A sense of energy

At the Welsh Government Senedd building in Cardiff Bay, 100s of people – from national politicians to school children – have been taking in the ‘A Sense of Energy’ exhibition, put together by Cardiff and Goldsmith’s Universities and featuring invited contributions from several  other UK research teams.

Designed to bring energy use alive, the exhibition features some great interactive stalls, which are best viewed rather than described…so here’s three of the best:

University of Sussex and University of East Anglia brought the ‘building blocks for a community energy project’, little wooden blocks with pledges for  the skills necessary to make a community energy project happen

The building blocks for a community energy initiative

Cardiff University combined the old and the new, with a ‘mangle’ (requiring physical energy to drive it) powering a video screen displaying energy saving messages:

New and old energy

Finally, Oxford Brookes and Oxford University displayed a model of a house leaking energy, complete with hot and cold spots:

Hot and cold spots

The exhibition is a nice way of making the often ‘invisible’ physical and social processes of energy use accessible to people: something that’s easier said than done.


Protecting communities from flooding

A new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University will work with a local community in Devon to help build resilience to future flooding events

 Announcing a new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University

After a series of workshops around the UK helping communities affected by the flooding of early 2014 to begin facing the reality of climate change, we know that most people agree on one thing: the need to be more prepared the next time the flood waters rise.

So we’re very pleased to announce that over the next 12 months, COIN is partnering with Dr Stewart Barr and Dr Ewan Woodley (of the University of Exeter), a range of regional stakeholders, and a number of local community members to develop a community resilience plan for Crediton, near Exeter.

The ‘action research’ project (where the research team investigates, but also helps to answer the question of how to increase community resilience to flooding) will ‘co-produce’ valuable new learning about the impacts, causes and management of flood events in the Crediton community.

Using an approach known as ‘competency group’ meetings, the aim is to bring together and provide a voice for people with different perspectives, skills and experience – from scientists who use computer models to predict how river catchments and flood levels will change, to local citizens’ memories of past flood events and local emergency services’ knowledge about how to manage floods in the future.

The research aims to explore the potential for this kind of knowledge co-production to enable other communities to develop their own strategies for becoming more resilient to flood events.

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and has been developed in collaboration with Devon County Council who will, as the co-ordinating local authority with responsibility for emergency planning, provide local knowledge and expertise. The project will also include contributions from the Environment Agency and Devon and Somerset Fire Authority.

Do you know what they know about climate change?

Today saw the launch of a new climate change communication initiative – the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). Staffed by some familiar faces – including ex-BBC Environment Editor Richard Black and George Smeeton, formally of WWF, the Unit has an impressive (and impressively politically diverse) Advisory Board, including some senior Conservatives not typically considered part of the climate change crowd.

The initiative is very welcome, given that its remit is to “support journalists and other communicators with accurate and accessible briefings on key issues, and work with individuals and organisations that have interesting stories to tell, helping them connect to the national conversation (on climate change)”.

The ECIU marked its launch with the results of a survey commissioned to assess a particular type of climate change knowledge – what you could call people’s ‘social inferences’ about climate change. Many of the questions focused not only on what people themselves knew about climate and energy issues, but on what they thought other people (including scientists) knew about climate change (and whether they considered themselves well informed).

So, for example, we learned that 56% of the 2000 people surveyed felt well informed about climate change, and a similar number (54%) thought that ‘almost all’ or ‘a majority’ of scientists believed that climate change is mainly the result of human activities. A hefty 35% perceived scientists to be evenly split – an underestimation of the climate change consensus that mirrors similar findings with Australian and American samples.

It would be interesting to know whether this is the same people in the survey. Do the people who consider themselves well-informed perceive a consensus on climate change?

Only 36% felt well informed about energy bills (and how prices were set), and interestingly most people also tended to underestimate a different type of agreement: the level of social consensus around renewables.

Whereas surveys consistently show a large majority supporting technologies like solar and wind power, only 5% of the ECIU survey thought that public support for renewables was between 75-100%, which the ECIU describes as a ‘large misconception’.  Similarly, most people surveyed (78%) think that up to half the population opposes renewables (when in fact, this number is much lower).

The questions are intriguing because they tell us something about what people think about what other people think. Although there is a slightly mind-melting level of meta-percentages going on here, the findings are striking: although most of us think climate change is happening and caused by humans, we underestimate the scientific consensus. And, while most of support renewables, we think that most other people don’t.

The findings support previous COIN research for the Climate Coalition, where we found that a range of audiences in focus group research rejected the idea that there was a ‘concerned majority’ in the UK on climate change (even though surveys suggest there actually is!) The ‘dissociation’ between our actual beliefs and our inferences about what others believe is potentially hugely important, as it suggests that there is a fog of reticence and ambiguity hanging over public discourse that comes from wonky analyses of what others think, rather than our own personal views.

Perhaps because we so seldom talk about climate change, and it has such a narrow social reality, we can happily go about our business broadly accepting the argument that climate change is happening and renewables are part of the answer, while assuming that no-one else does.

The longer climate change hides in the cultural shadows, the more likely it is this kind of misconception will flourish (which, after all, is not based on a lack of knowledge per se but a lack of social cues and signals telling us what other people think).






5 strategies for better climate communication

From distance and doom to simplicity and vision – Norway’s Per Espen Stoknes and Sigrid Møyner Hohle sift the evidence.

This is a guest post by Per Espen Stoknes and Sigrid Møyner Hohle. Stoknes is a psychologist and economist, co-leader at Center for Climate Strategies at the Norwegian Business School. This post in based on his article “Rethinking Climate Communications and the Psychological Climate Paradox”, recently published in Energy Research & Social Science. Hohle holds a master’s in psychology.

Climate scientists have never been more certain or had higher consensus in their conclusions about dangerous climate change. However, public concern is declining. We call this surprising gap the psychological climate paradox. 

Why are We not Concerned?

In order to improve climate communication, it is essential to understand some basics about human psychology. These are five psychological mechanisms that hinder effective climate communication:

1. Distance: The climate issue is construed as distant in time, space and influence

Many feel a huge distance between themselves and the climate issue. Threats that are perceived as remote and distant produce far less concern than threats that are close and salient. As a result, people do not sense a real threat or an urgency to prioritise climate action.

2. Doom: The climate issue is framed as disaster, cost and sacrifice

Most of us hate losses. If we’re told that we have to lose comfort, sacrifice beef or one’s long-distance travels, many turn negative towards climate change mitigation. Apocalypse fatigue and numbness is a second effect of negative climate information.

3. Dissonance: Lack of convenient climate friendly behaviors weakens concern

People feel bad when their thoughts and actions conflict (e.g.: I know that I should not fly so much, but I’m off to Asia anyway). The theory of cognitive dissonance states that if you fail to change action, you can always change how you interpret the action. If they fail to lower their emissions, they instead adjust their attitudes so that they harmonize better with what they do. E.g. “It is far from certain that CO2 causes global warming since this winter has been freezing cold!” or “I have installed a heat pump, so I deserve a vacation to Thailand.”

4. Denial: Gives refuge from fear, guilt and threat

Denial is a form of wishful thinking that defends against anxiety and shame. When the climate issue becomes too uncomfortable over time, many begin to deny it; either actively by ridiculing the facts, or passively by avoiding exposure to information about climate change.

5. iDentity: Climate messages are filtered through cultural identity

People are not empty buckets in need of more facts. We all interpret information through a filter made up by political views, identity and existing beliefs. If climate solutions such as taxes or more regulations clash with my identity, than the climate science facts tend to lose.

How to Make People Care?

In order to overcome these five barriers, a radical rethink of climate communication is necessary. It is not enough to simply give people more information. These are five new emerging strategies and solutions for climate communication.

1. Social: Use the power of social networks

Studies have shown that social comparison (neighbors that conserve more energy than you) is more effective to motivate energy saving than price incentives or information about environmental impact. Moreover, climate change communications is too often directed to the individual as a single unit. This can make the problems feel overwhelming. Through an emphasis of what other people are doing, a stronger sense of in-group and collective purpose can be developed.

2. Supportive: Find deep framings that are positive and inspire action

Rather than continuing the climate discourse within the “disaster,” “too uncertain,” or “too expensive” framings, we should use other metaphors. Such new frames could be insurance, health, defence, and opportunity. For instance, within the insurance framing the discussion will turn to questions such as: How much is it worth to pay today to avoid a burn-down of the planet in the future? Messages within the health framing could be that coal emissions are a health issue, that vegetarian food and biking is excellent for both health and climate.

3. Simple: Make it easy and convenient to act in a climate-friendly manner

Nudges can be used to facilitate sustainable actions. Studies show that reduced plate sizes in restaurant buffets lead to less food waste, and changing the default on printers to two-sided printing reduces paper consumption. More people would probably buy CO2 emission allowances with their plane ticket if this were the default choice. When more of people’s daily actions become consistent with climate knowledge, it also becomes easier to avoid cognitive dissonance and maintain supportive attitudes.

4. Story: Use the power of story telling

Humans create meaning through stories and narratives. The story that has been used most often in climate communication is the apocalyptic narrative: storms, drought, sea level rise and damaged ecosystems. Such narratives produce fear, guilt and helplessness. To raise hope and inspiration, we need more positive environmental stories. We need stories of nature’s marvelous ability to restore vital ecosystems, of people who stand up against destructions and of ingenious solutions for green growth. We need attractive images of a future in which we live with more jobs, higher well-being and lower emissions. If it cannot be imagined, then people will surely not work to make it happen.

5. Signals: Use indicators and metrics that monitor progress on green growth and jobs

In order to maintain interest in climate mitigation and adaptation, there has to be a way to get feedback to stakeholders on the progress made. Without such feedback, there is little learning and less motivation.

