Is local always better for climate communication?

For people who have self-focused (rather than self-transcendent) values, ‘localising’ climate change communication may backfire

This guest post is by Michelle McCauley and Jonas Schoenefeld, co-authors of a new paper exploring the link between communication strategies which ‘localise’ climate change and people’s value-orientations. The post is also published at the Environmental Europe blog.

A popular saying goes that ‘all politics is local’. While public debate on climate change often focuses on international summits and the political drama of negotiations, the real steps to address climate change will be have to be implemented at a much more local scale. Ultimately, the way we lead our lives – how we use energy, design our communities, how and how far we travel, to name but a few examples – drives our personal climate impact and that of our communities. But although scientific insights indicate that climate change impacts are much closer than one may think, many of us still envision it as a far-away problem that will affect other parts of the world in the future. [1]

Unfortunately, we don’t care much about problems that will happen later and mainly to others. But we need to care. Scientists, journalists and communicators have thus turned to highlighting the local consequences of climate change – such as extreme weather events, sea level rise and the like – with the assumption that doing so will persuade people, and their policy-makers, to act. For example, in 2003, Rajendra Pachauri—then the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—stressed that

“I am aware that there is an opportunity for much political debate when you start to predict the impact of climate change on specific regions. But if you want action you must provide this information”.[2]

In a recent study, we tested this assumption about the effect of local climate information empirically. Our research[3] suggests that simply highlighting local climate impacts may not be enough stimulate action and could in some cases even backfire.

In an experiment, we asked people, who live in the U.S. state of Vermont, to what extent they care about other communities/people (self-transcendent values), or their own status and power (self-enhancing values). Prior research suggests that people with self-transcendent values tend to be more concerned about environmental issues and act on them compared with their self-enhancing peers. After assessing value orientations, our study participants received information about climate change.

One group[4] received information on local climate impacts (in the Vermont region), while another group received information on global climate impacts (focusing on other regions in the world – i.e., not in Vermont). A control group received no climate information. Following this stage, we asked participants how important they thought climate change was, the extent to which they were willing to make changes in their lives to reduce their personal contribution to climate change (e.g., driving less), and their support for climate policy measures.

As we expected, regardless of the kind of information (global or local), participants who held a strong, versus weak, self-transcendent values were more concerned about climate change, more willing to engage in pro-environmental behaviour (such as switching to public transportation), and more supportive of climate policy. However, the focus of the climate information – local or global – greatly mattered for individuals with strong self-enhancing values. For these individuals, hearing about likely local impacts of climate change was demotivating. Instead of spurring action, hearing the local projections about increased flooding and other likely local outcomes made self-enhancing people care less than their similar self-transcendent value oriented peers who read about global outcomes.

We had expected that giving self-enhancing people information about local climate impacts that could affect their personal status (e.g., through reduced incomes in the Vermont skiing industry) would highlight the importance of climate change and thus lead to increased action. But perhaps those high in a need for status, enhancement, and power, feel particularly threatened by reading about the local impacts of climate change.

This is a reminder that any connections among caring, values, and proximity are complicated and that there is not one message that will work for everyone. However, recent research hints at approaches that could prevent this backlash. Researchers from Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions  found that simply asking people to consider their legacy can increase environmental concern[5].

Perhaps if we had simultaneously grounded our self-enhancing individuals in local outcomes while asking them to consider their personal legacy, our findings would have been different. Future research should further explore the effects we identified, particularly in other regions of the world. But until we have better knowledge, we would caution against simply assuming that local information frames will increase concern and action, because doing so may prove ineffective or even counter-productive with some people.

[1] E.g., Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Smith, N. (2011). Global warming’s six Americas, May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University.

[2] Schiermeier, Q. (2003). Climate panel to seize political hot potatoes. Nature, 421(6926), 879-879.

[3] Schoenefeld, J. J., & McCauley, M. R. (2015). Local is not always better: the impact of climate information on values, behavior and policy support. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-9.

[4] Group assignment was random.

[5] Zaval, L., Markowitz, E.M., & Weber, E. U. (2015). How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy. Psychological Science, 26, 231-236.

The Uncertainty Handbook

This new collaboration between COIN and the University of Bristol is a practical guide for climate change communicator on this most tricky of topics.

UHB-Cover-200-280Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses? Then our new handbook (a collaboration between Dr Adam Corner, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Dr Mary Philips and Olga Roberts) is for you.

Download the handbook to learn more about 12 practical and easy-to apply principles for smarter communication about climate change uncertainties. And sign up for the webinar taking you through the key findings here.



When I say ‘climate change’, you say…?

New research suggests that the ‘closed questions’ favoured by survey researchers could be skewing the debate about climate scepticism

In this guest post, Dr Endre Tvinnereim of the Uni Research Rokkan Centre and Dr Kjersti Fløttum of  the University of Bergen, Norway, shed new light on what people instinctively associate with the term ‘climate change’, and ask whether traditional survey questions may be unintentionally framing the debate on climate change.

Public opinion is crucial in determining what can be done to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. At the same time, the topic of climate change touches on so many different themes (from the science to the societal implications) that what people associate with the phenomenon is highly variable and at times probably also fairly unsettled.

A research project conducted at the University of Bergen (just published in the journal Nature Climate Change) sought to shed some new light on the question of what people  emphasise when they think about climate change. Using data from the 2013 online ‘Norwegian Citizen Panel’, we used ‘open-ended’ questions to collect the views of the public and use emerging text analysis tools to analyse the texts we receive – one from each respondents.

Open-ended questions are unusual on surveys, which tend to employ items with numerical scales, whereas the data we analysed were people’s written responses to the question ‘what comes to mind when you hear the words ‘climate change?’ This allowed people to identify themselves the aspects of climate change they thought were important, and permitted more nuanced answers than with traditional ‘closed’ questions.

The length of people’s answers ranged from one word to several sentences. People wrote these texts directly into their web browsers at home (pretty much all Norwegians have Internet access, making this kind of study easier and more robust). The topics expressed in the answers are diverse, ranging from melting ice at the poles, via more intense weather to effects on society and the role played by humans in causing climate change.

From the 2,000 answers that were collected, we found four overall themes, presented in order of declining prevalence:

  1. Weather and ice: an emphasis on the physical manifestations of climate change, notably through melting ice, more rain and storms (but not so far heat waves, this being Norway)
  2. Future consequences for humans, including concern for children and grandchildren
  3. Money and consumption, including both the negative effects of consumer society, the need to help poorer countries and hints about economic motives behind climate policies
  4. Attribution. What causes climate change: humans, nature, or a combination

The categories map fairly well onto the three IPCC working groups: physical science (topics 1 and 4); impacts (topic 2) and mitigation (at least some relation to topic 3).  Topic 1 (weather/ice) accounted for almost half the responses; topic 4 (attribution) was the smallest at about 15 percent.

Older respondents had a tendency to emphasise weather and ice, whereas younger respondents were more likely to mention consequences for humans. We speculate that older respondents may have first learned about climate change in the 1980s when physical manifestations (such as melting ice sheets) were emphasised, whereas recent years have seen more discussion about the effects of climate change on human settlements, water availability, and food supply.

The words that were used the most were “extreme weather” (one word in Norwegian), “weather”, “warmer”, “natural catastrophes” and “human-made”.

There are several advantages to open-ended questions in survey research. Firstly, the open format enables the researcher to find out more about what people associate with a given subject, which is particularly useful when the subject is technically complex or multi-faceted. Closed questions may give precise numeric indicators of where people locate themselves on dimensions such as concern about climate change, but it is harder to gauge whether climate change to them is mostly about consequences, or about causes, or something else entirely (polar bears? electric vehicles? taxes?).

Open-ended questions allow us to access such thoughts more directly and to frame our analyses  a different way: thus, the statements ‘climate change is mostly human-made’ and ‘climate change is not human-made’ could belong in the same category on our analysis, as both focus on causes (rather than, say, impacts). The way that researchers frame their analyses can have powerful effects on the wider discourse: could it be that ‘closed-ended’ questions have promoted the idea of a dichotomous split between ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ in human-causation of climate change

Second, allowing respondents to use their own words permits more nuances to make it through the survey matrix. notably, we found that among those most strongly wedded to the “attribution” topic, between one-quarter and one-third suggested there might be both human and natural causes of climate change. This held despite the fact that most of these respondents dismissed human causation of climate change in a closed question posed elsewhere in the study. It is thus possible that more varied and less polarised opinions may be uncovered when people are allowed to use their own words in survey research.


The Pope and partisan polarisation

Catholicism and climate change in the USA: will the Pope’s intervention shift public opinion or further polarise a divided public?

Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

This week, the Head of the Catholic Church did something that legions of green activists routinely struggle to do: focus global media attention on climate change. In a Papal Encyclical stretching to 42,000 words, Pope Francis set out new doctrine on climate change, covering science, politics, economics and morality.

While warmly received by many political figures, and endorsed by eminent climate scientists as technically accurate, it predictably raised the hackles of some US Republicans – many of whom are Catholic themselves.

Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and others reacted angrily to the searing social and economic analyses contained within the Encyclical. So will the Pope’s intervention shift opinion in the US on climate change, or further polarise a notoriously divided public?

A new report on US public opinion by Anthony Leiserworitz and his team at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication claims that:

“The Pope’s message on climate change is likely to find receptive ears among Catholic Republicans and even conservative Catholic Republicans.”

However, the their own analyses suggest otherwise. While Catholic Republicans are slightly more likely (than non-Catholic Republicans) to agree that global warming is happening and to express concern about it, the numbers are not exactly compelling. Only 36% think global warming caused by human activities (vs 30% non-Catholic Republicans), and just over a quarter of Catholic Republicans don’t think it’s happening at all (27% vs 37% non-Catholic Republicans).

So, while Catholic Republicans are slightly more inclined towards caring about climate change than non-Catholic conservatives, it is political views that are still playing the dominant role – something which the Yale surveys have themselves endlessly documented.

This suggests that the views of Republican senators warning the Pope to stay out of climate debate and ‘leave the science to the scientists’ are probably shared by a majority of right-leaning Catholics in the US.

A quick glance at the language employed by Pope Francis shows why. This was not simply a turgid retelling of the science of climate change, or a meek meditation on the ‘risks of dangerous climate change’: this was a powerful and prescient call to arms, drawing as much on political passion as it did on scientific studies.

Adopting many of the most emotive tropes of the ‘climate justice’ movement (‘we have a grave social debt towards the poor’), and aiming squarely at economic inequality as both a  driver and consequence of environmental degradation, Pope Francis left no room for interpretation: solving climate change means fixing a broken economic system.

