Scared witless: The challenge of communicating climate change
It’s hard connecting with people when they are scared or distracted. Even harder to get them to change their behaviour or do something new.
That’s the growing challenge for companies like Junxion Strategy, ones that focus on communicating about topics that are, frankly, often scary as hell.
Face the fear
Fear is the culprit, but it is used in communications with abandon.
Advertisers and PR-guys pick away at who we think we are, what we value and even the basis for how we guide ourselves as consumers, parents, lovers, voters, and ultimately, as people. Whether the attack is on a young girl’s self-esteem or an older man’s vanity, fear in advertising is usually linked pretty closely to an easy solution: a super-pill, a fast car, a happier kid, a richer bank account, a sexier partner, the fountain of youth.
Unfortunately, finding ‘easy-wins’ when communicating about climate change, mass extinction, collapsing oceans, water shortages, food insecurity, violence towards women and minorities and infanticide, are hard to find. Let’s look at climate change and the challenges of communicating through people’s growing state of fear and the resulting paralysis or indifference.
While the deniers are busy cashing their oil and gas industry paycheque and spewing confusion and suspicion, it’s important to look beyond the rhetoric and see how people are feeling about climate change. A recent report by Yale and George Mason University’s Centres for Climate Change Communications highlights 2011 US public opinion on the disasters ravaging the country.
2011 was the biggest year (so far) for climate backlash. A record-breaking 14 major climate calamities, with price-tags of US$1 billion or more in damages, hammered or flooded or scorched the USA, all with a total cost of around US$53 billion. In fact, the US will be one of the biggest victims of our severe climate impacts.
Listed as the most vulnerable wealthy nation, the US can expect more and increasingly damaging weather. It’s already leading the global pack in losses. The US scored in the top ten most vulnerable countries to desertification (#4), extreme weather damage (#1) and rising sea levels (#7).
While the deniers are busy cashing their oil and gas industry paycheque and spewing confusion and suspicion, it’s important to look beyond the rhetoric and see how people are feeling about climate change.
The problems are evident: the year-long drought in Texas is spreading and deepening, record-setting heat waves hammering the eastern states, heat-related deaths and illnesses are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, the East and Midwest is being swept away from flooding, while the tornado range widens and the extreme weather season starts earlier and lasts longer.
The media is a major contributor to the confusion. By reporting climate incidents as isolated and localised events and focusing more on the carnage than the reasons behind it. It confuses people and distorts their understanding of the facts. Beyond US news, world coverage is scattered for the average American. A famine here. A new disease outbreak there. Depleted water supply. Mass, forced migrations. Dying bee colonies.
Needless to say, it’s a major barrier to capturing the public’s attention for a large scale response to climate change.
So, what are Americans thinking?
Up, front and personal
A majority say that an unusual weather event has happened in their area this year. Four out of five have personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster.
These include extreme high winds (60%), extreme rainstorms (49%), extreme heat waves (42%), drought (34%), extreme cold temperatures (29%), extreme snowstorms (26%), tornadoes (21%), floods (19%), hurricanes (16%) or wildfires (15%).
A large majority of Americans believe that climate change made several high profile extreme weather events worse, including the unusually warm winter of December 2011 and January 2012 (72%), record high summer temperatures in the U.S. in 2011 (70%), the drought in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 (69%), record snowfall in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 (61%), the Mississippi River floods in the spring of 2011 (63%), and Hurricane Irene (59%).
Public opinion in the US clearly shows that Americans know what the problem is. In fact, they are personally experiencing it. So, one would assume that it would be easy to engage them on it.
Please lie down on the couch…
The barriers are psychological. It’s therefore smart to understand human behaviour, one of least understood dimensions of climate change.
The brain is wired to sort a lot of information. In doing so, it wants to recognise a simple cause and effect. It wants to see black and white, simple, complete. We simply aren’t programmed to see the greys.
Our brains can’t fathom the scope or urgency of climate change because, for example, we’re chronic optimists, fear shuts us down, we choose only information that confirms what we already believe and reject that which challenges our take on reality.
Our brains can’t fathom the scope or urgency of climate change because, for example, we’re chronic optimists, fear shuts us down, we choose only information that confirms what we already believe and reject that which challenges our take on reality. We tend to trust messengers who share our worldview and distrust those who don’t.
Oh, and once we’ve decided something about something, we’re terribly stubborn about it and spend a lot of effort to reinforce and support our beliefs. Coupled with the way we’re wired, this results in a tough sell.