To sum up, government, climate scientists, social scientists, businesses and NGOs all have to coordinate, rethink, test, document and learn how to implement these strategies into specific actions. The new climate communication must address the psychological barriers in a way that makes a) the climate issue feel more personal. Good climate communicators should use b) constructive framings, c) nudging the public towards action so that cognitive dissonance and denial are reduced. d) New stories of opportunity and attractive futures with appeal across the political spectrum should be told. Lastly, e), we need to get meaningful signals and response indicators on our progress towards societal transformation.

Communicating climate change: the view from Sweden

Despite widespread concern, public action on climate change is not forthcoming. Victoria Wibeck asks why…

In this guest post based on her recent review paper, Victoria Wibeck (Linköping University) asks why despite widespread concern about climate change, more meaningful action is not forthcoming…

The public response to climate change in the west presents a persistent and problematic paradox. Numerous surveys indicate widespread concern about the issue, yet meaningful action is still not forthcoming. What causes this disconnect? And how can we find a way past the impasse? These were the questions I had in mind when I embarked on a review of the latest academic literature on climate change communication (CCC) and public understanding of climate change[1].

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, the number of Europeans who consider climate change a serious problem increased from 64% in 2009 to 68% in 2011. A 2013 US survey, ‘Climate change in the American mind’ found that 51% of respondents were very or somewhat worried about global warming. Zooming in on my home country of Sweden, the annual study from the Swedish SOM (Society, Opinion, Media) Institute at Gothenburg University, which surveys trends in the Swedish public’s views on society, politics and mass media, found that the three societal issues my countrymen and women worried about most last year were environmental degradation, deteriorating ocean environment and climate change.

But for the most part, meaningful responses to climate change are not forthcoming. The literature indicates what some of the broader reasons for this gap between public concern and action could be. While climate change undoubtedly presents a significant global challenge that will have severe impacts, many of these are considered to be distant in both time and space; they have an abstract quality that makes them hard to comprehend. Further, climate change is a complex, high stakes issue, involving many actors, lots of data and a number of uncertainties. This leaves people struggling to identify what action to take and in which direction, overwhelmed in the face of such a manifold challenge. Finally, given the consistent communication and education efforts regarding environmental protection that have taken place over the last few decades, some studies point to signs of “climate fatigue”.

So if these are the problems – in short, abstraction, confusion and lethargy – what are the solutions? How can climate change be made to feel meaningful in people’s everyday lives and how can they be encouraged towards collective, affirmative action?

It’s a delicate balancing act. Given the level of concern that already exists, it’s important that the urgency of climate change is not communicated in a way that leads to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and apathy. There is increasing evidence that appeals to fear, using catastrophic images and narratives, do not help to spur public engagement. One example comes from focus group interviews with members of the Swedish public, which found that participants’ spontaneous associations to climate change corresponded to the dramatic images regularly presented by the media. When asked, “What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘climate change?” the most frequent answers included melting polar ice caps, endangered polar bears, floods and droughts. Such depictions serve to reinforce the urgency of climate change, but also help shape representations of its impacts as distant in both time and space. This contributes to a sense of limited agency that in time leads to apathy.

Instead, the literature recommends that narratives stressing local effects and local responses should be used to enhance public engagement with climate change. By empowering people with concrete strategies for action, climate change becomes increasingly meaningful and successful responses appear ever more achievable. Other recommendations include making climate change more tangible trough images, using metaphors and ICT-based visualizations, and considering how climate change can be reframed to resonate with different social groups, taking into account various cultural understandings.

There are, however, some significant absences in the literature too: research focused on the behaviour patterns of those in the global south, as well as work on larger comparative studies being two of the most notable. Additionally, while an overarching goal expressed in much of the literature is how to engage the public in supporting sustainability measures and mitigating the impacts of climate change, where their role and responsibility lies in relation to other societal actors is rarely discussed. Yet, for the participants of our Swedish focus group, this was revealed to be a key issue: people recognised the importance of taking action, but were frustrated by the feeling that any change in their activities would have little real impact.

Finally, further studies into how climate change is discussed in more spontaneous, commonplace settings, such as on social media and in casual conversation would be useful for gathering a richer picture of the everyday understanding of the issue. After all, this is where much current debate takes place and scholarly analysis of these arenas is likely to reveal an intriguing array of social processes at play.

Further reading

For those interested in the scholarly CCC literature, an extensive reference list can be found in:

Wibeck, V (2014), “Enhancing learning, communication and public engagement about climate change – some lessons from recent literature”. Environmental Education Research, 20(3):387-411.

The Special Eurobarometer 372: Climate change is available at:

The Climate Change in the American Mind survey is available from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication

The Swedish SOM Institute publishes survey results at

The Swedish focus group study is reported in:

Wibeck, V (2014), “Social representations of climate change in Swedish lay focus groups: local or distant, gradual or catastrophic?” Public Understanding of Science, 23(2):204-219.


Wibeck, V & Linnér, B-O (2012), “Public understanding of uncertainties in climate science and policy”. In: Ibisch, P, Cybulla, F. & Geiger, L. (eds.), Global Change Management. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.


[1]This is a rapidly expanding field. Using the Scopus database I identified 92 research papers published between 2000 and 2011, the majority of which were published after 2006.



Bring climate change to the front door

Should conversations about climate change start with everyday environmental concerns like littering and anti-social behaviour?

Climate change is easily the most confounding ‘collective action’ problem we have ever faced. We must act – collectively – in the best interests of not only today’s global population, but also the presumed interests of people yet to be born.

It follows that nurturing a sense of shared identity – what is sometimes called social capital, or the elusive but ubiquitous concept of community – should make people more receptive to appeals for collective global action on climate change.

But a new report from the Fabian Society takes this argument one step further. According to the report’s authors, Natan Doron and Ed Wallis, people instinctively think of the environment not in terms of carbon emissions and climate change, but in terms of the place where they live and the people who live there.

For most people, protecting the environment starts at their front door, not with an internationally binding global agreement on dangerous climate change. Anti-social behaviour is the biggest concern, with climate change ranking alongside dog-fouling and littering. People feel that citizenship has declined, and that opportunities for working together are limited.

However, the report argues that if people feel they are able to participate in and improve their local environment, they are more likely to support the global aims of environmental campaigns. If they think they can change things in their own back yard, they are more likely to think they can change the world.

Their findings echo other research which suggests that people’s sense of “place attachment” (which is as much about the local community and social cohesion as it is about physical geography) is a key influence on their views about climate change and other environmental issues. It has also long been recognised that reducing the psychological distance between people and climate change is an important challenge. So long as climate change remains a remote and abstract issue, it is easy to close our eyes and wish it away.

Doron and Wallis make some bold recommendations for overhauling the way in which climate change campaigners operate. They suggest that the quickest way to get support for ambitious action on climate change globally is for campaigners to switch a proportion of their budgets away from lobbying international negotiations and towards supporting community organising to improve local environments.

To build a popular environmentalism, they argue, global issues such as climate change must be brought back to the doorsteps of ordinary people, where tangible, local action on the environment can be seen to be working. They even propose a new bank holiday, to be held in the middle of the working week, which would focus national attention on community action and “provide a focal point for campaigners to highlight local environmental projects on a large scale and generate widespread media attention, as well as an opportunity to reach out beyond the ‘usual suspects’.”

The basic logic of the recommendations – that climate change begins at home – is reflected in the newly launched For the Love Of campaign (which my colleagues and I at COIN worked on). Our research found that people from a range of different backgrounds (including conservatives and trade union members) responded positively to a narrative about climate change that focused on standing up for the “things people love” that are threatened by climate change.

The video for the campaign shows a diverse range of people and the issues they are passionate about, from football, to gardening, to summertime. Flooded football pitches, disrupted growing seasons and increased summer rainstorms provide a direct link between climate change and people’s passion. It’s a powerful demonstration of the principle that global change has local effects.

Clearly there are potential hazards in the “go local” approach. For a start, there is a risk of trivialising world-wide problems like climate change by homing in on individuals’ everyday concerns. Wouldn’t it be better to get people thinking about the big issues – the poverty and malnourishment that climate change will bring – rather than the minutiae of the issue?

But, for better or for worse, these issues are not top of mind for most of us, most of the time. This doesn’t mean that people are oblivious to them, but that a conversation about climate change must build a bridge between concerns about the local environment (or the everyday things that people love) and the global dimensions of environmental change.

The lesson from the Fabian Society report is that building community cohesion, nurturing a sense of collective action around local environmental issues, and supporting micro rather than macro concerns can be a portal through which a more global sense of citizenship can be achieved.

Groups such as the Transition Towns network have been saying this for quite a long time, but have not yet been able to break into the mainstream. Perhaps a new bank holiday to celebrate the virtues of linking local community action to global campaigns would do the trick: confronting climate change, ‘for the love of’ a day off…

Originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business 28.07.14

The language that leaves people behind

For people to care about global warming it needs to be made relevant. The language needs to be simple and uncontroversial, argues guest blogger Jeremy Porter.

This is a guest post by Jeremy Porter, a communications strategist and writer based in New York. He writes regularly at his communications blog where this article first appeared. Jeremy is on Twitter.

In Nebraska, there’s a father thinking about his children’s health and education. In Oregon there’s a mother thinking about the pressures of her job. In Virginia there’s a couple thinking about the bills they will struggle to pay. And when asked if they think global warming or climate change is happening, none of them think it is.

They are not alone. Whether you use “global warming” or “climate change”, 40 percent of Americans don’t think it’s happening. That’s the finding in the recent Yale report that campaigners, scientists, and politicians (let’s call them advocates) should be paying attention to.

