Message (not) Received: The Pitfalls of Climate Change Communication

By Eszter Vlasits, GLOBUS correspondent

‘Incredibly complex’. ‘The biggest threat humanity has ever faced’. ‘The perfect problem’. 

These phrases, all commonly used to describe climate change, evoke the feeling that we have a good understanding of the magnitude of the threat we are facing in the 21st century as Earth warms up, causing drastic changes in not just natural environmental processes, but in the politics, economy, and social structures of humanity. But the truth is, an understanding of climate change simply does not exist on a scale big enough that we could have meaningful, global action and this, in part, is owing to the nature of the phenomenon itself. Climate change is indeed one of the most complex problems one could think of and in a way, it is understandable why we have a hard time rising up to the challenges it poses. In this article, I will explore three important aspects which contribute to barring effective communication about climate change and make universal recognition of its importance very difficult.

Psychological components

Thinking about climate change is not the logical, calculated debate it is sometimes made out to be. It inevitably involves emotions which influence the opinions of the public much more deeply than a scientific report does. According to Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology, our brain has evolved to respond to four key triggers when encountering any sort of situation – these are: ‘personal’, ‘abrupt’, ‘immoral’ and ‘now’. Climate change does not mash well with these attributes. It is a global crisis presented in a way that does not utilize the power of personal stories; it is a slow-moving, non-linear change; it does not conform to the simple pattern of an immoral crime committed by a wrongdoer; and it requires an ability to look into the future and take responsibility for it. Thus, although it is a very real danger ultimately affecting everyone, it just… Does not tick the right boxes in our heads. It has been researched on many accounts that the human brain does not nearly develop at the same speed as the world around it does, and this causes psychological difficulties in understanding certain situations. In 2021, there are things around us that we are simply not biologically wired to deal with, and this can be an unsettling thought. 

Climate anxiety is now an official term for the increasingly present mental strain that the thought of climate change puts on people. In the eyes of many (especially among the younger generation), climate change is a pivotal thing that will define their future, so the dread they feel is well-founded. However, without proper guidance and communication, they cannot turn their knowledge and fear into anything productive. This is one of the great challenges of climate change: if there is no direction, engaging with it can become dangerously taxing and overwhelming. 

But what about the people who do not ‘believe’ in climate change action? There are of course various perceptions among them as well: some refuse to acknowledge that the climate is changing, some accept it but view believe it is a natural process that has nothing to do with human activity, and some simply think we do not have a chance to do anything about it so we should just leave this whole mess be. It is remarkable how much influence anxiety and the need to feel safe have on people. According to different interviews, those who have been personally affected by a natural disaster caused by the drastically changing weather (such as floods, tornadoes) have a higher chance of denying it was caused by climate change. They think of it as a one-time event because it would be terrible to realize that it can become common and increasingly dangerous, just like how if a tree fell on your car, you would not really expect it to happen again, after you have bought a new one.

If your life was in danger at this instant, you would probably jump up and do whatever needs to be done so you can be safe. But internalizing the danger of climate change does not work like that. People can read countless articles heralding how it will endanger the lives of millions in the coming decades and still have a chance to distance themselves from it one way or another. Next to the psychological responses the topic evokes in people, another thing which makes reaching out to them extremely hard is the discrepancy between scientific language and the communicative tools that make the problem feel personal and encourage action. 

The difficulties of scientific language

Climatologists and scientists from many other fields have accumulated a large amount of knowledge on the climate over the past few decades, and with thousands of new reports coming out every year, the number of articles attempting to translate these findings to the general public also increases. The problem with this is that scientists cannot state anything as fact unless it is backed by meticulous research and irrefutable evidence (indeed, whether ‘true’ scientific knowledge is even possible is debatable). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cannot release a simple statement saying ‘We have proven that global warming is caused by human activity.’ They can only use careful phrases followed by incredibly lengthy descriptions of scientific methodology, as they did in the 6th Assessment Report published this August. People in the field read it and know how dire the situation is, but when it is translated into the language of online news portals and Facebook or Instagram posts, it is not powerful enough. 

