Communicating With the Public about Climate Change

I reviewed a number of experts’ suggestions regarding climate communications and here I briefly summarize what they say, with respect but also with a sense of the challenge of the task. Time is not on our side, and I don’t believe one size fits all; instead one must consider with whom you will communicate and what you expect that person or people to do in response. I am skeptical that there is any formula for guaranteed success, notably with certain key policymakers, such as climate deniers in Congress. Nonetheless it is valuable to consider what the experts say and to craft messages thoughtfully and intentionally.

Experts agree that “for most people ‘the science’ is only a very small part of what climate change means to them,” says one source, adding, “How will climate change impact on the way we travel, the food we eat, and the way we heat our homes? These are the kinds of questions that the public engage with – not so much ‘what is climate change?’, but ‘what should we do about it?’”

“People assess risk based on their values, worldviews and identities; facts are processed through these pre-existing beliefs and ideas,” says another. Merely repeating the scientific consensus is not by itself likely to be a persuasive strategy—even if you, your friends, or I find scientists’ understandings, and the data on which they are based, to be compelling.

Do you want to communicate with cultural conservatives? One expert suggests first showing conservatives information about geo-engineering in order to trigger their “cultural cognition” that favors technological solutions to problems. Experiments showed that this framing was helpful; it made conservatives in the experimental condition more willing to accept results of a climate change study compared to those in the control condition.

A study conducted in England in 2012 focused on communicating with center-right audiences and suggested using four narratives or frames to engage these audiences more effectively: localism, energy security, the green economy (also called ‘new’ environmentalism), and the Good Life (e.g., maintaining public health and controlling flood damage). The authors say it is time to move climate change “out of its left-wing ghetto, and into the mainstream.”

To accomplish that goal the authors suggest building communication around eight guiding principles, namely by using a frame that:

  1. Focuses on local, observable impacts that are relevant to people’s daily lives and frames the stakes in terms of community, economic and individual well-being, not just data.
  2. Begins with what audiences (or stakeholders) care about and answers the question of “what does this mean for me.” For community leaders or members, the top concern might be reducing the harmful impacts of more extreme and frequent flooding events. For farmers, water availability might be key.
  3. Builds on non-partisan values like protection, responsibility, ingenuity, stewardship and fairness.
  4. Taps uncertainty as a reason to act and emphasizes the benefits of being prudent. Insurance is sold not based on an exact probability of a risk, but on the understanding that even if there is a small chance of a devastating event and you can take steps to prevent or prepare for it, why not do so?
  5. Emphasizes the human and financial cost of inaction. Given the trend lines, the challenges posed by climate impacts will only become more difficult and costly if we wait.
  6. Promotes practical solutions that make economic, social and political sense, regardless of climate disruption, and offer multiple benefits at various scales.
  7. Articulates what will get better if action is taken. Highlights the benefits of solutions that have already been implemented and links to a realistic yet hopeful vision of what else can be done.
  8. Promotes emissions reductions (mitigation) as a preparation strategy. It is simply the most effective step we can take to reduce risk, not just respond to it.

A similar set of principles was espoused in a report published by a group called EcoAmerica, which claims their principles are useful for communicating with any general audience. They believe one should begin by knowing one’s audience well and connecting on common values. One interesting feature of their report is a marked-up version of a hypothetical speech to the Rotary Club of Sioux Falls, Iowa, on the topic of saving the Big Sioux River, which, in fact, is threatened due to climate change. The markup shows how the speech is built on the communication principles described in the report.

I cannot resist mentioning one more report because it identifies a glaring hole in most climate communications, the role of the oceans, and because of my former career as an educator. Most of the added heat due to global warming is found in the oceans, as is most of the anthropogenic (“excess”) carbon dioxide added since the industrial revolution. The Frameworks Institute tested eleven metaphors with thousands of people and released a report called Getting to the heart of the matter: Using metaphorical and causal explanation to increase public understanding of climate and ocean change. One metaphor that works well with the public, they say is: “The oceans act as the climate’s heart, sustaining the climate by controlling the circulation of things like heat and humidity.” Several other metaphors and a particular explanatory chain of reasoning were also found to be useful for the public. Metaphors have been used in education for thousands of years and good ones can be very effective.

With some skeptics, people who are open to rational dialog, one can use facts as a basis of conversation. For example, someone I know well was a skeptic for many years and eventually said one reason for his skepticism is because CO2 levels were very high millions of years ago, without human causes. I did some research and found that is correct. But heat from the sun was several percentage points lower in that geological era than at present, and computer models fit well with conditions at that time; there is no contradiction with current theories or observations. There should be no shame in asking reasonable questions about climate change. A useful source of information to address common misconceptions held by the public is here.

Communicating with the public about climate change is not an easy task, but it is an important one.