Instead, commentators and advocates alike, have focused on one aspect of the report: global warming sounds worse than climate change. What followed was meteorologists, reporters, and campaigners suggesting we stop using ‘climate change’.

It’s as if those two words alone will shift one of the most divisive issues from our time to “job done”. The logic follows that Washington jumps into line and temperatures drop.

If only changing two words would do it. It won’t. Why? Because no matter how you ask the question, the father in Nebraska, the mother in Oregon, and the couple in Virginia do not think it’s happening. “Global warming” is not going to convince an unbeliever in the absence of relevance.

This is something journalist Brentin Mock intuitively understands when he writes on the issue:

I feel an extra responsibility to relay this in ways [the community] understand. This means linking it to things that touch their lives regularly: asthma, transportation, racism, hip hop, religion.

We link these issues through plain language. Words like “pollution”, “health”, “creating jobs”, and “extreme weather” work. They’re relevant. A person does not have to believe in or understand global warming to care about these things.

People understand pollution. They don’t like it, they think there should be less of it, and they understand it’s bad for their health.

Therein lies the key to making global warming relevant to people: using plain, simple language that centers on things that directly affect them.

When we say “emissions” and “greenhouse gases”, and “carbon” we really mean pollution. When we talk about the “impact on the climate” we really mean impact on people. And instead of talking about rising temperatures and sea levels, we should be talking about more floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.

People don’t want a “safe climate” or a “healthy climate”. They want to be safe and healthy.

Ask people on the New Jersey coastline if they are concerned about global warming, or another hurricane.

Ask people in California if they are concerned about the climate, or another massive wildfire.

Ask people living near a coal mine if they are concerned about climate change or pollution. They might say, “I care about my job at the coal mine”. There’s a simple response: creating jobs that don’t destroy their lungs. Relevance.

Advocates should avoid reacting to the Yale research by using global warming as a crutch. It’s not persuasive. When people in 49 states saw snow on the ground and the polar vortex gripped the country, it didn’t feel much like global warming. It won’t feel like global warming if we get a cold snap this summer.

Advocates need to build a narrative based on relevant, simple, and uncontroversial language. Something not just to fight against, but to fight for: clean air and water, better food, new jobs, and less life-threatening weather events.

“Pollution”, “health”, “creating jobs”, and “extreme weather” are words that have been tested by Drew Westen and in various research projects I’ve been involved in. They beat global warming and climate change every time.

People’s scepticism of global warming or climate change is not what’s stopping us fixing this problem. It’s the absence of relevance.

Download: How to talk about the climate — a one-page guide to the language of global warming and climate change.

You say “Global Warming”. I say “Climate Change”- Let’s call the whole thing off!

George Marshall argues that debates over whether ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ is the right label detracts from the bigger divisions that come from values, ideology and the absence of social/cultural meanings

This article originally appeared on the Climate Denial and was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.


A new US survey by the Yale  Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?

The Yale survey is fascinating  (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption” and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern.  It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.  The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches.  Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.

The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”– that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack?  Craig’s List?  Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.


NEW REPORT Science & stories: Bringing the IPCC to life

The facts are not enough: IPCC outputs must be coupled with human stories and powerful narratives to bring the science to life

COIN today releases a report on how the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can communicate better with the public.

We based our study on interviews with 16 key experts from the media and leading NGOs.  Our central argument is that IPCC outputs must be coupled with human stories and powerful narratives which can bring the science to life.

To engage the public, the IPCC needs to work with a range of partners who can weave stories with cultural credibility from the science: how will climate change affect the things people love?

In addition, by reorienting and restructuring the IPCC – so that it provides science ‘on demand’, tailored to the needs of different audiences and stakeholders – its relevance and influence could drastically increase.

We are not arguing that the IPCC has failed. It’s job is currently to present policy makers with a robust assessment of the latest climate science. But it is clear that  presenting the world with information is not creating the political change we need. More facts and more information are unlikely to convince the public in the future.

We also recommend that the IPCC should invest in communication and begin using video and social media. The IPCC must create an engaging and accessible public face.

The recommendations proposed are those of COIN alone. They may not reflect the view of anyone interviewed or their respective institutions. For more information contact 

A one way ticket to carbon heaven?

Are carbon offsets for flights a one way ticket to carbon heaven?

In this blog by Roger Tyers, a PhD student at Southampton University, he asks whether carbon offsets for flights offer a ‘one way ticket to carbon heaven’. The post was originally published by Sociology Lens.

I recently had my carbon footprint calculated over the phone with a member of an environmental NGO called the Surefoot Effect. It was an interesting experience.

The conversation was going well. I was asked questions about how I heat my flat (answer: I’ve never turned the heating on), how I commute to work (I cycle), how much meat I eat (I’m vegetarian) and my carbon footprint came in at roughly half the UK average, until I was asked about the topic I was dreading… how much I fly.

Last year I took a series of long-haul flights, because I’d finished a job in South Korea, and on my way back to the UK I visited Malaysia and India as a tourist. These flights bumped up my carbon footprint considerably. Without flights, my carbon footprint was around 6 tonnes of carbon.  With flights, my footprint was doubled to 12 tonnes, slightly more than the UK average. All my good, green work, it seemed, had been for nothing. I am just as much of a carbon terrorist as all my car-driving, meat-eating peers.

Flying is, by far, the most carbon intensive activity most people engage in. For example, a round-trip flight from London to New York is estimated to create around 2 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. That’s about 15% of your annual footprint gobbled up in less than twelve hours travel-time. And it’s more than the average Indian’s total annual footprint, a comparatively tiny 1.7 tonnes.

This creates an ethical dilemma for me, and I’m sure I am not alone. In almost every other aspect of life, whether it be transport, diet, or household energy, there is usually a ‘green option’ which we can choose to take. Is the green option for flying just… to not fly? According to the likes of environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, the answer is a firm yes. Linking the fact that it is the richest people in the world who fly, and the poorest in the world who are most threatened by climate change, he argues that ‘we are all killers” in a characteristically provocative piece from 2006: “Flying kills. We all know it, and we all do it. And we won’t stop doing it until the government reverses its policy and starts closing the runways.

So, what is an environmentally-minded person such as myself to do? Not flying is the most simple and obvious solution, but is this really viable? I have friends and family who live in different continents – can I never visit them? Am I to deny myself the possibility of travel, of seeing the wonders of the world and experiencing different cultures? Professionally, as an early-career researcher I know that University bosses evaluate academic staff, in part, by how many international conferences they attend. Am I to sacrifice my career prospects by only attending events I can reach by land or sea?

Carbon offsetting is one potential solution to this impasse. It has fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years, but in the mid-noughties it seemed to catch the imagination of academics, journalists and even rock stars (more on that later*).

The premise of carbon offsetting is that we firstly calculate the carbon produced by a passenger on a particular flight, we then attach a price to that carbon, and then we pay an offset company to perform an activity which reduces an equivalent amount of carbon elsewhere. If we take our return flight to New York, which produces about 2 tonnes of carbon, the price to offset it would be £40.34, using the offset company Myclimate and £51.94 using Atmosfair (I’ll explain why the prices are different later too**).

The offset companies then use this money to pay for projects which reduce carbon from the atmosphere – this could be planting trees, investing in renewable energy, destroying harmful chemicals, or in other more innovative ways. One particularly interesting project is using money from offsets to produce clean cooking-stoves to replace open-fires for cooking in the developing world. The clean cook-stoves not only reduce the need to chop down trees (they use about half as much firewood as open-fires) but they also stop children breathing in as much woodsmoke, and they create local jobs in cook-stove production.

In fact, it’s projects like this which are becoming more popular, as they provide social, health and localised economic benefits to communities which are more tangible than rather abstract carbon reductions. Tree-planting might be simpler to understand and more iconic, but it’s actually not a very efficient way to reduce carbon from the atmosphere.

A woman cooking with a modern cookstove, funded through carbon offsets. Traditional cooking, using an open fire, is far more smokey and wood-intensive. Source:

Which brings me to our rockstars*…

British rock band Coldplay tried to offset the emissions that had been caused in the production of their album ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’, by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. The band’s fans were also encouraged to donate to the project. However, due to mismanagement very few of the trees were actually planted, little of the carbon reductions were realised, and a lot of the band’s and the fans’ money er… disappeared.

Coldplay tried to do their bit. Source: Karl Axon [GFDL ( or CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stories like this have created more than a little cynicism about offsetting. In response, almost all airlines and offset companies now use verified offsets which are stamped with either the ‘Gold Standard’ or the ‘Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)’. These are UN-recognised certifications that attempt to ensure that the offsets are real and are actually delivered.

And what about those different prices for the offsets**?  Well, another complexity with emissions from air travel is that emissions created by aeroplanes at high-altitude are more damaging to the atmosphere then ground-based emissions. But the science on exactly how much more damaging is not clear. Some companies use a more conservative (and therefore more expensive) multiplier than others. Again, this confusion doesn’t help dispel anti-offset cynicism.

Even if carbon offsetting can be shown to be rigorous in its calculations and shown to be properly monitored, there is another, perhaps greater ethical issue: that it might just encourage customers to continue to fly, or even to fly more (the ‘rebound’ effect’). In a joint statement by the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, they give their support to carbon offsetting but only as a last resort – we should always try and reduce our emissions first. Similarly, the hierarchy endorsed by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change “Calculate→Avoid→Reduce→Offset” reminds us that offsetting should never be our first choice.