Already hailed as the ‘Pope of the poor’, the climate Encyclical will cement his position as a spokesperson for the global South, rather than a mouthpiece for the corporations and governments of the North. So no surprise it got up the nose of the Republicans, who – on climate change at least – seem to put politics before religion.

If the Encyclical is to have a more universal appeal among US Catholics, then it will need reinterpreting by Conservative Catholics. As COIN’s research in the UK and Europe has shown, there are ways of talking about climate change that are consistent with conservatism – but attacking the free-market is not one of them

The Pope’s intervention is a fantastic opportunity to get Catholics (and people of other faiths) all around the world talking about climate change. But in a deeply divided nation like the US, the story will need  to be owned and told by Catholic leaders and Priests  who represent the range of political opinion.

If it is not, then the same political differences that dictate public opinion on climate change will simply replicate themselves within Catholic communities – because even an intervention by an iconic and prestigious religious leader like the Pope is not immune from the powerful influence of partisan polarisation.

Eco-Angry Birds? When climate change & pop culture collide

Is Hollywood finally reflecting the reality of a changing climate change? Or is the relationship between climate change and pop culture not so straightforward?

In any given 24-hour period, the average urban commuter is subjected to hundreds of corporate advertisements. By contrast, it’s easy to make it through the day without hearing a mention of climate change. For all intents and purposes it is invisible in our daily lives, and this invisibility goes a long way towards explaining why the allegedly “defining” challenge of the 21st century barely registers on barometers of popular culture.

Whether it’s the addictive melodrama of long-running TV soap-operas, the swirling churn of “trending” topics on social media, or the glamorous high-definition version of reality refracted to us through the lens of Hollywood cameras, climate change is missing in action.

It was a surprise, then, to find such a high level of chatter about climate change at the glitzy Cannes film festival (not famed for grappling with the world’s biggest questions). The festival concluded with Ice & Sky, a sombre take on the work of the French scientist Claude Lorius, documenting the destruction of Antarctic glaciers. Charlize Theron, discussing the forthcoming remake of dystopian classic Mad Max, commented: “What makes [the film] even scarier is that it is something that is not far off if we don’t pull it together.”

And it’s not just the film industry that has been showing some interest.

On the small screen, the 20 million fans of fantasy-drama Game of Thrones may ostensibly be watching sword fights and violent vengeance. But they’re also being told a powerful story about impending ecological destruction – at least, according to a researcher at Arizona State University studying how science blogs have responded to the world-conquering series. And on the even-smaller screen, the maddeningly addictive Angry Birds franchiserecently announced it would be integrating a climate change angle in September to coincide with the UN’s climate week events.

So is popular culture finally embracing the reality of a changing climate?

Saci Lloyd, author of The Carbon Diaries, thinks it is.

“Climate change is definitely breaking out of the cultural fringes and into mainstream movies and pop. James Cameron has stated that Avatar is a lesson for humankind to stop damaging the environment. Lady Gaga has recently partnered with Vivienne Westwood for the Climate Revolution campaign. And now Pharrell Williams is dropping in on the UN and telling them it’s time to go from climate change to climate action. I don’t think you can go more pop than that.”

Climate change has traditionally thrived in rarefied spaces (at least in the western world): the complex knowledge chambers of science; the bureaucratic back-channels of international diplomacy; and the minority-interest meetings of specialist campaigns groups. So climate change finding its way out of the highbrow realm and into popular culture at all is grounds for optimism.

But as ever with climate change, the transition is unlikely to be straightforward.

Firstly, when compared to other big issues of our time, it’s clear that climate change has one unique and problematic characteristic: there is no outside observer uniquely well positioned to narrate the story. Hollywood celebrities – often fairly – take flak for their advocacy around global poverty or human rights abuses. Because of their privileged positions, they may be challenged on their credibility. But we all have a credibility problem when it comes to climate change – because like it or not, we are all complicit.

And some of us are more complicit than others. Mad Max may tell a cautionary tale about a world ravaged by resource wars, but its own carbon footprint must be mind-bogglingly, extravagantly high. Mainstream cultural channels are, currently, unavoidably high-carbon. This doesn’t invalidate Hollywood’s voice on climate change, but it is essentially impossible to make a big budget (aka popular) film in anything approaching a sustainable way. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that people have ambivalent views about the contradictions inherent in “eco-celebrities”.

As the British actor Tom Cullen says:

“It’s a tricky position I find myself in. I’m a climate change advocate but often find my lifestyle at odds with my views. I juggle my guilt and my career. The actor Mark Ruffalo has a strong voice in climate change awareness but has recently completed a round-the-world press tour for The Avengers, and therein lies a problem. How can our most adored and respected be listened to if they are hypocrites? How can we bring climate change into the pop-culture foreground if we deem their argument as illegitimate?”

Of course, you can entertain people on a village green with a local theatre company using solar-powered lights. The concept of entertainment does not start and finish with pyrotechnics and private jets. But if the mainstream is where climate change needs to be, then this is the reality it will have to grapple with – and it is not hard to see where tensions could arise.

While TV executives don’t agree on many things,research by the International Broadcasting Trusthas found that they are unanimous in their belief that viewers do not want to be lectured.

Nick Comer-Calder, of the Climate Media Net, puts it this way:

“Climate change themes need to be embedded in long-running series to make it mainstream – to normalise it. I don’t think it has to be the whole rationale for a plot – but it needs to be firmly woven in. And it is not just about the science or the impacts, its about the whole complex mechanism of tackling climate change in personal, political, and professional life.”

It is encouraging that the final spot in Cannes was reserved for an eco-documentary, and positive that a game played by millions worldwide sees a place for climate change in its franchise. But the real challenge is to integrate climate change into the juggernaut of popular culture – not drag it alongside in a special sidecar of its own – and this is a much tougher (although ultimately more meaningful) proposition.

This was originally published by The Guardian 05.06.15

The Coming Climate Disruptions: Are You Hopeful?

This a guest post by Per Espen Stoknes. A psychologist, economist and entrepreneur, he has cofounded clean-energy companies and spearheads the BI Norwegian Business School’s executive program on green growth. Per Espen has recently released a new book, “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming,” in which he explores alternative narratives, avoiding the “dystopian” and “ecotopian” climate caricatures, and instead highlighting the many co-benefits of a switch away from fossil fuels.

I often ask the question “Are you hopeful?” to climate communication researchers. Everyone I ask starts off with a laugh or smile, since they cannot simply answer yes or no. One answered, “Cautiously optimistic.” Another said, “That depends on the season; this spring I was severely negative, now I’m more hopeful.”

This is good, because as you know climate scientists are running for the hills.

The poet Gary Snyder was once asked, “Why bother to save the planet?” He replied with a grin: “Because it’s a matter of character and a matter of style!” What I really like about his answer is that it doesn’t attempt to base our actions on some plausibility calculation of success or failure, nor on a dualistic ethics—the good fight against evil. Rather Snyder points to our calling and to aesthetics, both realms of the soul. This grounds our long-term actions in something much more substantial than the expectations of a successful outcome on the other side of our efforts. In other words, while quick wins and successes are welcome and wanted we can’t make our long-term efforts dependent on them. Instead, we must separate hope from bland optimism, and distinguish between the different varieties of hope.

One version of hope is based on passive optimism: ‘Oh, things will turn out well. Technology will fix it for us. Nature has made climate change before.’ I’ll call this type of hope Pollyanna hope or passive hope. It is an outlook where—if you think positively—all is sweetness and light. Since the world turns out well anyway, there is no reason to worry and work; we can wait for rewards to ripple down our way.

Another type of hope is much more actively optimistic: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. We’ll make it happen. There is no end to human creativity and ingenuity; where there is a will, there will be a way.” This type of optimism says that the likelihood of a good outcome depends on the magnitude and acumen of our effort. It may be a fight, but one we’re going to win. This type is a heroic hope.

To defend optimism-based hope, both the passive Pollyanna and the active, heroic hope, you have to believe in the likelihood of good outcomes. There must be a good reason to be optimistic—either because things end well all by themselves or because we make them come out well. In optimism we get attached to the likelihood of certain favorable outcomes. But if the outcomes threaten to turn sour and dark, this type of optimism easily crumbles into pessimism. Sound familiar? There are ample examples of our inability to do what it takes to solve the climate crisis, and they are oft repeated in the media.

Optimism has—scientifically—a weak case. But if optimism is unfeasible and glaringly utopian, is pessimism then inescapable, and hopelessly inevitable? No. There is a third way—or more—of hope. This way embraces the sense of not-knowing, or accepting the extent of the unknown unknowns: Nobody really knows enough to be an absolutely convinced pessimist. Sure, things may look bad, and optimism may seem rationally impossible to me today, but that doesn’t necessitate flicking the switch over to pessimism. That happens only if we think in terms of dualistic opposites (or some grayish in-between). We don’t have to be attached to either end of that line.

This opens up to a view of the future beyond optimism or pessimism. It is a form of skepticism that also comes in a passive and active version:

The passive skepticism leads to a type of stoic hope: “We’ll weather the storm.” “We don’t know what’s coming. But whatever comes, we’ll take it. No matter, we’ll stand our ground.” “After the tempest, we’ll rebuild.” This is a version of hope that’s sturdy and hardy, not clinging to optimism, but still making no proactive effort to dream or influence the future.

The active skepticism is somewhat more demanding to describe. It goes along the lines of, “There’s no reason to be optimistic, but we’re going for it anyway.” Or: “Our situation is desperate and at the same time hopeful.” In this brand of hope, I’m not attached to optimism or to pessimism. I call this stance a grounded hope. It’s grounded in our being, in our character and calling, not in some expected outcome. The future is fundamentally uncertain and complex. Therefore it is open to the imagination and always possible to influence in some way. So yes, it’s hope-less and we’re going all-in. The active skeptic gives up the attachment to optimistic hope and simply does what seems called for. There is a deep freedom in that.

The dream sometimes glimmers like a silver thread, and that’s all I need to keep me walking. I don’t need to believe that things will end well in order to act. The walking and the doing are their own reward.

What type of hope is yours? Or, which do you want it to be?


Bypass the hang-ups with the ‘preparation frame’

With more and more extreme weather events being linked to climate change, the climate debate is shifting from ‘whether’ it is happening to ‘how’ it is happening. This is a guest blog by Max Leighton, Research Intern for COIN, about a new approach to framing climate change impacts from Climate Access.

