignored, hoping that the magnetic pull of the ‘alarmed’ and the ‘concerned’ groups will become so strong as to eventually draw them in? Or will these low involvement groups just grind their heels in even more, and drive political differences even further apart? There is certainly that risk.

Bringing more people into the fold

Connecting with a broader subset of climate audiences is one of the goals of the Alberta Narratives Project. It sets out to understand what motivates people in Alberta, or, conversely, turns them off, about the climate change conversation in Canada’s energy heartland.

The findings of this work are crucial for understanding how to communicate climate messages to different audiences, particularly those low involvement groups. The project seeks to pierce through the polarizing and acrimonious debates around climate change using constructive conversations “based on shared values and respect for people’s different ways of seeing the world.” Such a values-based approach is crucial.

The Alberta Narratives Project finds that the most effective communication comes from people who are trusted, authentic and who share the values of the people they are communicating to and with.

“Trust is fundamental to how people shape their attitudes: throughout the conversation, people aligned their opinions with the sources and communicators they trusted to share their concerns, values and political worldview,” according to one of the group’s recent reports.

This means, if an environmentalist is trying to talk to someone in the oil patch about climate change, understanding the concerns that person has over the fate of the oil industry is a far more effective entry point for effective communication than blasting the fossil fuel industry for its perceived ills.

This values-based approach is distinctly different from naming and shaming. And going the values route is very compelling, because it builds on the standard of understanding and empathy. It’s an approach that one group of oil workers in Alberta is using to promote renewable energy in Canada.

Using descriptive social norms is another powerful way of engaging climate audiences. University of Minnesota professor Vlad Griskevicius and his colleagues define descriptive social norms as “the perception of what is commonly done in a situation.” This technique is about highlighting ordinary people who are actually making a difference in their communities — how they’re leading the way. In other words, seeing what your neighbour is doing (and how it benefits him or her) has far more influence on your behaviour than being told you need to take up that form of behaviour.

The researchers tested this hypothesis in a clever experiment using cards left in hotel bathrooms that reminded guests to reuse their towels. They found that cards that spelled out what other guests were doing (“join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment”) were far more effective in increasing towel reuse than messages that simply asked guests to “help save the environment” or “partner with us to help save the environment.”

A lot has changed since the People’s Climate March but…

In 2014, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March. There were hundreds of similar rallies around the world, all ahead of that year’s UN climate summit.

What has changed since then?

For one, most mainstream communication on climate change no longer features a false sense of equivalency between the accepted science of human-caused global warming and fringe denialist views. This was not always the case.

“We’re learning, in more detail, how the science of climate change interacts with psychology.”

A values-based approach to climate communication is also a relatively new development. We’re learning, in more detail, how the science of climate change interacts with psychology, and are designing more effective communication strategies as a result.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the pace of change isn’t nearly fast enough. With the election of Donald Trump, climate denialism has gotten a second wind. There continues to be a lack of sustained political mobilization to deal with the climate crisis.

Thunberg is making huge strides to change that. The thousands out in the streets this month will be a reminder of the power of collective action. But, a lot of the communication around climate still emphasizes individual behaviour changes or technological fixes to the crisis, over and above the need for sustained political action.

In the case of recent forest fires in the Amazon, the political forces came together quickly because the crisis was visual, and it had a clear enemy in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. For people around the world, the Amazon also has deep evocative power. But not every story will captivate audiences in the same way.

Luckily, there are some hopeful signs that recent momentum on climate change isn’t about to dissipate like it has so many times before.

Last fall’s news that the world only has a dozen years to stave off the catastrophic impacts of climate change shocked many into taking the climate crisis more seriously. Over 300 outlets, including several in Canada, are making a commitment to strengthen their climate coverage this month, ahead of the UN climate action summit on September 23. Earlier this year, six newsrooms in Florida announced they were joining forces to cover climate change with a renewed sense of vigour. “It’s not a science story for us here in South Florida,” Tom Hudson, the vice president of news at a public radio station in the region, told the Nieman Journalism Lab. “It’s just become daily news.”

The world is starting to see, and report on, climate change less as a ‘climate change story’ and more as a story of just how things are now. And that’s the key — looking at the world as though climate change is baked into everything we do, which, increasingly, it is.

“As we enter into an era when climate change will be everywhere around us, I think we will start to see much more interesting, weird and ambitious storytelling about climate,” New York Magazine climate columnist David Wallace-Wells said in an interview with the CBC in May.

“Probably not [storytelling] that takes climate as its subject so much as takes climate as its setting, which is frankly the condition that we will all be living in in the decades ahead.”