A very funny satire on the concept of offsetting can be found on the Cheat Neutral website. It’s well worth a look, as it makes us wonder if carbon offsetting isn’t just a way to make ‘green’ people like me feel less guilty about flying; a cheap ticket to Carbon Heaven, if you like.

Finally, critics of offsetting argue that they distract from the larger-scale technical improvements and policy reforms which are required to make air travel more sustainable. There is a valid point here that radical action is needed to tackle our growing addiction to air travel, but as I’ve written in a previous blog, the aviation industry is unlikely to ‘go green’ within our lifetime, and offsets, for all their practical and ethical problems, give the conscientious traveller a means to take action here and now.

Are kids being ‘brainwashed’ on climate change? A teacher responds

Luke Sinnick argues that a recent report from the Global Warming Policy Foundation is selective and biased in its use of evidence: kids are not being ‘brainwashed’ on climate change.

This guest post is by Luke Sinnick, a teacher of A-level Biology at Greenhead College, Huddersfield.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation’s recent report written by Andrew Montford and John Shade is titled ‘Climate Control: Brainwashing in Schools’. The report seeks to show “examples of serious errors, misleading claims, and bias through inadequate treatment of climate issues in school teaching materials”. Here, I outline my thoughts on the report as a teacher of A-level Biology.

As the report is critical of ‘misleading claims’ and encourages teachers to take a more critical approach to education I will highlight a few misleading claims that I feel Montford & Shade make themselves.

Throughout the report they have selectively used evidence to support their case and are demonstrating exactly the kind of ‘inadequate treatment’ of the issues that is the focus of their criticisms of the education system.

They start with the suggestion that promoting environmental awareness entails “the corruption of the curriculum in schools in support of a radical worldview that is almost certainly at odds with the majority view in our society”. However, there are repeated polls showing that the ‘majority view’ is that human activity is affecting the climate and that levels of concern about the effects of climate change remain high.

In Part 2, Montford and Shade criticise the Geography Association’s suggestion “to encourage children to think about issues such as the alleged imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels”. However, depletion of oil reserves in 40 years is a reality suggested by groups not normally considered promoters of ‘radical worldviews’ such as Institute for Mechanical Engineers.

They also discuss problems with the CGP revision guides and their apparent bias.

Firstly, CGP are known for their ‘informal’ style and inclusion of (bad) jokes. For example, one guide suggests that “methane is a stinky problem but an important one”. We could analyse this statement for its factual accuracy (considering methane is actually odourless) but that would not be a fruitful exercise when writing a serious policy paper.

Secondly, at the bottom of the page on ‘global warming’ in the CGP guide, it is stated that ‘global warming is still just a theory – lots of scientists putting together pieces in a jigsaw. The theory has not been completely accepted yet – so be careful when describing what we actually know’.

To present this as a ‘radical worldview’ full of ‘bias’ is again, in their words, highly ‘misleading’.

They criticise the inclusion of questions such as “explain actions religious people might take to look after the planet” and the marking criteria as being biased. However GCSE religious studies papers regularly include questions such as “Explain briefly why some people have a civil marriage ceremony“. This doesn’t imply a ‘brainwashing’ of children towards a civil marriage ceremony. Again, the selection of material is itself a biased and misleading analysis.

They only use a tiny selection of comments at the bottom of a TES survey as an example of ‘what teachers think’ when they could have equally contrasted these views with an article in The Guardian expressing a very different view if they genuinely sought a balanced perspective.

Finally, they conclude “gone are the days when the education system hoped to generate young people equipped to form their own opinions on complex scientific, sociological and political issues”.

Although its not clear which days they refer to, I agree this would be an amazing achievement for education. Teaching children to critically analyse the political influence of the data they are given could ironically be conceived itself as a ‘radical worldview’ due to its fundamental link with effective democracy as excellently explained by authors such as Henry Giroux [1].

We teach a huge number of separate scientific facts to children during the AQA A-level Biology course which I am familiar with, some of which we do have time to discuss and criticise, some we unfortunately do not. This would be more apparent to Montford and Shade if they had further experience in education or engagement with the teaching profession when writing such a report.

I do think critical analysis in science education should be promoted and encouraged but the choice of which facts to be analysed should be based on the strengths, weaknesses and complexity of the science involved, not the bias of writers such as Montford and Shade.

They may be interested to know I also taught a lesson this year to a high achieving A2 Biology class where I did actually give equal time to non teacher-led activities looking at arguments for and against man made climate change, providing a range of data ‘for’ and ‘against’ (including showing them ‘the great global warming swindle’ they suggest in their report), and got them to vote at the end which side they supported.

Their critical analysis led them to unanimously support a human influence.

[1] Giroux, H (2011) On critical pedagogy. Continuum books

Don’t give up on engaging conservatives

Paul Connor argues that social psychology findings give hope that conservative audiences can be engaged on climate change.

This guest post is by Paul Connor, a postgraduate researcher in social psychology at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on climate change communication and pro-environmental cultural change processes.

There is little doubt that the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarised along political lines over the past decade. Yet despite this trend, it remains important for climate advocates to remember that this party-line split is far from absolute. In both Australia and the USA, for example, one in four conservative voters still accepts the basic tenets of climate change science, and as the following research suggests, there may be ways of tailoring climate messages to increase their appeal to such audiences.

System-Sanctioned Change

In their 2010 paper, Irina Feygina of New York University and colleagues explored the connection between environmental attitudes and a psychological tendency known as ‘system justification’. This is a  tendency strongly related to conservative political attitudes to defend society’s status quo and see ‘the way things are’ as ‘the ways things should be’. Across two experiments, results showed system justification to be correlated with the denial of environmental problems. Indeed, the extent to which people reported holding system justifying beliefs largely (but not totally) explained the connection between people’s political orientation and their environmental denial.

Following this, Feygina and colleagues presented people with a generic message about the environment, and some of them also a ‘system-sanctioned change’ message, which read:

“Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources”.

While results showed that there was no overall difference between the ‘system sanctioned’ message and the normal message in promoting pro-environmental intentions and behaviours, the system-sanctioned message was significantly more effective among people high in system justification. The authors concluded that: “…reframing environmentalism as supporting (rather than undermining) the American way or life eliminates the negative effect of system justification on pro-environmental behavior”.

Co-Benefits Framing

A 2012 study by Paul Bain from the University of Queensland and colleagues explored whether climate change sceptics could perhaps be sold on climate change action by stressing its possible co-benefits in addition to mitigating climate change. They presented a large sample of people (including 128 climate sceptics) one of three ‘personal testimonials’ relating different reasons for supporting climate action.

The first suggested climate action would create a friendlier society (“I think it’d make us more considerate in other ways – like looking out for each other, and caring for people in the community”). The second suggested it would promote societal development (“Taking action to reduce energy pollution would lead to new scientific breakthroughs and new industries”). And the third suggested it would prevent environmental destruction (“We’d be less affected by food and water shortages”).

As expected, results showed that the testimonials promoting the co-benefits of climate change action produced significantly higher pro-environmental intentions among the sceptics than the testimonial focused on environmental destruction. Moreover, the co-benefits testimonials were also more effective in producing environmental citizenship intentions even among the climate change believers (though this effect did not reach statistical significance).

Stressing the Consensus

Research indicates that the public vastly underestimates the level of consensus around climate change science. A 2011 study in the USA found that among its 751 participants, 66% could be classified as ‘consensus not understood’. Moreover, the results showed that there was a strong correlation between people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus around climate change and their support for climate change policies, with people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus were shown to explain nearly 60% of the variance in their support for climate policies.

Extending upon these findings, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and colleagues investigated the effects of increasing people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus. They began by asking people how many out of 100 climate scientists they believed endorsed the consensus view. Following this, they provided half of the people with information about the factual 97% scientific consensus on climate change.

They then asked again about people’s climate beliefs, as well as their endorsement of ‘free-market’ ideology, which is known to be related to lower belief in climate change. Results showed that providing the consensus information had a large effect.

On the follow-up questioning, the group that received the consensus information showed significantly higher belief in climate change than the group not provided the consensus information. In addition, while endorsement of free market capitalism displayed its normal correlation with lower belief in climate change among the group who did not receive the consensus information, among the people who received the consensus information there was no such correlation.

The authors concluded that “the role of ideology was drastically attenuated when participants were provided with information about the scientific consensus”. These studies indicate that climate activists do not necessarily need to give up on conservative-minded demographics. Instead, they show us that by keeping in mind the arguments and frames that appeal to conservatives, the non-climate related benefits of climate action, and the importance of an accurate understanding of the scientific consensus, there are ways of subtly tailoring communications that will be more effective among more conservative audiences.

Download COIN’s report on engaging with conservative audiences here.

COIN’s research informs new climate campaign

How narrative workshops informed a national campaign: Summary of a report for the Climate Coalition

How does a national climate change campaign reach beyond the concerned minority to a broader, more diverse sector of the British public?

COIN employed its unique methodology of narrative workshops to steer the Climate Coalition’s upcoming two year campaign towards more inclusive messaging.  By testing and refining language and narrative directly with target audiences, COIN identified messages that worked across a diversity of groups, including those with more conservative values.

Whilst reinvigorating traditional support, the campaign now has the flexibility to appeal to those harder to reach audiences so crucial for effective action on climate change.


