It’s become clear in recent years that information about climate change is conveyed poorly to the public. In fact, there are now programs like the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and blogs like Matt Nisbet’s Framing Science that examine this issue.
There have been a number of recent studies1 that identify at least 8 reasons why communication is part of the problem:
Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling’s 2004 article “Making Climate Hot: Communicating the Urgency and Challenge of Global Climate Change” in Environment contributes several ideas to this list:
Challenge 1: Traditional media balancing of competing claims adds to the perception of uncertainty
And when there is uncertainty, people tune out because they think the issue is not resolved. This is actually a tactic of anti-warming advocates: By keeping climate warming shrouded in as much uncertainty as possible, people don’t form strong opinions about it.
There are several reasons why the media might do this (we’re wandering away from Moser and Dilling’s points here):
Challenge 2: Polarized debates turn people off
This is another strategy of anti-warming advocates. Turn the debate into an ugly health care town hall, and people will tune out.
Challenge 3: Specific warming impacts and solutions are seldom conveyed clearly
Rather than just telling people that warming will be bad and we should all be afraid, warming advocates should state examples of how the impacts will be experienced by people in a specific region and specific steps that people can take to help adapt to or mitigate them. Empower people to become part of the solutions process rather than letting them sit on the sidelines. Climate warming is not a spectator sport.
Challenge 4: Messaging might backfire
When scientists use language like “climate switch” and “abrupt climate change,” they are often intending to convey a sense of something bad—that we might be close to a threshold where climate changes fast and to a new mode of operation we are not used to. However, when people hear switch, they may think of a light switch and feel that if we can turn on the switch, it’s easy to simply turn it off. Likewise, if change is abrupt, then it will be easy to get out of in a hurry as well.
Challenge 5: The outcome of “nothing different” from now is hard to chalk up as a reward in response to inconvenient behavior modifications
When asking people to make changes in their lifestyles so that we can maintain a climate much like today’s, this comes across as a sacrifice for nothing better. We can quibble with the meaning of “sacrifice” and “better” but it’s still perception that counts.
Challenge 6: Fear can change perception but not willingness to take action and can lead to counterintuitive behaviors (like the “SUV effect”)
2006 was a watershed year in public opinion on climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Time Magazine’s famous polar bear cover had the world scared to death about climate change. They grabbed people’s attention and raised awareness, but they didn’t do much to galvanize widespread action against climate warming. As we’ll see in the next post, 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.
Even worse, if people become fearful of climate change, it could encourage counterintuitive behaviors. For example, people might think, if it really does get stormier or icier in my area, I will need the SUV because it has 4-wheel drive. The irony is not lost, given that large vehicles and their greenhouse gas emissions are part of the reason why we have climate warming in the first place.
When I first saw the Time cover, I thought that mainstream media is finally getting climate change and that people would start demanding action. Now I’m not so sure fear is an effective tactic for driving change.
Challenge 7: Not knowing what to do in the face of complexity and uncertainty, people do nothing
This challenge touches on perceptions and behaviors, which I address in a later post, but it also speaks to how climate warming is presented to people. What happens when people hear that climate change is a complex and uncertain issue?
The behavioral economics research of Dan Ariely provides a clue (author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Behaviors). He gave a lively TED talk on this about a year ago.
When studying different European countries, he noticed that there was a stark discrepancy among rates of organ donation when people sign up for their drivers licenses (see left hand side of the figure below).
Why? It turns out that the answer is in how the question was framed. In the countries with low rates of organ donation, the question was posed as, “Check the box if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” In the countries with high rates of organ donation, the question was posed as, “Check the box if you want to opt out of the organ donor program.”
Ariely argues that faced with a complex issue like organ donation, people don’t know what to do, so they don’t do anything—in this case check a box—and this leads to the observed pattern.
With climate warming, many people feel the same way, so perceived complexity may be a contributor to the lack of engagement.
Challenge 8: Issues are often not framed effectively for a particular audience
Matt Nisbet had an article in Environment this year, “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement” in which he argued there are several ways to frame climate change:
and I’ll add a few more
Different audiences will be attuned to each of these frames differently. Doom and gloom is often the way climate change is portrayed. This doesn’t resonate well with a lot of folks. Know your audience.
Coming up: We will examine the problem of personal perception, values, and behavior
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