Psychology And The Art Of Climate Change Communication

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, CC 2012 Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, CC 2012 Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard

Until recently, climate change has been something that happens to someone else. Most people understand the effects of a warmer planet – or try to – and end up shrugging their shoulders in disinterest. Climate change is too vast, too long-term and too distant to get people fired up about it today. Unfortunately, most of the blame for this widespread apathy can be attributed to poor communication. For years, the focus of climate change communicators has been to harp on the facts and bombard the public with mountains of scientific information. Data and statistics have been the the driving force of presentation and persuasion. In recent years, communicators are attempting to make these mind-boggling numbers more visual by adding graphs, charts and infographics. And yet, a large chunk of the population is not engaged. What is wrong with climate communication?

The problem may lie with a failure to understand human psychology.

In an illustrated guide to Climate Psychology, Columbia University researchers present their case for making climate communication more accessible –

“The ultimate solutions to climate change are workable, cost-effective technologies which permit society to improve living standards while limiting and adapting to changes in the climate. Yet scientific, engineering, and organizational solutions are not enough. Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes.

For that, the public must be able to interpret and respond to often bewildering scientific, technological, and economic information. Social psychologists are aware, through their painstaking scientific research, of the difficulties that individuals and groups have in processing and responding effectively to the information surrounding long-term and complex societal challenges.”

The guide lists a few key principles to boosting climate communication. Let’s examine them in detail –

1. Know your audience

Have you ever been in a heated debate with someone over climate change? Have you observed how climate deniers can cherry-pick certain facts and observations to make their point? We operate on mental models, thought processes that explains how the world works. These mental models are based on past experience, knowledge and learned biases, and they shape perception, behavior and problem-solving. Unfortunately, while mental models are an essential tool for survival, they also determine what information we absorb from the environment. We tend to pick those facts that fit with our models, an effect known as confirmation bias. This explains why climate-doubters misinterpret or deny hard science when it opposes their world-view.

Thankfully, mental models are not static and people are willing to analyze and accept new facts, if presented in the right way. Understanding why your audience is not engaged by climate communication and working with them to improve your approach can be very powerful.

2. Frame your message

In an earlier post, we discussed the value of localizing climate messages. In a 2012 report by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication that examined American attitudes on extreme weather and climate change, 73% connected global warming with altered weather patterns in the United States. Nearly half recall an unusual weather event in 2012 and 1 in 5 say they suffered harm to property, health or finances due to unnatural weather. When climate change is scaled down to a country, state, county or town, people connect with the message at a more personal level.

Framing is more than localizing climate communication. It involves careful selection of words (tax vs. offset, for example), presenting both the opportunities (promotion focus) and responsibilities (prevention focus) of community action and emphasizing the future risks of climate inaction.

3. Build a story

The human brain processes information through two distinct channels; the experiential pathway deals with emotions and instinct; the analytical channel crunches numbers and information. Evidence suggests that emotions are much more powerful in driving action, and yet, most climate communication has been heavily focused on data presentation. Personal stories of loss and devastation can help strengthen climate messages by adding the much-needed human dimension.

However, emotional appeals have inherent dangers. Over-using them in an attempt to engage audiences can backfire. People have a limited capacity for anxiety, known as the finite pool of worry. Once this capacity has been reached, audiences become emotionally numb and fail to react to additional appeals of a similar nature.

4. Stress on the certainties

Climate science has made enormous progress over the last decade. While scientists predict scenarios well into the future, they cannot do so with 100% certainty  This has led to some confusion in public communication with people mistaking uncertainty for doubt. To help counter this lack of trust in climate science, it is essential that communicators stress what is known for certain first. This helps build a concrete foundation to develop a more nuanced understanding of scenarios and projections.

5. Encourage group participation

Small sets of people with strong affiliations to the group are ideal forums for climate presentations. Small groups put people at ease and allow for greater interaction and participation. Strong group affiliations can foster a sense of community responsibility and help develop workable goals and action plans.

Climate change is a frightening enough prospect without having to make sense of complex data, theories and projections. Good communication can help humanize the issue and motivate people to action. And that cannot happen soon enough.


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