‘Must try harder’ on climate change communication

The BBC and the UK government have been singled out for criticism in a new report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on climate change communication

In a week that has seen an unusually high level of climate change coverage among mainstream media (with the launch of the second part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s three-part Assessment Report), the UK government and national broadcaster the BBC were told they must improve the way they communicate about climate change.
In a report issued by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee,  the government’s strategy on communicating climate change to the general public was questioned, as well as the quality of BBC reporting. The Chair of the Committee, Andrew Miller, had this to say:
Given the high level of trust the public has in its coverage, it is disappointing that the BBC does not ensure all of its programmes and presenters reflect the actual state of climate science in its output. The Today programme and other BBC News teams continue to make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight. Some editors appear to be particularly poor at determining the level of scientific expertise of contributors in debates, for instance, putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight…The Government’s hands-off approach to engaging with the public and the media, relying heavily on scientists as the most prominent voice, has a resulted in a vacuum that has allowed inaccurate arguments to flourish with little effective challenge.
The latter comments are perhaps the most interesting, as he suggests that a ‘hands off’ approach has resulted in a vacuum in which climate sceptic arguments have flourished. These comments strongly echo COIN’s ‘Climate Silence‘ report, which argued that a prevailing silence on climate change from government, the media, and even campaigners had allowed sceptical voices to grow in volume.
The process of consultation leading to the report was thorough and involved. Many leading voices on climate change communication, including Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University were called to give verbal evidence to the committee. A Welsh blog from the ‘C3W’ group of universities, summarising the report’s findings pointed to some of Pidgeon’s comments:
“The impacts of media reporting on attitudes may be less important than the actions and statements of the elite commentators (politicians, prominent personalities, business and NGOs, and government departments) which prompt that reporting”.
Another previous COIN/Talking Climate report – on the challenges of engaging centre-right citizens – was specifically raised in Pidgeon’s written evidence session by the committee, who asked whether it represented a useful approach for engaging sceptical citizens on climate change. Pidgeon commented:
“Rather than appealing to a simple environmentalist catastrophic message, we should be thinking more widely about communicating the science, but also then saying, “Let’s look at the solutions within a value set that everybody can agree with”.
Its great to see this kind of advice reflected in the Committee’s report. Now, if the BBC and government would only start listening too…



A symphony of reason and emotion

Why pit thoughts and feelings against each other, asks guest blogger Sander van der Linden…climate change is in reality a ‘symphony of reason and emotion’.

This guest post is by Sander van der Linden,  a doctoral candidate in social-environmental psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a visiting research scholar at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University (2012 – present). His research explores judgments and perceptions of environmental risks, the determinants of pro-environmental behavior, risk communication, behavioral change as well as theories of social influence and persuasion.

In a forthcoming paper that will be featured as part of the Journal of European Social Psychology’s special issue on Climate Change, I tackle a crucial question that has so far remained unaddressed: what is the nature of the relationship between personal experiences with extreme weather, negative emotions (or ‘negative affect’) and risk perceptions of climate change?

I try to answer this question in the context of a wider discussion, one that has daunted scientists for centuries, namely; the cognition-emotion debate.

About 30 years ago, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc, published an influential and at the time, somewhat controversial paper in which he suggested that “affect” (the term social psychologists use to denote a specific type of emotion) is fairly independent of, and precedes in time, perceptual and cognitive operations.  In other words, we ‘feel’ before we ‘think’.

In a similar vein, more recently, Paul Slovic and colleagues formulated what has now become widely known as “the affect heuristic”.  We can think of “affect” as a fast, automatic and evaluative gut reaction that has become associated with a particular object (through learning and experience).

For example, the work of some of my colleagues at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has clearly shown that (a) most people tend to have immediate, negative and unpleasant affective associations with the term “global warming” and that (b) “affect” is a key predictor of climate change risk perceptions.

Yet, others have maintained a different perspective. For example, diametrically opposed to Zajonc is the work of the late psychologist, Richard Lazarus.

Lazarus wondered how it is possible that different individuals can experience different emotions given the same situation. In response, he formulated “appraisal theory”, which along with the work of many others, suggests that individuals first perceive, interpret and process information in terms of how it relates to their personal values, goals and experiences. From this point of view, affect is seen as a post-cognitive process (i.e., we must first perceive or appraise a risk before we form any type of affective response). Think of it this way: if you don’t know what it is that you are perceiving, how can you generate an emotion in response?

In light of this debate, recent neurological research has pointed out that thinking in terms of two separate, independent systems (cognition vs. emotion) is really not all that useful at the level of neuroscience, as the pathways related to cognition and emotion are deeply interconnected. Indeed, our cognitions (“thinking”) can influence how we feel (“emotions”) and in turn, our “affective” feeling-states can influence our thinking (“cognition”). Yet, the way in which affect functions in relation to cognition can be strongly dependent on the context.

In fact, when talking about climate change, context is key. Climate change is a relatively unique type of risk in the sense that it cannot be experienced directly. One question that has been puzzling climate change researchers is to what extent personal experiences with extreme weather influence risk perceptions of climate change. It is not unreasonable to assume that people only associate extreme weather with climate change if they make some sort of perceptual or cognitive mental link that these two phenomena are related.

To illustrate, when faced with extreme weather (e.g., a hurricane), most people are likely to experience an instinctive fear-driven emotional reaction. However, at the same time we must retrieve cognitive information about the nature of the perceived risk as well (i.e., how do you know that you should be afraid of a tornado or hurricane?).

What is crucial to understand is that in order for the experienced emotion to be directed at climate change, some type of cognitive link relating the risk event (“extreme weather”) to climate change is needed first. Thus, this perspective seems to be well aligned with Lazarus’ interpretation that affect is post-cognitive. Yet, at the same time, when this link has been made, we would expect that affect is also a strong driver and determinant of risk perception.

Using results from a UK national survey, I found exactly this: negative affect towards climate change is only formed when a conscious risk attribution is made (i.e., people first have to interpret and connect their personal experiences with extreme weather to climate change). However, when that link has been made salient, affect not only clearly functions as a strong driver of risk perception, affect and risk perception actually mutually influence each other in a dynamic feedback system. These results strongly favor a so-called “dual-processing” perspective – implying that both psychological theories hold true.

You might ask; so what?

The way in which cognitive and affective process mechanisms shape our beliefs and perceptions about climate change is important. Indeed, the interactive engagement of both cognitive and emotional processes is key to fostering more public engagement with climate change. For example, research has shown that negative affect motivates people to seek out information about climate change. Additionally, while of course no single weather event can be linked to climate change, based on my research and that of others, one way to increase negative affect is by making the link between the rising incidence rate of extreme weather and climate change much more explicit.

In conclusion, when it comes to climate change communication, pitting cognition against emotion is not a very useful approach, as it is not their separation that is interesting but rather, their interrelation.

Unsustainable practices: why electric cars are a failure of ambition

In this guest post by Nicola Spurling and Dan Welch, of the Sustainable Practices Research Group, they argue that a focus on ‘techno-fix’ solutions to climate change like electric cars simply perpetuate current (unsustainable) practices and represent a failure of ambition.

In this guest post by Nicola Spurling and Dan Welch, of the Sustainable Practices Research Group, they argue that a focus on ‘techno-fix’ solutions to climate change like electric cars simply perpetuate current (unsustainable) practices and represent a failure of ambition.

In January David Cameron announced that his cabinet might trade in their limousines for electric cars. It was the latest in a stream of initiatives to promote the use of electric vehicles.

Is this a welcome case of political leaders ‘setting an example’? Or are these sorts of interventions more likely to perpetuate current patterns of private car use than challenge them?

The announcement is another example of the common ‘techno-fix’ approach to climate change – in which futuristic technologies resolve the problem while everyday life carries on as normal. Electric cars are especially alluring in this respect. Except that electric cars won’t simply replace fossil fuel driven cars. Firstly, their limited range means they only fulfill some of the functions of the conventional car. Secondly, as a recent OECD report suggests , they will only save carbon emissions in the context of a massively de-carbonised electricity supply system re-engineered to cope with increased demand.

Retaining private car use by substituting petrol for electric vehicles just reproduces the ‘predict and provide’ approaches of transport planning developed in the 70s and 80s – in which rising levels of demand are perpetuated, normalised and inadvertently encouraged. But if this is the case, then what alternative approaches to policy are there?

The work of the Sustainable Practices Research Group begins to address this challenge. Our starting point is that we largely consume resources as part of the practices that make up everyday life – like driving, cooking or doing the laundry. So rather than the obsession with perpetuating demand for the private car, how about investing more to substitute the practice of driving for a more sustainable one, such as cycling?

The recent TfL investment in ‘quietways’, cycle ‘superhighways’ and ‘mini Hollands’  is commendable here. The idea of ‘modal shift’ – or changing mode of transport – is not a new one: park and ride schemes or the London congestion charging scheme aim to do just that. But a social practice perspective casts the issue in a new light.

For example, many initiatives funded by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund  have aimed to shift short trips (under five miles) from driving to walking and cycling. Although the objective is one of substitution, the interventions tend to focus just on ‘growing’ the practice of cycling. Seldom is the potential of ‘shrinking’ driving part of such initiatives. If the aim is modal shift, making one alternative easier and more attractive than the other makes sense: seeking to reduce demand for driving rather than catering for (assumed) increased demand.

Taking the debate a step further, why focus on trip length as the main characteristic of the journeys that we make? Rather, we could ask what everyday practices are served by these trips?

Picking up the kids from school, commuting or going shopping present very different forms of driving, most obviously, they require different amounts of space for passengers and goods. As such there is not just one, but rather multiple cycling alternatives. These might require a variety of bike accessories, and more broadly, secure storage, the skills to cycle in different kinds of traffic and with a range of loads (children, shopping) and workplace showers.  Identifying the kinds of journeys helps us understand the suitable components of cycling that might encourage a shift from driving.  Manchester’s Cycling Hub  takes such an approach to commuter cycling. Close to the railway station, it also provides secure storage, showers, a bike shop offering servicing, and cycle skills training. Intervening to ensure the availability of multiple cycling alternatives is an opportunity for policy.

