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Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 2: Communication

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

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):

  • Journalists may not understand much about the science of climate change, so they look for multiple sources across a wide range of perspectives.  Or, worse, they may not be able to distinguish legitimate criticism of science that is part of any healthy scientific process vs. dubious attacks on science for the sake of creating the illusion of uncertainty.  This is a problem of environmental literacy identified in an earlier post.
  • Wanting to avoid appearing biased, journalists use skeptics to balance climate warming advocates.
  • Journalists don’t typically read scientific journals and attend meetings, so they often don’t have a sense of when there is a scientific consensus and when there is genuine, divisive debate.  I tell students in my courses that science isn’t meant to be fair and balanced.  It accepts all ideas, test them against evidence, and the ones that are wrong get tossed into the dustbin of history.  The ones that are not falsified get to live another day until further tested.  Eventually, the ideas that survive deep scrutiny over long periods of time  become generally accepted models of the way the world works (i.e., theories). With climate change, there are thousands of studies published in peer-review literature that indicate the physical basis of climate warming, impacts that might happen, and impacts that we are already observing.  This is compared to a few contrarian arguments in gray literature that are discredited by mainstream science. We now have firm scientific consensus on climate change.
  • Points 1-3, although not helpful, might be excused as journalistic misdemeanors.  As David Roberts pointed out on Grist recently, journalists and media may be verging on the unethical by legitimizing contrarians for the sake of stirring up faux controversy as a ratings ploy.

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).

ScreenShot017 (Custom)

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:

  • social progress—dealing with climate change moves us to a new, sustainable world
  • economic development and competitiveness—like the green jobs initiative
  • morality and ethics—altering the planet is a matter of right and wrong
  • scientific (un)certainty—what is known and unknown about climate change
  • Pandora’s box—we need precaution to avoid catastrophe
  • middle way/alternative path—possible solutions to beat the ideological gridlock

and I’ll add a few more

  • personal finance—you can save money by saving energy
  • biophilia—our attraction to other species makes it a moral imperative not to drive them extinct as a result of climate warming
  • national security—eliminating oil dependency from abroad can help us deal with security at home

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

Related posts


  • Ariely, D. (2009) Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Harper
  • Moser, S. and L. Dilling (2004) Making Climate Hot: Communicating the Urgency and Challenge of Global Climate Change. Environment 46(10): 32-46.
  • Nisbet, M. (2009) Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement. Environment 51(2):12-23.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

9 Responses to “Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 2: Communication”

  1. [...] a recent post, Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 2: Communication, I described studies showing why framing climate change is importance for reaching different [...]

  2. [...] Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 2: Communication [...]

  3. [...] Problem 2—Communication: As mentioned in an earlier post, media plays a role here.  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.  By keeping climate warming shrouded in as much uncertainty as possible, skeptics prevent people form forming strong opinions about it.  The media needs to do a better job distinguishing legitimate criticisms of climate science vs. dubious claims from deniers. [...]

  4. [...] Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 2: Communication [...]

  5. [...] they will feel less guilt and less motivation to do anything about it.  This is similar to a point we discussed earlier—people are often not motivated by complexity or fear.  Pitch climate change as a [...]

  6. [...] mentioned in an earlier post that it’s often assumed that climate change science speaks for itself.  All we have to do is [...]

  7. [...] a previous post from my series on why people don’t engage climate change, I described my interpretations of [...]

  8. [...] the blog “Global Change: Intersection of Nature and Culture,” Phil Camil has an excellent overview and synthesis of research on some of the communication [...]


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