At the beginning of March, the US climate change communication specialists Climate Access released a new guide titled, ‘The Preparation Frame: A Guide to Building Understanding of Climate Impacts and Engagement in Solutions.’ The guide is based on trends in public opinion and synthesises over one hundred social science studies, as well as tools and best practices from climate leaders who are already engaging communities in preparation efforts. Climate Access argue that framing climate change around the idea of ‘preparation’ might go a long way to engaging audiences who otherwise are not interested in climate impacts.

The first principle of preparation framing explores how to initiate a conversation and engage an audience. Naturally, it is best to start with the most pertinent issues. For example, a communicator may start a conversation with issues surrounding water availability for farmers, or the best use of resources when talking to community leaders.

This may not even mean mentioning ‘climate change’ initially as this can alienate some audiences from the get-go – although as COIN’s own work shows, it is important not to propagate a ‘climate silence’ by ignoring it altogether.

The guide also suggests focussing on local, relevant and observable impacts. People and their security should be prioritised as the number one point of discussion, to overcome the perception that climate change is a distant, far-away issue. We invest a lot in our surrounding environment. We build relationships within, as well as with these areas, so talking about the threats to them, as well as how to protect them engages audiences on an emotional level.

Along with feelings of distance are those of uncertainty. Uncertainty – real or manufactured – plagues the climate change movement. It is sometime used as a justification for inaction even by those who are convinced climate change is a definitive diagnosis. The guide suggests “flipping the problem of uncertainty on its head.” Much like an insurance policy, uncertainty can be framed as a very genuine reason to mitigate climate change and adapt to it by outlining different scenarios where not acting under uncertainty is an unwise choice to make.

The guide also identifies a solution to bypass the acute politicisation of climate change by building discussions around ‘non-partisan values.’ Climate Access argues that examples of such values are ‘responsibility,’ ‘stewardship,’ ‘fairness,’ how it is ‘better to be prepared,’ and ideas of ‘protection and safety.’

The idea of ‘non-partisan’ values is an interesting one: climate science has become so heavily politicised, that being able to get beyond this is very appealing. But should the politics of climate change be avoided or embraced? Should this be tackled by trying to create non-partisan discussion or by attempting to bridge the political spectrum with a more bipartisan approach, such as COIN’s work on engaging centre-right constituencies?

A common trope in climate change communication is the need to articulate a vision. A clean, green, healthy vision. A vision of the smog clearing, health improving, energy and water prices decreasing in a town peppered with solar panels, connected to a smart grid and maybe even a tidal lagoon a few miles down the coast. Promoting and presenting practical solutions and a vision of the future is crucial for engaging wider audiences. Climate Access suggests climate communicators should articulate what will get better if action is taken and highlight existing success stories, an approach used by 10:10’s in their ‘it’s happening’ campaign.

Providing a sense of positivity around a framing of ‘preparedness’ is far more likely to create impetus for change.

Love in a changing climate

Why we need a Love-In to get beyond ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in climate change campaigning

This guest post is by Robin Webster, previously of Friends of the Earth and Carbon Brief. Robin asks what the role of ‘love’ in climate change campaigning is, and whether we need to get beyond the ‘goodies vs baddies’ discourse…

I used to have a job as an environmental campaigner for a big NGO. We cared a lot about what we did. And we were often quite angry – shocked, horrified, appalled. We used words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘urgent’.  We lived in a blizzard of information about what humans are doing to the world. We took on the perpetrators. The baddies.

The big climate campaign of the moment – the coal divestment movement – follows the same goodies vs baddies pattern. One of its founders, Bill Mckibben, has made the strategy clear, writing that successful change requires movement-building; and movement building “requires enemies”. The fossil fuels industry is in the sights.

I don’t question the logic; or the numbers clearly showing the oil, coal and gas companies are a good target – a scarily good target. But, as others have pointed out, these kind of campaigns are inevitably limited – because climate change is a much more complicated problem. The profligate way we use energy; emissions associated with the food we eat; the part we play in the global energy system. It isn’t just us vs them – we are all implicated, we are all a part of the story.

In his book on the communication of climate change, “Don’t even think about it” George Marshall addresses this question, concluding that as a result:

“…I have become convinced the real battle for climate change will not be won through enemy narratives and that we need to find narratives based on co-operation, mutual interests, and our common humanity”.

That’s what I think we’re missing.

For the love of…what?

The Climate Coalition – a mass grouping of NGOs campaigning on climate – is making an interesting attempt to address this. The coalition’s “for the love of…” campaign focuses on encouraging people to highlight the things they care about that are threatened by climate change – from football pitches to frozen lakes to fry-ups.

An attempt to break climate change out of the “environmentalist” niche, the campaign is based on COIN’s research. The ‘love’ framing was the only messaging that worked across different political affiliations and viewpoints. We all love something; we’re all passionate about something at risk from climate change.

I really like the idea of integrating love into climate campaigning. But again, as critics have pointed out, the ‘for the love of….’ campaign is fairly apolitical – there’s no focus on what we’re being encouraged to do to solve the problem, or who we’re criticising.

Martin Luther King and refusing to hate

So should we be sitting around the table with energy companies gently asking if they could put another one percent or so of their money into renewables, or willingly engaging in endless conversations about whether, maybe, all the world’s climate scientists are wrong and it’s not happening?

Does integrating love into campaigning mean being apolitical?

I don’t think it does. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King – hardly a pushover – was inspired by the idea of “refusing to co-operate with an evil system”. He learnt from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and promoted the idea of non-violent protest.

For King, the principles of non-violence include “seeking to win the ‘friendship and understanding’ of the opponent, not humiliate him” and avoiding ‘internal violence of spirit’. King writes: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”

Love in this context doesn’t mean some “sentimental or affectionate emotion” for someone you’ve never met – it means “understanding, redemptive good will”.

Starting points

King’s work shows that using love in campaigning doesn’t mean ignoring biased power structures, or injustice. It does mean striving to recognise our common humanity – even, or especially, with those that disagree with us.

In the campaigning world, the Common Cause coalition grew out of social science evidence showing that human being all share a common set of values, expressed to a greater or lesser degree. Its evidence demonstrate the importance of grounding messaging in ‘intrinsic’ values like altruism, rather an ‘extrinsic’ ones like power or authority. Moving away from the idea of people as ‘consumers’ or other benefit-seeking automatons, Common Cause shows how important it is to treat people as people, and assume we are all capable of compassion.

Its certainly not straightforward to convert this into climate campaigning.

But it’s clear that, on this one issue if no other, we really are all in this together.

“A clean, green science machine”

There is a certain irony that the scientific community has one of the highest carbon footprints. This is mainly down to travel, most notably aviation. A new paper explores some alternatives to the current “high-carbon research culture.” COIN’s Research Director Adam Corner was part of the team that put the working paper together while in his previous role at Cardiff University. The Journal Nature published the following editorial about it.

“Every time the United Nations climate negotiations get under way, media stories appear about the carbon emissions generated as thousands of government officials, environmentalists and scientists fly in from around the world. Similar questions have been raised about major environmental-science conferences, such as the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which last year drew an astounding 24,000 people. But rarely does this discussion move beyond the obvious. It can indeed seem a bit disingenuous that people who are trying to understand and protect the planet will engage in such a high-carbon activity as aviation, but what is to be done?

Researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, UK, have published a thoughtful working paper that lays out a practical methodology to tackle these questions, from the standpoint of both individual academics and institutions. The bottom line is that aviation emissions are rising, and that academics in the industrialized world are responsible for more than their fair share, thanks to the countless conferences, the international nature of science and the need to do fieldwork in far-flung locales. If academics are to fall into step, they must curb their aviation emissions in concert with the rest of the world.

Academics in all disciplines — not just climate experts — should read the paper, not least because it goes beyond posing moral questions and delves into solutions. Simply purchasing carbon offsets will not balance things out, the authors argue, because the market for reliable offsets may be limited and the net effect could be to legitimize unnecessary travel. If scientists want to bolster their credibility on the subject of global warming, the authors say, then they must harness the power of the Internet and reduce the time they spend in the air. Indeed, the authors propose that a greater reliance on online conferencing and social media will not just reduce emissions, it will make science more inclusive. The conferences that do need to take place could be more centrally located for the target audience. And to keep track of it all, the paper provides an accounting system that allows institutions to log “hours in motion” and calculate the resulting emissions.

The arguments the authors put forward are powerful, and there are good reasons to pursue their recommendations. In fact, some quarters have already come to similar conclusions and are taking appropriate action: the AGU’s leaders, for instance, have started to look for ways to hold parallel conferences and online dialogues that will allow more academics, often from developing countries, to engage in its meetings. There is real value in face-to-face interaction, and we must not forget that. But the Tyndall Centre is right to point out that senior researchers probably do not need to fly halfway around the globe simply to present a paper at a conference.

“Lots of seemingly small actions can have an effect.”

In some ways, the working paper opens the door to questions that are even harder to answer. Do scientists have a responsibility to stop eating meat, given what we know about the greenhouse-gas intensity of beef production and to a lesser extent that of pork and chicken? Should we expect them to park their cars and take the bus or train instead? The fact is that these are personal choices that academics, like everybody else, must grapple with.

Nor does the buck stop with individuals. Institutions, academic or otherwise, have a large influence on the daily lives that their employees lead. It might seem extreme for universities to force vegetarian fare on their students (although many institutions now have a meat-free day), but bosses could go a long way towards reducing traffic jams and carbon emissions by encouraging their employees to telecommute. And in the long run, does it make sense for an institution or company to purchase cheap real estate in the suburbs and then force its employees to bear the cost of commuting?

There are plenty of solutions to be had at many levels, and all options may need to be exercised to stave off the worst impacts of global warming. But lots of seemingly small actions can have an effect: last week, the International Energy Agency reported that global carbon emissions stalled in 2014, even as the global economy grew by 3%, apparently thanks in part to efforts by China and industrialized nations to boost energy efficiency and adopt renewable sources.

Irrespective of what academics do, it seems likely that steaks, cars and planes will not only persist but will increase in number as the population booms and becomes more affluent. Ultimately, the world must identify better ways to raise beef and move people around. And scientists have a key role in making that happen, even if it means hopping on a flight to the next United Nations climate summit.”

Nature 519, 261 ()  doi:10.1038/519261a

Original source here.

From financial to ‘cultural’ divestment

If the divestment movement is to break into the mainstream, we need cultural as well as financial change

It’s easy to see why the fossil fuel ‘divestment’ campaign has grown so quickly. Hastening the demise of the fossil fuel industry by removing its financial life-support machine has an undeniable and attractive logic.