The focus on substitution challenges the need for the private car in a way that focusing on decarbonising driving does not. However, it still doesn’t question why and how the need to move around so much and so often has come to be as it is. Taking the example of shopping, having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it seems that owning a private car is the prerequisite of provisioning a family home. Actually this ‘need’ is the outcome of a historical process which includes the development of out-of-town supermarkets and associated forms of land use, the rise of the car, the decline of high street shops and the gradual shift in shopping habits and routines.

Not only is the ‘need’ for the private car something that should be within the realm of policy intervention, the ‘need’ for current patterns of mobility per se should be there too. This is not as radical as it first appears. The planners of England’s ‘new towns’ in the 1950s and 1960s designed particular ideas of ‘the good life’ into their plans, including cycling infrastructures linking quiet housing areas each with its own facilities. This is a more ambitious approach to policy than seeking to respond to a spurious notion of ‘demand’, but an ambition more commensurate with the scale of the challenge of transition towards sustainability.

That ambition should encompass intervening in the conventions of practice and place which shape and govern our lives. Our categorisations of practice and place appear normal and ‘natural’ to us because of their long histories of co-evolution, institutionalization and standardisation. But they can be redesigned in new and innovative ways, which we argue, have implications for mobility.

The example of mobility reflects a more general tendency in sustainability policy of catering to an imagined future which simply extrapolates from the present. Not only does this represent a failure of ambition – to imagine a genuinely different future – it misunderstands social and technical change. Technological and social change mutually condition one another:  social practices and technologies co-evolve.

The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present. A future in which electric vehicles replace the demand for the conventional car would be a future in which electrical vehicles (with shorter ranges, long charging times and a radically new electricity infrastructure) would themselves change the practices that underpin that demand. Approaching policy from the perspective of social practices, we suggest, offers novel ways to reconfigure patterns of consumption in more sustainable directions.

Focusing on driving, eating and the home, The Sustainable Practices Research Group Report: Interventions in Practice: Reframing Policy Approaches to Consumer Behaviour can be downloaded from:—sprg-report.

Nicola Spurling is Senior Research Associate in the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University. Her research is about how social practices change, and the part that individual lives, institutions, professions and policy play in these processes. She was previously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group at the University of Manchester.

Dan Welch is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, the University of Manchester. His research explores the use of theories of practice for addressing sustainable consumption and production. He was previously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group.

Will UK floods bring an end to climate silence?

There is a possible silver lining to the disastrous floods swamping the UK – an end to public apathy on climate changeclimate

The wettest January in the UK in 250 years followed by a stormy February have brought misery to many thousands. Floods have submerged large chunks of the south-west of the country, a key stretch of railway collapsed into the sea, and the river Thames spectacularly burst its banks, deluging towns and villages.

As a statement from the UK’s weather service, the Met Office, made clear, these are the sorts of events that are made more likely by climate change. But a strange disconnect has run through mainstream media coverage and political discourse. Amid the clamour to apportion blame and political point-scoring, one conversation was conspicuously low profile: whether this is a bitter taste of what climate change has in store for the UK.

For a long time, social scientists have been interested in the impact of flooding and other extreme weather on public attitudes to climate change. Because it is regarded as a distant and intangible threat to people across much of Europe – not here, not now and not us – communicating its risks has proved to be a significant challenge. Intuition would suggest that personal experience of the sorts of events associated with climate change would cut through the psychological security blanket that usually keeps the issue at arm’s length. And sure enough, research has found a link between being flooded and elevated concern about climate change.

In a study published in 2011 (Nature Climate Change,, people who had been flooded expressed not only higher levels of climate concern but a greater willingness to reduce their carbon footprints. In another more recent survey of Welsh citizens, those living in a recently flooded area were 10 per cent more likely to agree that the impact of climate change is already being felt.

Sudden and extreme events like flooding are a grim reminder that the climate is changing. But even mundane changes can play a role in shaping opinion. An analysis of US views over two decades found a clear and consistent relationship between average temperatures and belief in the reality and seriousness of climate change. The study even put a figure on this: for every degree that temperature rose above the average over the previous 12 months, there was a 7.6 per cent increase in agreement that the world was warming.

So will the 2014 floods catalyse a dramatic reduction in public apathy to climate change? A new study led by my colleague Stuart Capstick suggests that some people will be unmoved – because weather patterns are interpreted according to existing beliefs and values. The research focused on perceptions of climate change during a cold snap that engulfed the UK in 2011, analysing responses according to political views and values.

Those who were more individualistic and endorsed free-market economic principles were more likely to be climate sceptics, and this group saw the freezing temperatures as evidence that the world was not warming. But three times as many people viewed the disruptive, chaotic weather as proof of a changing climate.

Extreme weather, like every aspect of the highly polarised topic of climate change, is thus subject to powerful psychological, cultural and political filters, which conspire to produce confounding outcomes. The Daily Mail – a newspaper renowned for its sceptical editorials and reporting – responded to the floods in a predictable manner. Rather than criticise the government for failing to invest in climate change adaptation, the paper picked a familiar villain – the overseas aid budget – and argued that it should be redeployed to help flood victims.

As much as climate change is a scientific issue, the stories we read about it are important too.

Scientists are understandably reluctant to make causal links between any single weather event and the complex dynamics of a changing climate. Definitive proof that this weather is the result of climate change is currently beyond us. But without a coordinated and consistent message that more flooding is on the way for the UK if ambitious action on climate change is not forthcoming, there is no guarantee that the public will join the dots. In the absence of a coherent narrative on this, uncertainty flourishes and scepticism is likely to grow.

The sociologist Robert Brulle tracked US public opinion on climate change over more than a decade, piecing together events and influences that had swayed views. Brulle’s analysis pointed strongly to the importance of “elite cues”; that is, signals and messages that people get from the media, politicians and other high-profile voices. What they say matters – especially when they say nothing.

Unsurprisingly, with such a muted national conversation in the UK, public interest has dwindled. A climate silence prevails.

A report I wrote for the Climate Outreach and Information Network at the end of last year argued that the climate change debate urgently needs new narratives that make the link between the climate challenge and ordinary people. Climate change will have an impact on most aspects of society, yet it remains stuck in an environmentalist niche, as if only greens needed to concern themselves with the effects of a warmer world.

In flooded Oxford, residents held a demonstration that posed a simple question: can we talk about climate change now? Belatedly – and after thousands of homes have been damaged by floods – the issue of climate change is gradually re-entering the national discourse. It may be the only silver lining in an otherwise thoroughly gruesome winter’s tale.

Originally published by the New Scientist magazine 14.02.14

Time to stop obsessing about scientific uncertainty?

Human behaviour is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others

For fans of probability, confidence intervals and margins of error, climate change is a dream come true. For everyone else, the fact that uncertainty (inherent in any complex area of science) has gradually become one of climate change’s defining features is a constant headache. Because uncertainty – real or manufactured – is a well-rehearsed reason for inaction.

What proportion of scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate? How sensitive is the climate to carbon emissions? Is it very likely or merely likely that flooding will increase? And what does likely mean anyway?

Questions such as these have become a stick with which to beat climate models. Scientists (naturally reticent in their communicative style) feel obliged to reel off lists of things they don’t know, and forget to re-emphasise the (remarkably certain) link between human behaviour and climate change.

The precautionary principle (slippery concept that it is), rests on the idea that less-than-complete knowledge is no reason for inaction. But spreading doubt, playing down the scientific consensus, and focusing obsessively on uncertainties has been the central strategy of climate sceptics, following the helpful example of the tobacco industry before them.

Clearly, there is much that could be done to improve the communication of uncertainty. Scientists could focus on the knowns before the unknowns. Communicators could re-frame the issue as one of risk, a concept familiar from the insurance industry, rather than uncertainty. Verbal statements of uncertainty could be accompanied by numerical figures, to overcome individual and cultural biases in their interpretation.

But there is also only so much that refining our communication of uncertainty will achieve. Because while we obsess over solar flares and natural cycles, we overlook the single biggest uncertainty in the climate system: us.

Fundamentally, the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which the climate changes. Unlikely as it is, the climate may yet reveal itself to be relatively insensitive to the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases that we have pumped into it.

But even on the lowest credible estimates of climate sensitivity, burning half of our known reserves of fossil fuels will unleash unprecedented changes in the chemistry of our planet. So what we choose to do – and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it – is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

The conclusion that it is us – rather than the climate – that is the most intractable source of uncertainty is the central theme in a new paper by Antony Patt and Elke Weber. They argue that our tendency to prioritise daily personal experiences over statistical learning, and our existing political views have a far greater influence on people’s views about climate change than than the error bars on scientists’ graphs.

Both the authors have spent a great deal of time analysing ways of improving the communication of uncertainty within climate science. So it is all the more intriguing that they write:

“Perceptions about the existence and extent of climate change may vary less as a result of how climate risks are communicated, and more as a result of whether solutions are portrayed as possible … (F)or people to support these policies in the first place, it is not sufficient and may not even be necessary for them to perceive climate change as a problem.”

In other words, uncertainty about the science is likely to dissipate in the face of meaningful engagement with effective climate solutions. When people feel inspired by the answers to climate change, they no longer see uncertainty about future predictions as the central question. But the longer the climate discourse is mired in the intricacies of uncertainty, the less likely it is that this kind of transformation will take place.

It is a difficult message for scientists to take on board – the careful communication of uncertainty is a central plank of their training. But the evidence continues to grow that the barriers preventing effective climate policies reside primarily with us (rather than the uncertain predictions of climate science). And the focus on finding the perfect method of communicating uncertainty may in fact be simply reinforcing the sceptics’ framing of the problem.

