Talking Climate: a New Guide to More Effective Communication

by |December 11, 2014

CRED guide image 2What motivates people to accept or reject the reality of climate change? Do financial incentives prompt us to change behavior, or are public recognition and belonging to a social trend more effective? What do personal and political values have to do with attitudes toward climate change?

A new guide to climate change communication comes out this week with some of the answers. “Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication” is based on recent social science research and directed at anyone who takes on the task of talking about climate change. It was produced by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at The Earth Institute, and by the nonprofit organization ecoAmerica. It’s available to print or download for free.

“The first communication guide we published in 2009 synthesized research to date on why our minds understand and react to climate change the way that they do,” said Elke Weber, co-director of CRED and Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School. “The new communication guide builds on that by explaining how to improve communication based on what research tells us is effective.”

CRED guide image 1The 2014 guide offers 10 basic tips to help speakers get to know their audience and more effectively communicate about climate. The advice is based on new research on how people’s values, world views and identities influence their thinking. It blends CRED’s expertise in social science research with ecoAmerica’s research on American climate values and best practices for communication.

For instance, someone who lives near the ocean and values personal property rights may reject the idea that we need to build up sand dunes to protect the coast from rising sea levels in the future, if that means cutting off their view. That objection might lead them to dismiss the notion that sea level rise will be a serious problem.

The guide emphasizes focusing conversations on climate solutions. Someone who strongly values the rights of individuals over communal interests and feels the government is already too intrusive might reject the idea of additional government policies and regulation to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But, they might identify with goals based on how much impact an individual can have on a problem, or with solutions that encourage entrepreneurship and private enterprise.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the guide’s 10 tips:

  • Put yourself in your audience’s shoes: Understand their values, worldviews and personal priorities.
  • Channel the power of the social groups and networks that people tend to identify with.
  • Emphasize solutions and benefits: This can help people overcome the sense of hopelessness at the enormity of the issue, and give them a sense of efficacy.
  • Bring climate impacts close to home: How is it affecting people right now; highlight personal experiences and local solutions.
  • Connect climate change to issues that matter to your audience, for instance, public health, agriculture or economic impact.
  • Use images and stories to make climate change real: Tell narratives about real people facing issues, using images of people and activities the audience can relate to.
  • Make climate science meaningful: Put your numbers into a context and scale people can understand, using comparisons, metaphors, visual models, and in terms people can relate to.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty, but show what you know. “Uncertainty” means something different to scientists than it does a lay audience. Highlight what we DO know in straightforward terms, and use analogies that put uncertainty into an everyday context. “Uncertain” doesn’t mean we do nothing: If there’s a 60 percent chance of rain, we’re likely to take an umbrella to work.
  • Approach skepticism carefully. There are different reasons people may be skeptical of climate science; it pays to identify the source of the skepticism. Is it about personal values being challenged? Or is it based on misinformation? Focus on a core concept you want to convey to your audience, and key in on solutions. The more you can identify yourself with your audience’s community and their concerns, the better.
  • Make behavior change easy: Help people set specific targets for their behavior, and try to make the environmentally sound decision the default option. Talk about what others are doing, and how people are having an impact. Consider what incentives people respond to – the financial, social and moral rewards.

“To connect with audiences and unlock success in climate change communications, communicators need to shift their approach,” the authors say. Communicators need to go beyond simply delivering the facts about climate change; “they need to connect with people’s values and world views and put solutions at the forefront to make climate change personally relevant to Americans and those they love.”

The need for better climate communication is growing, the authors say. For one thing, the impacts of climate change are accelerating, and delays in action threaten to make things worse. Secondly, climate change is abstract and remote from many people, who are more focused on their immediate needs. And lastly, there are many people and organizations working against taking any action on climate – efforts that need an effective response.

The new guide was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Linden Trust for Conservation.


One thought on “Talking Climate: a New Guide to More Effective Communication

  1. When I read “… accept or reject the reality of climate change …” in the first sentence of a review of a guide that’s meant to help engage “critical” audiences (NB: they are those that THINK …) makes me a bit angry. No one on Earth, once he/she left their mother’s womb would deny climate change. Climate changed and always will be changing, whether humankind is still around to notice or has itself removed from the biosphere. But this verbiage is exactly what annoys critical thinkers: hiding behind weasel words that mean to say “global warming” but due to a hiatus for the past almost two decades not daring to call it so is unethical because you then put people who are trying to discuss the unreliability of current models and what can be done into a corner by saying “Oh, you deny climate change?”. No, no one does that. But if you lump anorectics and obese together and call it “eating disorders” (which on the face of it is, again, ok), then call someone who says that anorectics suffer from malnutrition an “obesity denier” is a bit much, don’t you think. The above frames the problem as if you hold all the clues and if certain audiences don’t get it, then they must be “better talked to”. Well, tell that to Nobel Prize laureates who are critical of several aspects of climate science …

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