In the space of a couple of years, the concept has attracted a huge amount of support. Promoted by charismatic and persuasive voices such as Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben at, and embraced by universities, religious institutions, and even entire city-administrations, last month saw the first ‘Global Divestment Day’ celebrating the movement’s successful move into the mainstream.

However – as divestment advocates are the first to acknowledge – the mainstream is a relative term. Its estimated that $50bn has been removed from fossil fuel companies due to divestment campaigns. This is a striking success story. But it is also a fraction of what the industry turns over annually and the gaps in their investment portfolios would have been rapidly filled by speculators with a less delicate moral disposition.

The long term power of divestment lies, therefore, in its potential to transform the social consensus on the merits of a fossil-fuelled economy, and to create the political space for laws and legislation that will mean fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. This is not an easy notion to square with our current economic system of growth-based capitalism.

Campaigners point to the destabilising dynamics of public opinion that swirled around the divestment campaign in South Africa. Companies who associated with the racist regime could replace their investors, but they couldn’t replace their reputation. Perhaps the same fate will befall institutions and individuals that are complicit in the fossil fuel industry.

But – as is so often the case – climate change frustratingly doesn’t fit the mould.

Central to the rhetorical power of the divestment argument is an easily identifiable ‘bad guy’ (played here by the fossil fuel industry) from whom the rest of us ‘good folk’ can dissociate. But while it may be true that most of us don’t personally quarry the earth for burnable carbon, almost everyone pays a quarterly energy bill straight into the coffers of the fossil fuel industry.

To be clear, this doesn’t make us hypocrites: we are trapped in this arrangement, in many cases against our will. But it does make us complicit, whether we like it or not. This is problematic for a simplistic portrayal of climate change as a battle between good and evil (because the enemy is literally within).

But for divestment campaigns specifically, painting fossil fuel support as immoral or even ‘evil’ is a strategy that could backfire when the values and perspectives of those outside of the divestment movement come into play. It is hard to tarnish a company’s reputation when we find ourselves embroiled in it.

In COIN’s own research – with groups of young people, and in work that informed the Climate Coalition’s ‘For The Love Of’ strategy – we have found that people tend to react against an easy distinction between ‘us’ (fossil-fuel opponents) and ‘them’ (the power companies). Because most people have no choice but to use and spend money on fossil fuels, there is a risk that the general public will feel more affiliation with ‘them’ than ‘us’.

None of this means that the divestment movement does not have huge potential. If financial support is incrementally removed from fossil fuels alongside a meaningful cap on their extraction, the industry will literally shrink.

And, for climate change campaigners, divestment was the shot in the arm they urgently needed. After years of searching in vain for something exciting to say about international climate change negotiations, divestment campaigns – where each individual institution is targeted by separate groups of activists – offer repeated and credible ‘wins’. The feeling of momentum this produces (and the re-affirmation that committed activism can actually achieve tangible results) should not be underestimated.

But if divestment is to really go mainstream and start to uproot the foundations of the fossil-fuel system – it is going to need wider support. The feeling of momentum that is currently providing buoyancy for the climate change movement must be shared by a larger group of the population.

And for that to happen, there needs to be a much wider acceptance of the importance of climate change in the first place. All around us are signals that point in precisely the wrong direction: the prominence of fossil fuel advertising in our media and public spaces suggests that we are a long way from ‘cultural divestment’.

The real power of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign was in the broad-based social acceptance that racism was wrong. The divestment campaign gave a powerful voice to this movement, but it did not precede it.

COIN’s focus on involving a greater diversity of voices – from faith groups, to political conservatives, to communities affected by flooding – in the conversation about how to respond to climate change is one small step towards building a social consensus.

But when a majority of people identify with ‘us’ rather than ‘them’ in divestment campaigns, the real power of the divestment movement will be unlocked.

This was originally published by The Guardian on 9th March, 2015

Personal climate stories

How is climate change affecting people around the world right now?

Ask a scientist this question, and they will tell you that it is impossible to attribute any one weather event conclusively to climate change. But while this may be true, we are also beginning to witness exactly the kinds of extreme weather events, seasonal changes and volatile disruptions to ‘normal’ conditions that those same scientists have been telling us will become more common in a changing climate.

Its a catch 22.

But increasingly, people want their personal stories of climate change to be heard. These shouldn’t replace or take priority over scientific analyses of how climate impacts are manifesting, but they are a valuable additional form of knowledge. As millenia of human experience shows, storytelling is a powerful and personal medium. And combining science and stories is an important way of bridging the gap between the abstract global climate and people’s everyday lives.

So here we’ve rounded up a handful of the growing number of examples of online video resources where people tell their own personal climate stories. Check them out, and let us know of any we’ve missed…

Climate Wisconsin

From cross-country skiers to ice-fishing enthusiasts, these video monologues (with high production values) show how climate change is affecting one North American state:


The Climate Reality project

Including personal testimonies from celebrities and members of the public, this Al Gore-led project adds a chorus of voices to the climate change debate. This Olympic gold-medallist says he is ‘pro-snow’ in his climate change  testimonial:

For the Love Of

A project close to our heart (our staff carried out the research behind the campaign), the UK-based Climate Change Coalition shifted the tone of the UK climate change debate away from fear and guilt, and towards protecting the ‘things people love’. What do you love that is affected by climate change?

Years of Living Dangerously

A TV series about climate change that actually was actually worth watching? That’s right – and by combining personal testimony with the allure of celebrity presenters and a clever local-global perspective, Years of Living Dangerously was a success:

Nature speaks

Not all attempts at using celebrity to highlight environmental issues are quite as successful though – this slightly strange example of anthropomorphism (‘Shhhhh, nature is speaking!’) received a mixed response in the COIN office:

The Story Group

The Story Group is an independent, multimedia journalism company, and they have developed a climate change video series ‘Americans on the Front Line of Climate Change’. In this example, an Oyster Farmer talks about Ocean Acidification:

More Than Scientists

This video is from a collection of scientists in America who have well established careers studying climate change, but rather than just talking about their work, in these videos they share what climate change makes them feel and what it means to them as individuals, as soon to be fathers and as people like you and me:

Here is another video from the More Than Scientists project with Erika Navarro talking about a hurricane that hit her hometown when she was 12 and how it made climate change personal:

Project Aspect

Last but not least, Project Aspect is a digital storytelling project that shines a light on how people across the UK are experiencing a changing climate. Here, a woman called ‘Heather’ talks about the diary she has kept and how the changing seasons have altered her family’s farming practices:

Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming

If you want more personal stories about climate change, Steven Homles’ book shares the thoughts of fellow citizens, prize-winning authors and poets from all ages and walks of life, trying to make sense of this issue. Staying clear of facts and statistics, Steven’s book shares people’s personal thoughts through short stories, poems and personal literature. A compelling addition to the video resources, showcasing the emotion that climate change can stir.

So what have we missed? What other examples are out there?

Alternating climate impacts: stories about security?

If hosepipe bans follow suspiciously quickly from flood warnings, how can we build a narrative about alternating climate impacts?

Right from the start, climate change communicators were faced with a challenge. ‘Global Warming’ may be a scientifically-accurate description of what is happening at a planetary scale, but no one lives at a ‘planetary scale’. Instead, we all live in particular places – places where winter still happens, temperatures are not noticeably rising, and where flood warnings are followed suspiciously quickly by hosepipe bans. You can forgive people’s sense that perhaps scientists are not quite as certain about this climate change lark as they claim to be…

As news broke that our collaboration with the ‘Drought Risk and You’ project team would go ahead (in early 2014), the UK was in the grip of the worst winter storms in living memory. It is tempting to agree with Conservative MP Adam Afriyie, standing in the flood water during a Channel 4 interview, when he sagely advised Jon Snow that it was “not the day to talk about climate change”.

But in fact, today is the day to talk about climate change – because it’s the only thing that can help us make sense of the fact that more intense rainfall and prolonged droughts will both become a reality for the UK over the decades to come.

Unlike globally-averaged temperatures, or model predictions about rainfall in 2025, extreme weather events are things people can touch, feel and experience. They quickly become the focus of stories – and they leave a strong impression. Because of this, they have become the focus of psychological research that has wrestled with the challenge of how to communicate the risks of climate change (which are so often ‘not here and not now’ from the perspective of our daily lives).

A recent survey led by the Understanding Risk team at Cardiff University found clear evidence that people who had been directly affected by the 2013/14 winter floods were more concerned about climate change, and more likely to consider it as a serious threat. Even people who hadn’t been directly affected seemed to link the flooding to climate change. Two-thirds of respondents thought the floods were a sign that the impacts of climate change were already beginning to be felt, while an even clearer majority (72%) agreed that the floods were a sign of what we should expect in the future from climate change.

While there seemed to be a clear consensus that climate change meant more flooding for Britain, there was less agreement among the public about other climate impacts. Three quarters of the survey sample stated they had noticed signs of climate change in their lifetime, but while 27% pointed to heavy rainfall and flooding, only 14% identified droughts and hot/dry weather.

Like the idea of a prolonged cold snap during ‘global warming’, the notion of a drought when flooding is fresh in people’s memories is a difficult sell. Even though droughts and floods are just two points on a watery continuum, they feel like polar opposites in the public mind: we can’t have both at the same time. But with climate change, we can – and we will.

Its crucial to start developing and promoting narratives about climate impacts that don’t inadvertently sabotage future engagement efforts. If flooding is becoming associated with climate change by members of the public, then floods are absolutely an opportunity to engage on the wider issues. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of other climate impacts. Narratives about climate change need to find room for weather events that seem superficially contradictory.

One possibility is to think about individual climate impacts as just examples of a more fundamental problem: a natural environment that will become harder to predict and live in harmony with, a more volatile, fragile climate that will no longer provide the stability and security we’re accustomed to.

In some ways, it is not the ‘climate impacts’ themselves but their implications that are important for developing meaningful public narratives. A volatile climate means a vulnerable tourist industry. Unpredictable seasons produce unreliable harvests. Food and travel (to take two examples), rather than droughts and floods, are more likely to pique the public interest and encourage reflection on the risks of climate impacts across the board.

When climate change is present in the stories that people use to discuss their lives, and what they expect from the future, individual climate impacts will more easily slot into them – and droughts vs floods may not appear so contradictory after all.

This was originally published by the Drought Risk and You (DRY) project.

The social consensus on flooding and climate change

A new study finds that those directly affected by floods are more likely to agree climate change is a serious issue – and offers pointers for how to engage the public more effectively around flood risks

Exactly one year ago, fierce winter weather was causing havoc across the UK. Large parts of the Somerset Levels were submerged, Wales had been battered by coastal storms, residents in the Thames estuary were on red-alert, and Cornwall was cut off by rail, as the line at Dawlish collapsed into the sea.