First published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 31.01.14

Time for a more Radical Plan?

‘Every little helps’ is not a proportionate response to climate change. It is time for a more Radical Plan.

In 2014, England will follow the example set by Wales and Scotland and introduce a carrier bag charge. If the Welsh and Scottish experiences are anything to go by, the policy will drastically reduce the number of bags in circulation, keeping unnecessary waste out of landfill and removing a little polythene from the diet of our cities’ seagulls.

Like recycling, re-using carrier bags has become something of an iconic “sustainable behaviour“. But whatever else its benefits may be, it is not, in itself, an especially good way of cutting carbon. Like all simple and painless behavioural changes, its value hangs on whether it acts as a catalyst for other, more impactful, activities or support for political changes.

The evidence from Wales is not encouraging. My colleagues at Cardiff University analysed the impact of the introduction of the carrier bag charge. Although their use reduced dramatically, rates of other low-carbon behaviours among the general public remained unaffected.

To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day conference at the Royal Society headquarters in London this week made clear, “every little helps” is a dangerously misleading mantra when it comes to climate change.

The Radical Plan meeting featured contributions from across the physical and social sciences, as well as civil society. The organisers – Professors Kevin Anderson and Corinne Le Quere of the Tyndall Centre – posed contributors a brutally simple question: what would need to happen if we were to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of avoiding dangerous climate change?

The answers were undeniably radical – and none mentioned re-using plastic bags.

Scientists and engineers described the unprecedented scale of energy system change necessary to decarbonise rapidly. Social scientists argued for a transformation in the way we view ourselves, our consumption, and our role in society. Economists demolished the idea that economic growth could be maintained forever in a fossil-fuel driven, finite world. Policy experts questioned whether our current carbon targets were fit for purpose.

But across almost all of the papers presented at the conference, there was an inescapable consensus: a fundamentally different economic system is required, if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, based on nurturing wellbeing rather than stoking corporate profit.

This is, of course, not a new idea. But what was striking was the convergence across contributors from the breadth of the physical and social sciences. The clear message was that unrestrained capitalism is incompatible with decarbonisation: the sums simply don’t add up.

Many sceptics see the issue of climate change as no more than a figleaf for ushering in a new era of socialism. The conclusions of the Radical Plan conference are unlikely to convince them otherwise. But for the vast majority of us – who say we “get” climate change, but still somehow cling on to the idea that small, incremental behavioural changes will be sufficient – the conference should be a wake-up call.

Nudging, tweaking, or cajoling people into piecemeal behavioural changes like re-using plastic bags is not a proportionate response to climate change. Engaging the public through their personal carbon footprints is really only a means to an end – and that end is a political and economic system that has sustainability as its central organising principle.

And if these sound like radical statements, unbecoming of the stately, reserved sentiments associated with the Royal Society, then consider the prospect of a world that is four or even six degrees hotter and the havoc and suffering that would be inevitable. This is also a radical choice.

Clearly, economic systems do not overhaul themselves – and in a democracy, majority support is a prerequisite for any significant societal shift. Politicians do not take risks if they don’t think the electorate will support them. And civil society cannot function without a diverse supporter-base.

This means that public engagement still lies at the heart of the challenge of climate change, but it is a form of public engagement that goes way beyond plastic bags. And any public campaign that treats minor behavioural change as a valid goal in itself is also taking a radical stance: complicity in a dangerously warmer world.

Article originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business 13.12.13

Why is climate change scepticism such a slippery concept?

Climate sceptic arguments are constantly shifting: no wonder trying to classify and define scepticism is so frustrating.

What exactly is climate change scepticism? The quest to provide a satisfactory answer to this question is now well into its second decade, with scholars, commentators and campaigners (on both sides of the argument) offering taxonomies and classification systems in an attempt to pin the term down.

Some consider scepticism to be a form of ‘flat earth’ denial: the product of conspiracy theories and the domain of crackpots. Others point to the historical evidence that the same tactics – in some cases the very same institutions and individuals – have been behind co-ordinated attempts to smear the science linking smoking and lung cancer and that linking human CO2 emissions and climate change.

Certainly, there is some truth in both of these conceptualisations: some people deny that there is any link between human activity and climate change, or even that the earth is warming at all. And it is a matter of record that lobby groups have run campaigns explicitly designed to undermine the science of global warming.

But these are minority forms of scepticism (if that is even the appropriate term to use). In the UK, the proportion of people who dispute that human activity is playing some role in changing the climate is small. Most people, if they are sceptical at all, fall somewhere between uninterested, uncertain and disinclined to trust what they read in the papers.

A new investigation led by Stuart Bryce Capstick at Cardiff University is the latest attempt to bring some clarity to the debate. Drawing on both survey data and focus groups with members of the UK public, the study suggests that scepticism can be divided into two categories: ‘epistemic scepticism’ (where people doubt the reality or causes or climate change) and ‘response scepticism’ (where people dispute the efficacy of acting to tackle the problem).

Interestingly, the study found that it is the latter type that is most strongly associated with a lack of concern about the issue. As the authors put it: “This is important because whilst there are clear arguments which can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.”

This statement seems to get to the heart of why scepticism is such a slippery concept: so much of it is bound up with (or even indistinguishable from) broader societal questions where there is no right or wrong answer. How much influence should governments have over people’s lives? To what extent should industry be regulated? These are issues that go beyond climate change, yet are central to its resolution.

It is well known, for example, that people don’t trust journalists or politicians. Yet measures of climate change scepticism often ask questions relating to media exaggeration of the problem. What could be interpreted as a statement of scepticism about climate change may in fact be a rejection of the trustworthiness of the media in general.

There is a sense, then, in which attempts to classify and re-classify scepticism are a somewhat circular exercise. Dogmatic ‘response scepticism’ – although seemingly oriented towards the feasibility of tackling climate change – could be equivalent to epistemic scepticism in terms of the practical outcomes for the planet. In other words, a steadfast response sceptic, who doubts the severity of climate impacts and questions the wisdom of spending public money on mitigating them, is effectively acting as if there were no problem in the first place.

And, as anyone who has ever tried debating with climate sceptics below the line on comment threads will confirm, the categories of scepticism are often crossed with a frustrating level of fluidity.

An argument may begin with disagreement over the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, but then move on to the supposedly compromised research funding of ‘alarmist’ scientists and end on the dubious motives of politicians adopting green taxes.

The reason for the shape-shifting character of so many sceptic arguments is that none of the specific reasons on their own are the basis of the dispute – for many, climate change simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which they ought to be opposed.

Capstick’s new paper reinforces a finding that is now well-established: that people’s worldviews, political beliefs and personal values are strong predictors of whether they doubt climate change.

People apply motivated reasoning processes to selectively accept the information that supports their existing beliefs. And it is this motivated reasoning that propels the whole process along.

Very few people beyond the community of climate scientists producing the data can claim any real authority with regard to the underlying facts themselves. We decide whether to trust the information we receive, and weigh up the pros and cons of acting on it, based not on a deep interrogation of the evidence but on our judgement of whether it seems legitimate.

As this judgment of legitimacy is itself a product of our personal politics, it is perhaps no surprise that scepticism is such a slippery concept to get to grips with.

First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19.11.13

Telling stories about climate change

The science and politics of climate change get all the attention – the human face of climate change doesn’t get much of a look in. And although social scientists have made progress documenting the sorts of factors that shape public engagement, the poets and storytellers have so far been relatively quiet.

Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming is a new kind of book about climate change, featuring not the usual science and politics but rather an edited collection of literary prose and poetry that explore the personal, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of one of the major crises facing the world today. According to Steve Holmes, the editor of the collection, the book offers new and potentially helpful angles from which to approach climate change, using personal stories to foster personal and political empowerment.

One poet who has taken up the challenge of engaging with climate change – intellectually and physically – is Emily Hinshelwood. Emily walked across Wales asking every single person she met three questions about climate change:

1. What images come to mind when you think of climate change?

2. How often does climate change come up in your conversations?

3. Is there anything you (personally) can do to limit the effects of climate change?

The result, which we re-publish below with kind permission of the author, is a fascinating document of personal mental imagery about what climate change means to ordinary people. To find out more about Emily’s work, visit her website.

A Moment of Your Time

Fog. Fug. Smog

Cough. Smother. Choke

The planet in nasty grey-blue smoke from

factories with chimneys, from scratching out coal;

big lumps of ice falling off the North Pole, so the

sea levels rise,

the polar bear dies

the Houses of Parliament tip, then capsize.

Whole blinkin’ islands wiped off the map

and over here…. the summers are crap

it’s been pissing for weeks now, the drain’s overflowing

and the sparrows don’t know if they’re coming or going

the daffodil blooms  – then he shivers with cold

we do our recycling – we do what we’re told

but the haycrop’s all ruined, the riverbank’s burst –

d’you know

since I’ve recycled, it’s only got worse

hurricanes, tsunamis, the wreck of the land

and everyone everywhere with their heads in the sand –


me on a deckchair – with my head in the sand.

Me – with a bacardi breezer,

suntanned – with my head in the sand

while the desert expands.


Dust. Thirst. Dry

Crops. Wilt. Die

Kids like sticks

African villages starve

but that won’t stop me from driving my car!

There’s so many people – we’ve all got bad habits

and countries where women are breeding like rabbits

and building more factories and digging more coal

and more and more ice falls off the north pole

so the water goes higher and we get more rain

and the desert moves further up into Spain.

But we do our recycling we do what we’re asked

it’s a blue bag for plastics and a green bin for glass

We separate cardboard, we clean out our pots

but how do we know they don’t landfill the lot?