No matter how you package it, information on what climate change will affect, and how and when it will affect us, is extremely uncertain. While scientific predictions can take us closer to knowing what will happen, with for example sea levels or the biosphere of the amazon rainforest, trying to convey the effect that these changes will have on peoples’ daily lives requires a whole different skillset. In contrast, those advocating against climate activists have no problem bringing confident, engaging statements to the table. They do not have to base their claims on nuanced scientific information, just find a way to discredit the way the other side presents itself. This is why many climate experts do not like to take part in public debates: the sceptical opponent tells jokes, captures the audience drawing on common values, relieves the tension caused by the scientist’s threatening predictions, and he is more successful because he tells people what they want to believe deep down. He tells them that they are not doomed. And in the end, it does not really matter who is correct. 

The use of frames

Precisely because climate change will have an influence on every aspect of life, it is hard to see it in its whole. It is unavoidable that we view it through certain lenses, which emphasize it in a particular way. Two really common ‘frames’ used to view climate change are politics and environmentalism. These are undeniably crucial aspects of the issue, but they lock climate change into said frames and make it much harder to come up with interdisciplinary solutions. 

In the era of the internet, no issue is presented as an independent one. Climate change communication is impossible without touching on social issues, the market and above all (whether local or global) the current political climate. Any plan or regulation comes down to which political groups have the incentive to support it. Because of this, debate on a lot of complex issues has become highly polarized. This is the case in the question of climate change as well. In many countries, any concern about it has become a ‘liberal thing’, and masses of conservatives turn on the idea because it is grouped with other ideas they oppose and espoused by politicians who are running against their favourites. According to a 2020 US survey assessing the beliefs of American citizens, 94% of Democrats think global warming is happening, while only 67% of Republicans do so. While this represents the majority of both groups, the divide is still huge – especially since the difference is even bigger in the more specific questions concerning climate change related responsibility. 

Navigating the field of climate politics is no easy task. Political groups present their opinions built around values they know their voters have, such as family, patriotism or individual freedom. And the formulated opinions are joined with beliefs concerning other important social issues of our time, separating people from each other and making forward-looking discussion impossible. Because why would two groups compromise on climate change regulations when they also disagree on reproductive rights or international politics? Climate change cannot be an independent debate and it is crucial to discuss other issues surrounding it, but the solution lies in reaching out to every type of person, even if it is understandably hard to accept. 

Another frame climate change has been stuck in for a long time is the frame of environmentalism. This is not surprising at all, since in the last decades it was environmental campaigners and scientists who contributed the most to the research on the issue and who tried to raise awareness about it. Without them, many crucial policies would not exist today, and public perception of climate change would be much less significant. Nevertheless, this narrative has its setbacks. As discussed, the real danger lies in the interdisciplinary nature of climate change, and the goal is not just to be more environmentally conscious, but to redesign the system socially and economically in a way that allows humans to coexist with nature. If communication directed at people who need to be convinced ignores the entirely possible economic and social collapse we are facing and concentrates on endangered species, the masses will not realize the magnitude of the issue. Even more so because nature is still often viewed as something that stands apart from us humans, associating climate change solely with environmentalism is not personal enough to touch people. With a bit of an exaggeration, it allows for a false belief that if you do not care about a couple of ‘exotic’ species vanishing somewhere across the globe from you, you will be just fine.

What should change?

We have seen why it is incredibly difficult to dissect climate change in a way that spreads accurate, detailed information but which also brings forward activism. And we have seen why people lean towards scepticism or oversimplified views of the problem. So, what key aspects of climate change communication should be strengthened for it to become more successful?

One of the most important objectives needs to be the engagement of ‘non-believers’. If communication is structured more around people who do not know a lot yet, or refuse to engage for some reason, (instead of around the people who are already concerned with the subject like scientists and activists), then every movement can become much more widespread. Involving these groups can be achieved by appealing to common values, emphasising the personal effects, and targeting shared things that everyone can relate to. The difficulty is appealing to very different groups and ultimately getting them to compromise, because like it or not, we are going to need every last person we can get in this fight. Another key aspect to remember is that science, while the cornerstone of everything, is a tool to help us understand what is happening around us and is not effective in itself. It helps convey the message, but to truly reach people, we need to explore the socio-psychological background of denial first.

Header image by Miguel Á. Padriñán via pexels.com

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