Although storms are an integral part of the great British winter, these floods were remarkable, leading the news agenda for weeks on end and causing disruption to thousands of people’s lives. In a changing climate, floods like these will happen more often, and they will become more intense. But did people make the link between the flooding and climate change?

A new study released today by the Understanding Risk team at Cardiff University provides some fascinating answers to this question. In the months following the flooding, a nationally representative survey of around 1,000 people was conducted, asking about people’s views on climate change, on the floods, and whether they saw a link between the two.

The results were striking. Most respondents (85%) felt that flooding had become more common, and that it would continue to get worse in the future. At the same time, scepticism about climate change was at its lowest for 10 years: very few people disputed the link between human activity and climate change.

Two-thirds of respondents thought the floods were a sign that the impacts of climate change were already beginning to be felt, while an even clearer majority (72%) agreed that the floods were a sign of what we should expect in the future from climate change.

As would be expected, people also pointed to other important factors (such as insufficient investment, and poor river dredging) to explain the damage caused by the flooding. But climate change featured surprisingly strongly in the mix. So did the flooding act as a trigger, focusing people’s minds on the risks of climate change?

A standard survey would be unable to answer this question. Tempting as it may be to make this inference, it is crucial not to confuse correlation with causation: perhaps people who were already concerned about climate change were more inclined to make a link to the floods, rather than the other way around.

But in this study, the nationwide survey was compared to a second group who lived in one of five areas of the country that had been directly affected by the flooding. This allowed the researchers to examine the impact that “being flooded” had on people’s attitudes towards climate change.

Again, the findings were striking. People who had experienced flooding were not only more concerned about climate change, but also more likely to report that they had become more concerned about climate change in the past 12 months. In the national sample, around 15% of people spontaneously named climate change as one of the three most serious issues facing the country – in the flood-affected sample, this rose to nearly 30%. When asked whether their local area was likely to be affected by climate change, 61% of respondents who had been flooded said yes, compared to only 15% of the national sample.

It is perhaps not surprising that floods of this magnitude would leave a mark on the national consciousness. But the fact that the flooding also impacted on people’s views about climate change is important. And from a communications perspective, the findings offer some crucial signposts for how to engage the public more effectively.

Firstly, events like these provide a chance to build public support for policies that will reduce climate risks in the future – provided communities are approached in a sensitive and respectful way. Climate change is a notoriously intangible risk for people to grasp. But when floods bring the problem closer to home, there is a window of opportunity for having a national conversation about climate change that is not usually open.

The survey findings also offer some guidance about what form this conversation could take. There were consistently high levels of agreement with statements about the increasing prevalence of flooding, attribution of the floods to climate change, the need to be better prepared in the future and the importance of supporting an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

To illustrate how these findings are relevant to public engagement, consider the following example narrative – the sort of statement that a campaigner, a policy maker or a community activist might make:

“It’s clear that the climate is changing – many of us have noticed the signs. In fact, after the economy, immigration and the NHS, climate change is one of the most serious issues facing the UK. Most people sense that flooding is already getting worse, and fear that it will keep getting worse in the future. The floods of 2014 show us what we can expect from climate change, but we were unprepared and understandably, people felt angry. The government should take steps to protect people from flooding in the future, by supporting an international agreement to limit carbon emissions in Paris later this year.”

It is a powerful message – but every single sentence reflects the sentiments expressed by survey respondents, and draws on the exact wording of questions where there was agreement by more than 70% of those surveyed.

Because of the probabilistic and often indirect link between weather and climate, clearly worded statements about cause and effect – or confident predictions about climate impacts in the future – are often problematic for scientists to make. Data on public perceptions cannot overcome the challenges associated with the complexity of the relationship between weather and climate. But the survey findings suggest that appealing to popular opinion on the need to take climate impacts more seriously may be an effective alternative approach.

The message for politicians, campaigners and communicators is clear: scepticism is low, and concern about flood risks is high. The argument that climate change is a “vote-loser” is no longer a credible excuse for inaction.

This article was originally published by The Guardian on 29.01.15

Why its good to laugh at climate change

Can comedy about climate change cut through the social silence?

Did you hear the one about the climate policy analyst? Or the polar bear who walked into a bar?

Climate change is not generally considered a source of amusement: in terms of comedic material, the forecast is an ongoing cultural drought. But perhaps campaigners have missed a trick in overlooking the powerful role that satire and subversion can play in social change. Could humour cut through the malaise that has smothered the public discourse, activating our cultural antennae in a way that graphs, infographics and images of melting ice could never do?

This is the challenge that a panel of British comedians, including Marcus Brigstocke – a seasoned climate humourist, took up at an event hosted by the RSA and the Climate Outreach and Information Network in London (the event can  be streamed live online and is the first in a series based on the ‘Seven Dimensions of Climate Change’ report). Maybe laughing about something as serious as climate change is just another form of denial. But perhaps its relative absence from the comedy realm is another warning sign: despite decades of awareness raising, the cultural footprint of climate change is faint, fragile and all-too-easily ignored.

The first example of a climate-policy parody was probably the ‘Cheat Neutral’ project: a slick spoof of the logic of carbon offsetting whereby people could pay someone else to be faithful, giving them the opportunity to cheat on their husband or wife. And there have other good video mockeries – including onewarning that wind farms will blow the Earth off-orbit – which have captured the comedy potential of bizarre debates about energy policy.

This year, Greenpeace teamed up with the surreal comedian Reggie Watts to promote the idea of a 100% renewably powered internet. There have beensporadic examples of climate changestand-up’. And the ever-reliable Simpsons has been occasionally willing to engage.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: for the most part, climate gags are notable by their absence.

An ongoing challenge is the polarised nature of the climate debate, with climate scepticism closely pegged to political ideology. According to Nick Comer-Calder, of the Climate Media Net, getting people laughing is a good first step to getting them talking – even across political divides. One analysis found that major US satirists, such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, have given more coverage to climate change than many of the news channels – although admittedly, this is a pretty low bar to clear.

But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…

What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.

Its an interesting irony that while the ‘pro-climate’ discourse can often feel po-faced and pious, climate sceptics have wasted no time in parodying the climate community. The Heretic, a play by Richard Bean, built its dramatic tension around the conflict between a sceptical climate scientist and her cynical departmental head who is suppressing her data in order to keep his grants flowing. The characters are overdrawn and instantly recognisable. And, as a result, it works: it is good drama, entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.

While climate change itself is never going to be a barrel of laughs, we seem to be suffering from a collective lack of imagination in teasing out the tragi-comic narratives that climate change surely provides.

Thinking harder about how to plug climate change into our cultural circuits – not as ‘edutainment’ but simply as a target of satire in its own right – will be crucial in overcoming the social silence around the issue. The science-communicators don’t seem to be making much progress with the public: maybe its time to let the comedians have their turn.

Originally published by The Guardian on 20.01.14

Connecting on Climate: a new communications guide

A new report from the excellent Columbia University ‘Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions’ team, and the campaign group ecoAmerica, pulls together a huge amount of research on how to connect with public audiences on climate change.

The report is called ‘Connecting on Climate’ and can be downloaded from the website that accompanies the report.

Containing concise and well-written sections on topics that will be familiar to many Talking Climate readers – including the power of social norms, the importance of framing messages for audience values, the opportunities an pitfalls of communicating around extreme weather events, and the need to use clear and simple language – the guide is a very valuable addition to the field.

Communicating adaptation in Scotland

COIN’s Talking Climate team have partnered with Adaptation Scotland to produce a practical ‘how-to’ guide on values-based communication.

adaptation scotland

Engaging meaningfully with a diverse range of individuals and organisations is one of the biggest challenges surrounding climate change adaptation.  To help address this issue, COIN‘s Talking Climate team have partnered with Adaptation Scotland, a programme funded by the Scottish Government to help the country address and prepare for the impacts of climate change, to produce a practical ‘how-to’ guide on values-based communication.

The Communicating Adaptation report provides clear, concise summaries of the principles of engagement, such as the importance of message framing, telling positive stories and engaging with people on all parts of the political spectrum.  These recommendations are combined with practical examples of how public bodies, the private sector and communities in Scotland can use the principles in their work.

Read the full report here.

The greatest story never told

What is it that allows us to under­stand some­thing is true, but act as if it is not? How is it pos­sible to sep­arate what we know from what we care about and what we do?

What is it that allows us to understand something is true, but act as if it is not? How is it possible to separate what we know from what we care about and what we do?

These are some of the questions we believes are central to understanding our perverse (lack of) response to climate change. And COIN’s Director of Projects, George Marshall, took them to Brussels with him earlier this month where he joined Tony Juniper and anti-fracking campaigner and lawyer, Helen Slottje, at a WWF TEDx event.

In this powerful talk George explains why he thinks overcoming these persistent issues requires an active strengthening of conviction – changing the climate inside ourselves by honestly inspecting what lies there and reconnecting our interpretation of the world to how we behave within it. It’s not an easy solution. But securing this level of personal integrity will, George assures us, make us feel more honest, more powerful and more able to affect positive change.

Want to find out more? George’s new book, ‘Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change’ is available for eeReaders for just $1.99 from Bloomsbury.

Science won’t win over the climate change sceptics – we need stories

People respond better to stories of cli­mate change solu­tions than a bitter argu­ment about its causes.

You don’t have to be a climate policy expert to be inspired by stories. People respond better to climate change solutions than a bitter argument about its causes.


Student reading / sleeping in the park / garden with a book over her face
Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

This week marks the five year anniversary of ‘climategate’, a rather grandiose title given to the theft and online publication of controversial email correspondence between climate scientists in November 2009. Since this date, no fewer than six separate inquiries have rejected claims by climate sceptics that the emails contained evidence of scientists manipulating data.

But if you’re scratching your head trying to remember exactly where you were when this momentous event took place, you are in good company. Although the affair was big news around the water cooler of climate science departments, and has continued to reverberate around the blogosphere, there is little evidence that ordinary members of the public either noticed or cared about the claims.

In fact, although the sceptic bogeymen (and they are mostly men) continue to draw the ire of scientists and environmental campaigners, there is increasing evidence that the contrarian positions of climate sceptics are becoming irrelevant for most ordinary people.

In COIN’s latest report, Young Voices, we spoke to young people in the UK aged between 18 and 25 about their views on climate change. Most were not interested in fighting a battle against organised scepticism. Debating solutions, rather than the science, was deemed a much higher priority.

