We need to talk – principles of effective climate change communication

Climate change – it is happening right now, yet many people don’t seem to recognize the urgency to act. For many people, climate change remains a distant issue, since they notice little or nothing of it in their everyday lives, or because they are occupied with other worries. How can we ensure that research on climate change issues is communicated effectively so that it actually engages the wider public? Here’s how climate communication can help to go from knowledge to action.

Climate change is happening right now and its effects can be felt all around the world. While the media tend to show images of melting glaciers and ice sheets and talk about rising sea levels and droughts, climate change is happening much closer to us too. For instance, I can distinctly recall the extreme heat in the floor apartment I used to live in during the scorching 2019 European heat wave.

summer heat

The effects of climate change, such as heat waves during the summer, can be felt all around the world.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels

Even though more than 90% of scientists agree that global warming is caused by human activities (such as the burning of fossil fuels), many people still fail to recognize the urgency of the issue. How come that with all the knowledge that science has gathered on climate change, we still don’t realize that we need to act NOW?

George Marshall, the founder of the British organization Climate Outreach, reflects on this issue in his book “Don’t even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”. According to Marshall, climate change is what some psychologists call a “creeping problem”. It has neither a clear beginning, nor a clear end. Instead, the onset of climate change has been slow and day-to-day changes are not always necessarily noticeable. Nevertheless, these small incremental changes add up to a major problem that has been creeping on us – the climate crisis. Since there are no clear time points with regard to the climate crisis, we create our own timeline. We know enough history about the climate crisis for it to seem familiar, but not enough to feel responsible for past emissions. We see the climate crisis as a current enough issue to see the need to something about it, yet also see it just too far in the future to require our immediate attention and action.   

Ditch the Information Deficit Model

What is it that needs to happen for people to realize the urgency of the climate crisis? What’s the secret to effective climate change communication? Since we know so much about climate change issues, shouldn’t it suffice to tell people all the facts that we know to make them realize how urgent it is to act on the climate crisis? In reality, that’s what is being done in numerous public information campaigns – we assume that if we just tell people what science knows, they will understand and act. Here’s a problem though – this strategy, a science communication favorite called the information deficit model does not work.

As research has shown, factors such as past experiences as well as cultural identity shape how we interact with facts and sometimes have a greater influence in shaping our opinions on controversial topics than actual knowledge about the topic. Nevertheless, a lot of climate change communication (news media, websites, social media, documentaries, scientific publications and books) continues to passively flow from experts to the wider public in a one-way fashion, with the hope that if only people knew better, they would do environmentally-friendly things: recycle their trash, switch from their cars to public transport or adopt a more climate friendly diet.

one-way communication

Much of climate change communication is still happening in a one-way fashion.
Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

I am repeating myself here – but merely receiving information does not necessarily change attitudes and behavior. If you have followed my blog for a while, you might remember how I have talked about  why “green” attitudes and intentions don’t necessarily translate into behavior in a previous post, which presents a similar issue (FYI, there’s also a post with tips and tools that can help to remedy this issue, see here).

Just to present a simple example on why one-way communication of facts does not necessarily achieve the desired outcomes of behavior change: I am sure that you are familiar with cigarette packaging and the graphic images and messages that are printed on it. These messages are aimed at informing people about the health implications of smoking. Research has indeed shown that this effect is indeed achieved – cigarette packing can help to raise awareness about health risks, however, knowing about the potentially dire consequences of smoking still does not automatically translate into behavior change to stop people from smoking.  

Principles for Effective Climate Change Communication

Enough of the theory, let’s get practical and have a look at some practical things to keep in mind for effective climate change communication. Please note that in order to give you an overview on the information that is out there on climate change communication, I am merely able to outline some topics as everything else would exceed the length of this blog post. For more information on any of the topics, click through to the resources that I have linked in the text as well as at the end of this blog post.

Know your audience – Who is your audience? With whom are you communicating? People are different and have different cultural, political and psychological reasons for (not) acting on climate change. Likely, you are faced with a diverse audience in many cases, but can you find some commonalities in your audience? Is your audience convinced that climate change is happening? Does your audience believe that climate change is a natural cycle, or are they convinced that it is human-caused? Does your audience see climate change as a serious threat? Do they perceive climate impacts to be distant in time and space, or do they know that impacts can be felt already in the here and now? Does your audience know how to act on climate change?

Frame the issue in the right way –The way we communicate things (or frame messages) carries a certain meaning – something we can influence to a certain extent to achieve the desired perspective. In other words, framing means that you set the issue within a certain context. You might think that this sounds as if you would deceive or manipulate your audience, but this is not the intention. In fact, it is impossible not to frame your communication, which is why it is so important to frame your message in a way that resonates with your audience. In the previous step, you already determined how your audience thinks about climate change – can you go further and identify and (sub)groups your audience is part of? For instance, if your audience consists of young people, you might frame it as a youth issue, which on the other hand, you would not do if your audience consisted of members of an agricultural organization that struggles with the impacts of climate change on their work. Additionally, research supports the use of motivational frames rather than sacrifice frames to increase climate-related engagement.