Overly complex scientific dialogue is a struggle for most people, and it’s a definite downer for our brains. ‘Simple’ doesn’t apply to climate science. How that process translates into our motivations and actions, is an urgent question.
The American Psychological Association released a report that highlights a number of barriers to action, even when we agree on what the problem is. Task force chair Janet Swim states it effectively when she says, ”we must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act.”
The latest Pew research poll found 80% of people believe climate change is a serious issue. But put up against other issues — terrorism, economic problems, even ”decline of family values” (whatever that is) — climate change trails. Why?
The disconnect happens for a number of reasons (not surprising, really) such as:
- Uncertainty or confusion about climate change that directly impacts adoption of ‘green’ behaviours
- Mistrust of the risk messages coming from scientists and public officials, especially among young people
- Denial that climate change is linked to human behaviour
- Undervaluing risks because people believe the problem will occur sometime in the future
- Lack of control in that people believe their own actions won’t make much of a difference (low efficacy)
- Habits of high consumption, waste and distraction.
So, what do we do about this? Let’s dig deep into values and work from there.
Appeal to the intrinsic
In the UK, leading environmental advocacy groups released a report that looked at responses to ‘bigger-than-self problems’ such as climate change and poverty and how intrinsic values play a crucial role in effectively responding to challenges.
…extrinsic values ”which focus on social recognition and power, wealth, authority and preservation of one’s public image” from intrinsic ones ”including understanding, appreciation and tolerance for other people, unity with nature, concern about equality”
They separate out extrinsic values ”which focus on social recognition and power, wealth, authority and preservation of one’s public image” from intrinsic ones ”including understanding, appreciation and tolerance for other people, unity with nature, concern about equality”, and argue persuasively that it is the latter that we need to activate.
The problem, they say, is that extrinsic values are trumping intrinsic ones.
People who hold extrinsic values also have lower levels of concern about big, complex problems and lower commitment to addressing them. That reality results in ”higher levels of prejudice, less concern about the environment, lower motivation to engage in environmentally-friendly behaviour, weak concern about human rights, more manipulative behaviour and less willingness to help others.”
The challenge to communicators is unlocking those intrinsic triggers in the mass population. Language plays a huge part. Descriptions and metaphors matter. Extreme messages fall flat, they are mistrusted and they quicken denial. The key is messages that create the impression that these values are desired and essential and that these same values actually reflect the social norms of our society.
So, do we communicate intrinsic values to an audience who is motivated by extrinsic ones?
Dilemma? Not really…
The report says ”evidence accumulated across a large number of cultures shows that intrinsic values are held to be important, even among those people who attach particular importance to extrinsic values.” The conclusion is ”to communicate in ways that successfully avoid engaging (and therefore strengthening) extrinsic values, because these oppose the emergence of greater social and environmental concern about bigger-than-self problems.”
So does Cara Pike, of ClimateAccess, a leading authority on communicating about climate change. She says that ’hope’ – a core intrinsic value – is the key, a prerequisite to people acting effectively.
Exploring the relationship between the human mind and climate change, Pike’s organisation is a hub for climate change, public opinion research and campaign tactics to move the agenda on climate change forward. She believes that communicating about the environment means looking long-term and conveying core concepts that shape values. Here’s a great video of Pike speaking about effective climate communications.
In a 2012 roundtable on overcoming climate fatalism, David Gershon and Susanne Moser outline how to move the conversation with people and enroll them in ‘bigger-than-self’ efforts. They say these things are crucial:
- Be clear about what we can hope for
- Give people a safe space to explore their feelings and anxieties, to build a sense of community and give hope and meaning to actions
- Be clear about how to translate concern into action, so have a strategy that involves people in solutions
- Help people understand their role in the change process, so that they see that their actions have meaning and impact
- Build the sense of collective and give them opportunities to be a part of something bigger than themselves
- Speak intrinsic values and deepest motivations, rather than through promoting money or social status
- Get low to the ground and connect neighbour-to-neighbour, creating strong bonds and social capital
- Don’t use fear, but acknowledge that people have emotional responses to it; engage them in ‘heartful’ conversations
- Preach to the choir and ask them to sing loudly, early adopters have great influence with their peers (rather than experts who are perceived to have an agenda).
So the challenge is great. But, clichés aside, so is the opportunity. By focusing on core values — ones of community, of compassion, of cooperation, of personal involvement — we not only move the agenda forward, we reshape the values on which decisions and responses are made. This is no sound byte, it’s a deeper conversation.
David Kuefler is Junxion’s global creative director and is a key strategist on campaign development. He is involved in local, national and international projects aimed at addressing environmental and social issues by mobilising people around solutions.