The ‘solutions not science’ mantra is likely to be a much more effective method of overcoming scepticism overall, rather than slogging it out in the scientific arena. A new paper by scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay confirmed what several previous studies have hinted at: Republican aversion to the conclusions of climate science diminishes when presented with responses that fit more closely with their values (policies that don’t challenge the logic of the free market, for example).

This insight is also reflected in 10:10’s #ItsHappening campaign, which promotes creative ways of tackling climate change from across the globe on social media. The logic of the campaign is simple: show people that solutions are not only possible but already proliferating, and a powerful sense of momentum will grow.

Interestingly, though, a study conducted in Canada suggests that people don’t necessarily need to know much about climate policies in order to support them. There is no direct relationship between policy knowledge and support for them.

In other words, you don’t have to be a climate policy expert to be inspired by positive examples of low-carbon solutions, in the same way that it is not necessary to understand the physics of the greenhouse effect to be concerned about the impacts of climate change.

More important than the actual solutions are the stories that grow around them, and the meanings people attribute to different technologies and ideas. The success of #ItsHappening is most likely driven by a sense of social momentum rather than anything inherently ‘likeable’ about the projects shared.

Consider the contrasting ways that people respond to wind farms. Those who support onshore wind equate the turbines with progress, and feel reassured about the prospect of a clean energy future. And those who oppose them tell powerful stories about money-grabbing ‘outsiders’ and pledge solidarity in the face of undemocratic imposition on their community. Crucially, there is nothing written in the blades and motors of the turbines themselves that underpins these narratives. They are entirely social in nature.

We shouldn’t get too carried away with the idea that communicating climate solutions is a panacea for public lethargy. Climate answers breathe life into an otherwise frustratingly arid subject because of the stories they tell.

This means that telling the most powerful and compelling stories is the key – stories that relate to the aspects of people’s lives they care passionately about.

It is encouraging that there is a growing movement away from ‘myth-busting’ and towards ‘solution sharing’. But we should remember what dozens of studies on climate change communication have taught us: people fit the facts to their pre-existing narratives about the world, which are first and foremost a product of their values and political outlook.

A climate solution is only as good as the story that surrounds it.

This article first appeared on the Guardian.

Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

But the warnings from scientists about the dangers of a warmer world (and the inadequacy of existing climate policies) have become shriller by the year. And as a result, the voices whispering that geoengineering could one day become a reality have grown harder to ignore.

As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions.

One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”

In general, people who are wealthier have bigger carbon footprints. Our findings suggest that people with bigger carbon footprints may treat geoengineering as an excuse to avoid personal behavioural changes. People in the study who held pro-environmental values didn’t see themselves as susceptible to the moral hazard, but feared that other people – and especially politicians – would take their eye off the ball if geoengineering was on the horizon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change sceptics were not particularly worried that geoengineering would distract attention from other climate policies. After all, if someone doesn’t support policies to tackle climate change in the first place, then the moral hazard of geoengineering is really not a hazard at all.

Previous research has suggested, though, that geoengineering could be more appealing to sceptics than existing climate policies (as it doesn’t involve regulating industries or government intervention in people’s daily lives) or that it could even galvanise support for climate change among this group.

But our findings did not back this. Learning about geoengineering from the information provided in our study didn’t alter levels of concern about climate change among sceptical participants.

This is the first time that any systematic evidence has been produced on how this key aspect of the geoengineering debate will shape the public discourse as it moves into the mainstream. What seems clear is that people with different values (and views on climate change) will respond to the logic of the moral hazard argument in very different ways.

For those deeply worried by society’s inadequate response to climate change, and doubtful of politicians’ commitment to the issue, the moral hazard of geoengineering confirms their worst fears.

But for people with an inconveniently large carbon footprint – or those who had no intention of reducing it in the first place – the prospect of geoengineering could be less a of a moral hazard and more of a ‘moral license’ to continue with business as usual.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian.


How climate change research undermines trust in everyday life

We all want to trust and be trusted. It reinforces the systems and practices that make normal life possible. But what happens if tackling climate change asks us to re-align these deep networks of everyday, implicit trust?

Chloe Lucas, Peat Leith and Aidan Davison
Chloe Lucas is a PhD candidate, Peat Leith is a Research Fellow and Aidan Davison is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania

We all want to trust and be trusted. Trust is social glue: it binds together networks of people, technologies, organisations, ideas and routines. It reinforces the systems and practices that make normal life possible.

In recent years, climate change researchers have had to deal with public perceptions that they are not trustworthy or transparent. Building public trust in climate science is considered vital to acceptance of the need for action on climate change. But what if the problem is not our ability to trust scientists? Could some of the negative reaction to climate research be because it threatens trust in the systems and practices that underpin our everyday lives?

In an article published in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, we review a substantial body of recent social, psychological and neuroscientific research that suggests this may be the case. Climate research poses a challenge to ways of living that we take for granted and implicitly trust. This creates psychological and social anxiety, and contributes to polarised political responses to climate change.

What is ‘implicit trust’?
By the time you turn off your alarm clock in the morning, check your phone, and get up to have a hot shower and a cup of coffee, you have already made several implicit acts of trust. While you may not be consciously aware of it, you have implicitly trusted a network of objects, experts, practices and systems that you use in your everyday life. You trust your alarm clock to wake you up, your phone to connect you with those you care about, your kettle to safely boil and pour the water for your coffee. You implicitly trust that these systems will serve your interests in reliable and predictable ways.

Implicit trust does not require conscious, reasoned decisions. Once established through cultural routine and personal experience, it happens intuitively and automatically. It is useful, indeed vital, because it reduces our need to weigh up endless possibilities. Neuropsychological research tells us that this type of trust response happens in the emotional centre of the brain, which includes the amygdala and hippocampus.

We implicitly trust the electricity supply to charge our gadgets, to warm our water… and so on.

Many of the things we rely on in everyday life are fossil-fuelled
All these everyday ‘necessities’ rely on the exploitation of relatively cheap fossil fuels. The fossil-fuelled economic boom of the last 60 years enabled consumer-led development pioneered in places like Australia and now familiar around the world. It led to longer, safer, more comfortable lives. Mains electricity, hot water, cars, planes, phones, and the infrastructure that supports them, as well as the routines they tie us to, are so integral to our lives it is hard to imagine life without them. We are psychologically tied to systems and practices that climate scientists tell us are endangering our world. Drawing on individual and collective experience, we implicitly trust in these ways of living to keep us safe and contented.

So it is not surprising that, when asked to question our trust in global markets and consumer-led development, many of us react by distrusting messengers of the need for urgent climate action. Denial of discomforting messages is one of the psychological defence mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from anxiety, uncertainty and fear.

The psychological cost of loss of implicit trust
In ‘Living in Denial’, Kari Norgaard suggests that public silence about climate change should not be interpreted as apathy, but often masks feelings of powerlessness and despair. Many of us live with a gnawing sense that our everyday lives are contributing to a warming planet.

The idea that simply by carrying on as normal we are digging our own graves is profoundly troubling. We begin to question our implicit trust in the car, the bank, the supermarket – but we have no alternative systems with which to replace them. Ironically, the resulting anxiety can make us fall back on the familiar systems and practices that are causing the problem. They have, after all, been a source of wealth and safety for as long as we can remember.

Rather than trying to engender trust in scientific claims, we suggest climate change communicators address a different question: How can networks of implicit trust be re-aligned to allow for a sustainable transformation of everyday life?

For the rest of us, the challenge may be to re-assess our relationship with the things we take for granted and implicitly trust. We may discover alternative ways of living that create an authentic sense of security for both us and the planet.

What sort of story is climate change? And how should it be told?

The Royal Court’s current production of 2071 with climate scientist Chris Rapley illustrates that when bringing science and the arts together the focus needs to be on respons-ability, not resbons-ibility.

By Kate Monson

Theatre land’s latest offering to the climate change conversation started at the Royal Court last week. Created by Katie Mitchell, of Ten Billion fame, and written in collaboration with the influential climate scientist Chris Rapley (former Director of the British Antarctic Survey and, more recently, the Science Museum), 2071 is described as “a new piece of theatre…where the science is centre stage.”


And centre stage the science – and the scientist – certainly are, in a production that is more suited to a lecture theatre than a playhouse. Rapley, grey suited, in a blue shirt but no tie, sits almost static throughout the production in the type of chair you’re likely to find in a doctor’s waiting room, only pausing in his impressive, methodical, 70-minute monologue to take the occasional sip of water. Behind him dance epic monochrome graphics – maps of the Antarctic, swirling weather systems and stylish illustrations of what happens when glaciers melt. Monochrome that is, until the 2oC “guard rail”, as Rapley terms it, is depicted graphically in alarmist red, warning us of exactly where we’re going wrong.

Rapley and the team at the Royal Court should certainly be applauded for attempting to bring science and storytelling closer together. Few other scientists have ventured outside the academic sphere to speak out on this issue. It’s a vital task if we are to find new ways of engaging people with climate change and encourage positive action as our report Science & Stories: Bringing the IPCC to Life produced this summer illustrates.

IPCC cartoon - no ones listening by Jon Kudelka (1)

But I’d also like to unpack the production a little more carefully…here we are presented with a scientist of the most reputable kind (the production begins with Rapley running through his impressive CV) but also the most typical in profile (age, gender, race and class), if not in practice. He delivers a very measured and inoffensive lecture (in a tone he himself describes as “dispassionate and objective”) on how the most complex natural system on earth, the global climate, works and how humans are changing it. It’s a story of sorts, certainly. But is it the type of story that will inspire those who aren’t already involved to help change its ending…?

This feels unlikely. 2071’s story isn’t wrong or ineffective, it’s just limited – most likely appealing to people who are already engaged with climate change and hope to leave the theatre better armed with the facts.

Much of the social science and psychology research indicates that the climate change conversation needs to be broadened beyond these ‘usual suspects’. And further, that doing this requires new narratives and new ways of presenting information. Our co-founder, George Marshall, recently wrote a book – Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change – discussing some of these questions too. You can see a video of last week’s launch here.

Chris Rapley understands the importance of this better than most, having headed up a significant report on science communication earlier this year – Time for Change? Climate Science Reconsidered – with the aim of helping climate scientists get their message across. It’s essential reading for everyone who works in climate science and anyone who is interested in the communication and the psychology of climate change. Attempts at following these report recommendations are undeniably evident in 2071. However, writer Duncan Macmillan just doesn’t take them far enough to be successful for the non-converted.