Tell people how they can become part of the solution – The author Simon Sinek once said, “Starting is the hardest part”, which is also true for environmentally-friendly behavior. Here’s what you can do to make behavior change easier for others. Propose or help others to identify concrete courses of action that they can take to become part of the solution. Simultaneously, it is important to emphasize that their actions can have an impact (to strengthen people’s so-called self-efficacy). Research has shown that people who feel powerless and who think that others will not change their action even if they do themselves (the commons dilemma) are less likely to take actions to mitigate climate change.

“Yes we can”: Emphasize the collective dimension of climate action – Tying into the aspect of feeling capable of creating an impact, it can be very beneficial to emphasize the collective dimension of climate action. People partly define themselves with regard to social groups (social identity), so if they perceive that the group they belong to is capable of effecting change, they have stronger intentions to engage in environmentally-friendly actions. For example, if young people believe that their generation can drive the mobility transition, they are more willing to willingness to use environmentally friendly means of transport in the future.

Be careful with using emotional appeals – Given the fact that I talked about how the rational information deficit model is not an ideal basis for climate change communication, you might think that emotional appeals are the way to go. Well, here’s the thing – emotions are not simple levers, and there is no clear answer to whether “socially engineering” emotions such as fear, worry or hope affect behavior in the desired way in the long-term. For example, while doom and gloom narratives such as David Wallace-Wells’ essay „The Uninhabitable Earth“ will clearly raise a lot of attention, it is questionable that emotions such as fear or anger will move people to action on climate change, as outlined by psychologist Renée Lertzman. Other scholars have assumed that people have a “finite pool of worry”, in other words a limited capacity for worrying. While recent research shows that it is not the capacity to worry in itself that is “used up”, but rather people’s capacity to attend to multiple things to worry about (such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change), this can help to understand why negative emotions might actually make people feel overwhelmed and lead them to shut down and to push information away.     

sticky note saying "I want you to panic"

Panic, fear or anger – according to research, these emotions do not affect behavior in the
desired way in the long-term when used in climate change communication.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Choose visual imagery wiselyHumans are visual first, verbal second. Images are powerful tools to convey complex messages, but we need to be careful that their message is meaningful. For instance, climate communication experts now agree that images of polar bears and melting ice caps are not the way to go to engage the public on climate change. Why? What these images express is the following – the impacts of climate change can be seen far away in the Arctic, but they don’t affect yourself and the people around you. Instead, keep the following principles for visual climate change communication in mind, as outlined by the climate visuals project : 1) show real people, not “photo-ops”, 2) tell new stories, 3) show climate causes at scale, 4) couple images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioral ‘action’, 5) show local (but serious) climate impacts, 6) be careful with protest imagery and 7) understand your audience. This is one of those topics that I can’t discuss in full detail here, so please head over to the Climate Visuals report for further detail.

Beware of the backfire effect – At some point during a climate change conversation, you will most likely be confronted with misinformation. Surely, you will want to correct this, but be careful about how you go about doing so. Research has shown that attempts at correcting misinformation can reinforce the misinformation itself (a so-called backfire effect), as people tend to repeat the misinformation in the process of debunking it. Thereby, the misinformation is rendered more familiar. To avoid this, try to start with and emphasize the correct information (you can read more on correcting misinformation in my blog post on science denial).

Misinformation needs to be dealt with carefully in order to avoid backfire effects.
Photo by Jeffrey Czum on Pexels

Why climate communication matters

To round off what we have talked about in this post, let me come back to the big question – why does climate communication matter? Well (and I hope this has become clear in this post), the ultimate goal of climate change communication is to mobilize people and induce behavior change. To achieve this, climate communication can help in many ways:

  • shed light on the direct and immediate consequences of climate change,
  • point out the collective dimensions of environmentally-friendly behavior,
  • inform about concrete, easy and actionable courses of action that people can take themselves,
  • challenge misinformation about climate change,
  • drive the wider social and political response.

Additional resources on climate change communication

The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public
A guide that details outlines many of the biases and barriers to scientific communication and information processing. Furthermore, it offers a tool that can help people to take action in response to the climate crisis.

The Debunking Handbook & The Uncertainty Handbook (including link to webinar)
A series of handbooks on the topic of climate change led by Stephan Lewandowsky. The Debunking Handbook explores backfire effects that communicators need to be aware of when debunking misinformation (shortly mentioned in this blog post, here in much more detail), whereas the Uncertainty Handbook explains principles for smart communication about climate change uncertainties.

Climate Visuals: Seven principles for visual climate change communication & The Climate Visuals Project
The climate visuals guide explains research on how people interpret visual images of climate change and presents an evidence-based approach to visual communication (spoiler alert: “imagery used to communicate climate change can and should be more diverse than polar bears and melting ice”). The Climate Visuals Project is a database that includes a variety of diverse climate visuals that can be accessed after registering and filtered by keywords, country, theme, causes, impacts, solutions, date, license type and source.

Communicating climate change during the Covid-19 crisis
As mentioned above, people seem to have trouble to pay attention to all the different things we can worry about. So how can we best communicate climate change when our minds are already occupied with a pandemic? This guide provides insights into what effective climate communications can look like during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis , with particular attention to the factors of timing and sensitivity of communication.

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