For example, Time for Change calls for climate scientists to “employ the elements of successful narrative including personalizing their story, drawing on emotions and expressing their opinions”; and recognises that, “the public discussion of climate science is as much about what sort of world we wish to live in, and hence about ethics and values, as it is about material risks to human well-being.” It also specifically encourages climate scientists to collaborate with those who have experience in public narratives, such as the arts and museum community.

To the first point on ‘personalising the story’: as mentioned above, Miller’s script sees Rapley stating early on in his 2071 monologue that, as a scientist his role is to be “dispassionate and objective”, not emotional and opinionated. And while the production’s title does offer a personal touch – 2071 is the year Rapley’s eldest granddaughter will be the age he is now – it is one of only a few such references in the play, and is as vulnerable to submersion by the ocean of information presented as South Pacific archipelagos are to rising sea levels. Further, the year 2071 also lies well beyond the scope of the average human being’s temporal understanding – when pressed people struggle to envision a time 20-30 years in the future, let alone 40-50…

As for the second point, referring to what sort of world we wish to live in: again the production makes a nod to this, with Rapley restating this sentiment almost verbatim from the report near the end of the performance. Under the weight of all the graphs and maps, however, there has been so little build up to a comment on ethics and values that one could be forgiven for missing it completely.

And finally, to climate scientists collaborating with the arts community: there is no doubt that 2071 is a product of this, at least in the sense that it was conceived by a theatre director, a scriptwriter and a climate scientist. But placing a science lecture – albeit with uncharacteristically stylish graphics – in a theatre doesn’t feel like a particularly ambitious realisation of this type of partnership. I would have expected the outcome to be something unusual, something that sheds light on new ways of thinking and acting. A focus, to put it more poetically, on a respons-ability to climate change, rather than a respons-iblity.

Despite a different setting and some attempts to break out of the mould, 2071 appears to fall squarely into science’s persistent safety net – ‘the information deficit model’. Traditionally hailed as the holy grail of climate change communication, it has now been well and truly debunked. People are complex and often perverse beasts. Simply offering up more of the ‘right’ information does not mean we will make more of the ‘right’ decisions. In fact, it often has the opposite effect for the unconvinced. Instead, messages need to be linked to what’s meaningful for the audience. Finding out how the people you’re speaking to think and focusing on what they care about will take you far closer to telling a successful story than ensuring you’re well-versed in climate science. That’s not to say that a cogent and comprehensive understanding of the science isn’t important; it’s just not enough.

As I mentioned above, bringing the scientific and artistic community closer together is vital if we are to take on the challenge of climate change with any real vigour. This project is clearly attempting to do this and Rapley needs to be credited, along with a growing number of creative people focusing their energy and ingenuity on this endeavour. One recent result is the Culture and Climate Change: Narratives report published by the Open University’s Open Space Research Centre. The group behind the project believe climate change requires multiple framings and perspectives, and that these need to be provisional and evolving. “Only some voices have so far had the chance to speak” they continue “and the stories that have been told represent only a fraction of the ones that might be available to us.”

to change everything

We’ve also teamed up with the Royal Society of Arts on an innovative project to explore this. It develops the idea that the climate change challenge is not only (or even mostly) about ‘saving the environment’ and all the clichéd ideas that come with it. Instead, it should be viewed as a multi-faceted challenge with seven main dimensions, all of which speak to a different aspect of human existence: science, technology, law, economy, democracy, culture and behaviour. It’s this type of thinking that pushes COIN into new and exciting areas, such as our latest work with young people and, previously, the centre-right. And it’s this type of thinking that we need much, much more of if we are to succeed in Rapley’s call for “the greatest collective action in history.”

Top climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe on climate change communication

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, shares her thoughts on communicating climate change.

This is a guest blog by Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. He blogs about strategic communication & #scicomm on LinkedIn and The Strategy Room.


1. Tell me about your research focus/area of expertise in 140 characters or less.

I study how climate change affects us at the local to regional scale, where we live.

2. How do you view your role in communicating science?

I see the role of a climate scientist as similar, in some ways, to that of a physician. We might suspect something is wrong with our bodies; but until we go to the doctor, take the tests, and wait for the evidence, we don’t know what is going on for sure. In the same way, we might see something changing in our climate; but until scientists collect the observations, analyze the evidence, and draw conclusions, we don’t know for sure what is happening. As climate scientists, we are the “physicians of the planet.”

With that role comes responsibility: to tell people about what we find. Imagine if you went to the doctor and they found something wrong, but didn’t want to tell you about it – because they were afraid you might react badly to hearing the news, or it would be against your religion or your politics to receive treatment. That scenario may seem far-fetched to us. In the same way, though, I feel that as climate scientists we have a responsibility to tell people: what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the outcome of our choices as a society will be.

3. In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?

Over the last decade, climate change has become so politically polarized that, according to a recent poll, it now ranks second only to that of the president’s performance in dividing Democrats from Republicans. As scientists, many of us assume this polarization and abundance of misconceptions is due to knowledge deficit; in other words, a lack of public support is caused by a lack of information available to the public. If we make that information available, people will change their minds.

The social science, however, tells us a very different story. A landmark study by Dan Kahan found that those with the highest literacy in science were the most polarized on this issue. Clearly, our traditional approach of “Let’s write another report! Make our language clearer this time! Design better graphics!” will not fix the problem.

Instead, I’ve learned that climate change is, at its heart, a values issue; and many of us are under the impression that caring about climate change requires special “green” values. For many people in the U.S., “green” values tend to come with a lot of baggage attached, baggage that may be directly opposed to who we are and what we believe.

In my communication, now, I begin with the values that I share with whomever I am talking to. These values may focus on something as simple as wondering where our water will be coming from in 20 years; worrying about the local economy; caring for our children; or our desire to live out the faith that is central to who we are. I emphasize how important these values are, and what they mean to me personally. Then, and only then, do I connect those values to the issue of climate change. We care about climate change because it is making our water more scarce here in west Texas where we live; because it impacts our local economy; because it affects our kids’ health and their future security; and because our faith commands us to love and care for others, especially those who lack the resources we do.

We all have the values we need to care about climate change; we just need to make the connection.


(Percentage Point Difference Between Democrat and Republican Responses. Figure 6 from Hamilton, Lawrence, “Do You Trust Scientists About the Environment?” (2014). The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars’ Repository. Paper 213.

4. Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?

The decision to engage in outreach—and if we do, then how much and what type–is a deeply personal choice. As scientists, most of our job descriptions don’t include outreach. And let’s be realistic: some of us are not just disinterested, but flat out bad at it. A study of early career interdisciplinary scientists found that skills that make us good scientists are often the very skills that make it difficult for us to present that science to people in simple, easy-to-understand terms.

For some of us, then, the responsibility to share what we’ve learned may be best expressed through publication in scientific journals and presentation at AGU conferences. We need good scientists who can focus on doing good science. For others, we might give our presentations and write our papers, but also sign up for UCAR’s Climate Voices network to make ourselves available as a speaker to local community organizations. Still others may want to do more: become active with outreach-focused organizations, from scientific organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists to more grass-roots efforts such as Citizen’s Climate Lobby or Climate Parents, for example. And at the far end of the spectrum we have scientists and scholars such as Jim Hansen and Bill McKibben, who are willing to risk arrest for the strength of their convictions.

Outreach and communication encompasses a very broad spectrum of engagement. Where each of us falls on that spectrum is a personal choice that we should respect, even if we do not make that same choice ourselves.

5. Do you use social media for science outreach? If so, how – and why?

Thanks to its ultra-short format, Twitter (@KHayhoe) is a great way to spend a few minutes as I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, boarding a plane, or standing at the school gate. I use it because it keeps me up to date on the latest high-profile scientific results, as well as providing me with a way to connect with people in both a personal and a professional way.

I have a Facebook page, to allow for responses that are longer than 140 characters, and YouTube and Vimeo channels where I collect videos people have posted of my interviews and talks. I particularly appreciate having these resources available, since they mean that anyone around the world can watch something whenever they want!

6. Have your outreach activities had an impact on your scientific research? Are there any examples of positive or negative impacts you’ve experienced personally?

My outreach has helped me to meet people and engage in discussions that have directly influenced the direction of my research. Here’s just one example. Over the last few years, I’ve spoken at a number of drought workshops for Texas water managers. These workshops were hosted by Freese and Nichols, the largest water engineering firm in Texas. Through these events, I’ve learned a great deal about how we handle our water and what type of information is needed in order to incorporate climate change into future planning. Trying to answer these questions has been the motivation for several of our publications (1)(2) and proposals in recent years.

On the other hand, I think that any of us who are involved in significant amounts of outreach would agree that it takes time and energy away: from writing grant proposals, reviewing journal articles, completing our own research, and spending time with our families and friends. Outreach comes with a hefty price tag that is expressed in terms of the most valuable resource we have, our time. It is not something to be undertaken lightly or with any lack of focus, purpose, or intent.


7. Have you ever come across scientific misinformation or misconceptions, online or elsewhere, which you addressed directly? How did you do it, and what was the result?

Sometimes it seems like whenever we turn on the news, or go to a website, or hear people around us talking about climate change, we get sound bites like: “Arctic sea ice is recovering,” or “global warming has stopped.” A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 30% of the climate science information presented on CNN in 2013 was incorrect (72%, for Fox News).

It’s cold outside – doesn’t that mean global warming has stopped? Climate has always changed naturally in the past—why would this time be any different? The field of science education tells us that it’s important to address such common misconceptions head-on.

Even on non-polarized topics, such as why we have seasons, research has shown that unless we understand why our mental models are incorrect (that we are closer to the Sun in summer, and further away in winter), we will fail to retain the correct information (that our hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun in winter, and towards it in summer). Our own research on the greenhouse effect found that undergraduates’ ability to retain learning over time was significantly higher when misconceptions were directly addressed.

Let’s be clear though: even the most stellar and comprehensive answer (and if you’re looking for that, there is no better resource than Skeptical Sciencewill not change many minds. That’s because most objections to climate change are only very superficially due to lack of information. Deep down they’re really about other things: tribalismideologypolitics, and even more old-fashioned things, like fear of punitive restrictions or big government solutions.

So why is it helpful to address misconceptions? In my experience, it’s about establishing our credibility. We scientists do know all about natural cycles, and volcanic eruptions, and yes I was tempted to grumble, “I’d like a little global warming now!” when I was scraping the ice off my car today. But we have answers to these questions, and these answers are essential to show how we’re all on the same wavelength as humans before we can move forward to talk about other more important things, like why we care and what we can do about it.

8. What do you consider to be the most effective and ineffective ways to disagree about scientific topics?

As physical scientists, we are trained to focus on facts and data rather than fuzzy things like feelings and opinions. With the issue of climate change, though, often it isn’t really a disagreement about a specific issue we’re arguing (yes, the polar bears are endangered! No they’re not!), but rather why we’re arguing.

Many people question climate science because they object to the solutions. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading books and listening to interviews to try and figure out why people disagree with the science so strongly. It is striking how quickly the topic of science can jump right to the topic of solutions, and our ideological objections to those solutions.

There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is a tragedy of the commons. To solve it requires collective action; and to many people, collective action means big government. Given the history of the American Revolution, it’s no surprise that big government, and its association with legislation and taxes, is anathema to many here in the United States.

So rather than arguing about the science, which I often visualize similar to whacking each other upside the head with facts fashioned into cudgels, sometimes it can be more effective to look beneath the surface to try to understand why we are arguing, and talk about that instead. What are we afraid of? What motivates us to care so much about this issue, one way or another? We might not make any progress on the science, but we mind find surprising agreement on the solutions!


9. Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?

As scientists, we know how unusual it is to have a consensus about anything. We are trained to disagree–and let’s be honest, we enjoy it too! There is little more invigorating to a scientist than good argument about some intricacy or nuance of the climate system. And I’d probably die of shock the day I got a peer review back from a journal that says “Fantastic paper! Accept without any revisions!”

Because of that, accusations that we have, in so many words, “drunk the consensus Kool-Aid,” often cause us to bristle and object. No scientist likes to be categorized as a mindless worshiper in the church of Al Gore, let alone be named as the high priestess (as some of my emails have suggested).

So, personally speaking, I did not used to include statements on scientific consensus, or references to the work that find over 97% agreement in the scientific literature or among scientists themselves, in my main messages about climate change. I didn’t used to, that is, until this year.

In the summer of 2013, Ed Maibach and colleagues tested various short messages to see which was most effective at changing people’s minds as to the reality of climate change. Much to my surprise, their results showed that the simple message, “scientists agree,” mattered the most! Based on this empirical social science, I have changed my mind and my message: I now emphasize the consensus when I talk to people. I don’t do this because I believe it’s important, or because I hope it’s important, or even because I feel it’s important that people know this. I do it because the peer-reviewed literature says the consensus is real, and that it’s important that people know that.


(Image via, 97 Hours of Consensus Campaign, Dr. Hayhoe is shown just right of center. More information on the campaign is available here.)

10. Individuals in the scientific community and the public are often labeled and grouped depending on their particular views. What do you consider to be the impact of these groupings?

All of us hate being labeled and categorized as things we aren’t. I have yet to meet a colleague who would call themselves an “alarmist”, or who loves being attacked by online trolls.

Here’s the thing, though: if we are going to do outreach, we have to be willing to give up our rights to be labeled correctly, our rights to be judged fairly, and our rights to be treated nicely. Because these things are going to happen and we cannot stop them.

If we are not willing for these things to happen, then we have to stay far to the side of the outreach spectrum. Write our papers, but don’t ever let the university communications office put out a press release, even if our results are important. Talk to colleagues at conferences, but don’t ever talk to a reporter, or even to the Kiwanis club down the road.

The sad reality of today’s world is that as soon as we stick our heads out of the metaphorical ivory tower, there will be someone taking pot shots at it. That is the world we live in. We cannot control what people say about us: all we can control is our own response. Be true to who we want to be, not what others say we are.


11. What lessons have you learned from your outreach activities, and what advice do you have for other researchers who want to do more outreach?

Effective outreach begins with understanding who we can speak to most effectively. Whose values do we share — those of other moms and dads? Hunters and sportsmen? The Rotary Club? Our church? Or the local humanist society? If we are trying to reach people whose values we do not share, who we cannot easily identify with and understand, our own communication will be ineffective and we will just become frustrated with our efforts.

Effective outreach also involves being aware of what we hope to accomplish. Don’t automatically focus on the loudest voices. Many of the loudest voices belong to people whose minds we will never, ever change. By spending our time with them, we miss the opportunity to engage with others who are curious and doubtful about this issue, and would welcome our input.

Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach’s Six Americas of Global Warming (see chart below) helped me articulate my own goal: to reach people who are Cautious, Disengaged, or Doubtful, and move them just one or two steps up the ladder.

Recognizing the limits of my goal is reassuring. I’m not trying to save the world. I’m just trying to connect the issue of climate change to people’s values, enabling people to realize that climate change is a real issue with real implications for our lives.

Finally, effective outreach can only become more effective the more we know. There are so many great resources out there, from the webinars and resources offered via Climate Voices, to the social science summaries available from Talking Climate, to workshops offered at scientific conferences. The majority of these resources weren’t available ten years ago. Take advantage!


12. What do you think the future looks like for science communication/outreach as a vehicle for enhancing public trust in science? What should the path forward look like?

One of the most inspiring programs I participated in this past year was the NSF-funded DISCCRS program. Attended by a host of early-career investigators, this week-long workshop was aimed at helping physical and social scientists hone their communication and professional skills.

I was inspired by the enthusiasm and savvy with which these young scientists were already incorporating communication and outreach into many aspects of their professional lives. This workshop made it clear how many in this new generation of scientists have a much more comprehensive perspective on our responsibility to society, and a much higher level of interest in using the new tools available to us – blogs, videos, social media, and others – to connect across the scientific community and beyond.

My only regret after serving as a mentor to this program was that NSF terminated their funding this year. These scientists and others like them are the future of science communication and outreach. I don’t know what their path should look like – I just want to see what it will look like!

Additional Information:
Dr. Hayhoe’s personal web page/blogTwitter address: @KHayhoe
Facebook Page:

This blog first appeared on SciLogs.


Pictures – it’s a matter of perspective

Why a deeper understanding of how images are produced and consumed is so important for the climate change conversation.

This meme was circulating on Facebook yesterday courtesy of Greenpeace UK. At last check it was running at 8,007 likes and 7,532 shares.

Pitting a wind turbine against a coal-fired power station is a common theme among climate change communicators. Green energy company Ecotricity used it extremely successfully in its viral ‘Collapsing Cooling Towers’ video (which has had almost 3 million views to date).

There’s also this photograph on popular image-sharing site Imgur, with the sarcastic caption “No matter how much we love green energy, we have to admit that wind turbines completely destroy the picturesque landscape.” (Can you spot the wind turbine?)

There are no, doubt, many more examples. And why wouldn’t there be? The wind turbine is an icon for sustainability; clean, elegant and, with its smoothly spinning sails, evocative of both a pleasant past and a progressive future.

But there’s also one significant problem with these images. And the caption that accompanies Greenpeace’s illustration highlights it perfectly: “If you’ve got things in perspective, join the movement to protect our planet”. Begging the question, what do they really mean by perspective? Arguably, someone who has “things in perspective” will also recognise – and perhaps point out – that it would actually require hundreds, probably thousands, of wind turbines to replace the single coal-fired power station depicted. Of course, all these images are designed to be symbolic, powerful illustrations of a point that is not designed to be dissected. But the problem is that these images can and will be dissected by anyone whose ‘perspective’ is not totally aligned with the messenger’s.

As we describe in our updated Talking Climate guide to visually communicating climate change, images are powerful tools for getting a message across. But they can also prove to be a bit of a stumbling block. Wind turbines are a common visual trope in both media and marketing when discussing climate change solutions. But it’s possible that their iconic status could actually be doing them more harm than good, with the line between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between making an image powerful and ensuring its message is meaningful. It’s important one is not achieved at the expense of the other. Particularly in the liquid world of the internet, where information moves lightening fast and can cross ideological borders with ease. How quickly one of the visuals shown above could be appropriated and then up-ended to make a powerful point that is completely at odds with its original conception. This is just one of many reasons why continued and specific research into how images are produced and consumed – across all types of media and by a variety of audiences – is vital for a better understanding of the climate conversation.

For the love of…what exactly?

How can the ‘For the Love Of…’ campaign move from being a slogan to a rallying call for the climate change movement?

At the London Climate March last month, there was one message that seemed to dominate all others: the ‘For the Love of…’ campaign, which was out in force with banners, heart-shaped placards, and a wide variety of things that people were passionate about and wanted to protect from climate change.


COIN carried out the research that informed this campaign, with one of our key recommendations being that the Climate Coalition should focus on making links between the wide variety of things that people love and are passionate about, and the risks that climate change poses to them.

Although we didn’t design the ‘For the Love Of…” slogan, it follows pretty closely from the findings of the research we conducted, with members of the public from a range of backgrounds.

Elena Blackmore at Values & Frames commented on the presence of the campaign at the March, noting that:

It was a genuinely uplifting and inspiring sight, and the atmosphere was palpably positive. It was a real triumph in motivational messaging.”

However, Blackmore also posed the question of whether this positivity and personal connection was enough – in and of itself – to form the basis of a campaign message. Specifically,  she suggested that there was little linking the passion people held to tangible solutions, or meaningful political action.

Blackmore’s analysis rings true: the challenge is to use people’s passion as a springboard for engaging them in a conversation about serious societal change. The value of highlighting the ‘things people love’ that are affected by climate change is that it starts to  break climate change out of its environmentalist niche, showing that a wide range of issues – from flooded football pitches, to the food we eat – are all linked to climate change. It also helps to overcome the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change, by making it more relevant to people’s lives.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail. A flooded football pitch is a reason to start a conversation with someone who might otherwise not have been interested in talking about climate change, but it is not enough of a reason on its own to decarbonise society. Links must be made between the things people love, the things other people love and – most importantly – the kinds of policies that can produce a safe and secure climate for everyone.

Building a bridge between the things people love and the ‘self-transcending’ values that underpin public concern about issues like climate change is the central challenge, ensuring that we don’t unintentionally promote the idea that loving a pair of new shoes or a bigger house is a reason to care about climate change. This kind of ‘self-enhancing’ orientation is likely to lead people to care less about the collective challenge of climate change in the longer term.

The ‘For  the Love of’…campaign feels like a positive step forward, and has been design in line with solid social science evidence.  The challenge now is to breathe life into the campaign so that it doesn’t only exist as a one line slogan but as a social norm and a feeling, because a shared passion for the things we collectively love is a powerful and inclusive rallying call.

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This website, a project of Climate Outreach (COIN), has been integrated into the new Climate Outreach website. Any updates since 21 October 2015 have been made to the new website only, not here, and this website will soon be deleted. Please bookmark our new website – we look forward to continuing to share the latest in climate communication research with you. We are now tweeting from @climateoutreach so please follow us there.