Cos it’s not getting better, the seasons are screwed

the poor little bees just don’t know what to do

there’s Cameron on his bike – bla bla bla

with his briefcase coming after in his diplomatic car.

We know what we’re doing – we can’t seem to stop and

Society says – Don’t think – JUST SHOP!


So we buy more gadgets to plug in the wall

that need more electric that burns more coal

till the last lump of ice falls off the North Pole

and there’s more freak weather

and London’s drowned

and we knock up more houses on much higher ground

and we pour more concrete and we build more roads

and we keep our borders resolutely closed

till food is so dear and there’s nothing to eat

and it’s our grandchildren – like sticks – begging in the street.


Then – maybe then – we’ll stop

park the car

unplug the x-box

we’ll learn a bit of self-control

and then

maybe then

we’ll stop digging up coal


The IPCC provides the vocabulary – now its time to weave the prose

If we can assess the state of climate science every five years, shouldn’t we be able to do a better job of communicating it?

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published last month, summarising the state of the art in our understanding of climate change.

It is an incredible undertaking – thousands of scientific papers reviewed, painstakingly synthesised and then presented to the world’s policy makers. Although there are many critics within the scientific community who argue that the process could be much improved, most recognise the phenomenal achievement of corralling so much evidence into one document.

As expected, the report emphasised the unambiguous link between human activity and the rapid climatic changes that have occurred over the past century. It underscored the pressing urgency of reducing our carbon emissions. The IPCC has once again spoken. So what happens next?

Anyone who has been following the climate change debate over the last decade will likely be experiencing a degree of ennui in the aftermath of the release of the report. For policy makers, it is a clear and unambiguous signal – but it is a signal that they have received many times before. For the media, it offers a rare chance to put climate change on the front page – but as analyses by Carbon Brief show, the upturn in interest was short lived. And for the public, buffeted by economic worries and disinclined to concern themselves with an abstract future risk, the IPCC’s report is simply another analysis of a problem that long ago stopped being a subject on most people’s lips.

The problem is that the facts do not speak for themselves. Watertight scientific and economic cases have been made in favour of taking strong action now to tackle climate change, but public interest and ambitious political action has not followed. Until communicators can figure out a way of translating the dry, faceless facts of the IPCC reports into living, breathing reasons to care about climate change, meaningful public engagement will remain out of sight.

Never mind whether scientists are 90% or 95% certain that human carbon emissions are causing climate change. These kinds of technicalities, as important as they are, do not fire the hearts and minds of the general public. What does the IPCC report mean for the dozens of different sectors of the economy who will be affected by climate impacts? How should the tourism industry, the construction trade, or health service providers respond to a changing climate? These are practical questions that people might have a genuine stake in. But they are not being asked.

The IPCC reports are like a dictionary. The facts they contain provide the basic vocabulary, but the real challenge is in weaving poetry and prose to inspire people to care about the problem, to consider what it might mean to them, or to engage in the deep, reflective forward-planning and dreaming that climate change demands of us.

There is an incredible opportunity to use the IPCC report to start a new conversation about climate change. Like the IPCC process itself, this would have to be an initiative that was ambitious, co-ordinated and backed at the highest political level.

Imagine an international programme of climate change debates and conversations – events designed not to make an economic case, put forward scientific facts or win an argument, but to allow people to express and discuss their concerns, fears, dreams and hopes for the future. What could be a more useful democratic function than providing the fora and support for the world’s citizens to talk to each other about how climate change will impact on their future, and how they want to respond to it?

Isolated examples of these kinds of initiatives have taken place before. When they have occurred, a striking pattern has been observed: people move from disinterest to a position of engaged concern. It is difficult to believe that anyone – given the time and opportunity to reflect on what climate change means for their family, their friends, and their future – would dismiss the issue out of hand, as so many currently do. But what currently passes for public engagement on climate change – corporate greenwash, half-hearted government initiatives and the wrong-headed belief that people can only tolerate fluffy and upbeat messages – promotes a superficial treatment of such a profound subject.

So as critical as the IPCC’s reports are, they are only one piece of a complex puzzle that involves reframing the idea of climate change away from an abstract topic of scientific study to a societal frontier that everyone has a direct and personal stake in shaping. If we can assess the state of scientific knowledge every five years on something as complex as climate change, shouldn’t we be able to do a better job at translating it into something that people beyond the scientists and the policy wonks can engage with?

Originally published by The Guardian on 21.10.13

Risk & ideology in the reporting of the IPCC

James Painter argues that a focus on risk, rather than uncertainty, could help bridge the partisan divide in reporting on climate change.

In this guest blog, James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, points to the partisan reporting of the latest IPCC report in UK media and asks whether greater deployment of risk (as opposed to uncertainty) language might help to bridge the political divide…

The first of the IPCC blockbuster reports is now out, and media organisations around the world have been carefully pouring over the latest findings.

Or have they?  A preliminary look at the coverage by UK newspapers suggests that all too often what matters is not the science, but the dominant political leaning of the owner or editors.

For example, an editorial in the (left-leaning) Guardian highlighted the credibility of the report, emphasising the 95% probability that carbon emissions account for at least half of the observed increase in global warming since 1951.

In contrast, the (right-leaning) Daily Mail focused on what it called the ‘extraordinary admission’ by the IPCC that temperatures have barely risen since 1998.  It called for a similar 15 year pause in paying what it called ‘ludicrous green taxes’.

Carbon Brief has already done some interesting initial analysis of UK newspaper headlines.  Using a similar typology to the one we used in a 2011 study on climate scepticism around the world, Carbon Brief found that the right-leaning Mail, Times and Telegraphs exhibited a mixture of ‘impact scepticism’ (climate change is caused by humans but we don’t know how severe the impacts will be) and ‘attribution scepticism’ (we don’t yet know that it is mostly anthropogenic).

In contrast, the left-leaning Guardian, Observer and Independent showed no such scepticism, mostly stressing the severity of climate change and the need for action.

A not dissimilar left-right split can be seen in the US and Australian media too.  A study by Media Matters of the IPCC report found that although many of the major US news outlets included attribution sceptics, the right-leaning Fox News and Wall Street Journal had by far the highest percentage of ‘doubters’.

For example, 69% of the guests on Fox News were sceptics.

All of this is distressing for those scientists who want to see a sober assessment of the science, without it being interpreted through the prism of political preferences.

It also leads to the obvious question of why climate scepticism is largely a right-wing phenomenon in the press.  In our study we argued that the main drivers were the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that informs sceptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message.

But of course it is also, to a certain extent, about newspapers reflecting the political, cultural and social values of their readers.

And here we move into territory analysed by many communication scholars who argue that concern about climate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about the science.  Values or pre-existing beliefs come first, acting as a filter for the facts.  

Climate sceptics in the media often focus on the uncertainties around the climate science.  These are inevitable given the hugely complex climate system and the difficulties of making accurate projections of likely scenarios.

In a book we published in September, we found that journalists follow prompts from the scientists in reporting all the uncertainties.  Around 80% of the articles contained some sort of uncertainty.  And around half contained a quote from a scientist indicating some uncertain aspect of the science.

But one of the problems with uncertainty is that many people probably don’t understand fully that it is a key element of many areas of research science.  They often think scientists should be certain about things, and confuse their uncertainty with ignorance.

Several experts have suggested that risk language and concepts may be a more helpful way of presenting the information, particularly to policy makers who are very aware of weighing up the costs and benefits of different actions (including doing nothing).

The classic example of this is from the insurance world.  Most people take out house insurance against low probability, high risk events like their house burning down.

Investors constantly use the language of risk, and one top UK banker at HSBC reacted to the latest IPCC report by describing climate change as essentially an ‘issue of strategic risk management’.

Lord Stern, author of the famous 2006 report on the economics of climate change, is an admirer of risk language.   He likes to ask whether the world wants to play Russian roulette with one bullet or two.

And he argues that sceptics have to show they have high confidence the planet is going to experience only the lower end of possible temperature increases for them to make their case that it is not necessary to take action to minimise climate risks.

Risk language is not a panacea – but it may help. After all, climate models can now evaluate how much man-made climate change may have made an extreme weather event like a severe flood more likely.

Such risk assessments usually include probability levels, and what degree of confidence scientists have in their findings.   It would help if we were better at understanding them – but maybe our values will still get in the way….

Are Christians more likely to be climate sceptics?

What is the relationship between God and green?

In debates about climate change scepticism, much has been made of the influence of people’s political beliefs. Especially in the US, but in other Anglophone countries too, climate change has become one of those flagship issues – like gun control, gay marriage and reproductive rights – that are reliable indicators of left and right.

However, in many western democracies, millions of people don’t have strong political affiliations. In fact, many do not vote at all. And in the US in particular, there are other forces at play that affect people’s belief systems.

Some 30% of the population of North America describe themselves as evangelical Christians, with a much larger number following or practising other forms of Christianity. This means that the relationship between humans and the natural environment, from a theological perspective, is likely to be a significant influence on how people think about climate change and sustainability.

In a paper currently in press at the journal Global Environmental Change, Nick Smith and Antony Leiserowitz conducted a survey of over 2,000 North Americans, including approximately 600 evangelical Christians. Their aim was to better understand how evangelicals think about climate change, by comparing their views to those of non-evangelical participants in the survey.

Compared to non-evangelicals, American evangelicals were less likely to believe that climate change was happening, less likely to believe that human activity was the cause, and less likely to express worry and concern. And although a majority of evangelicals supported various policy measures to tackle climate change, they were less likely to do so than non-evangelicals.

Within the sample of evangelicals, though, there was variation in people’s views – and this variation was partly accounted for by their values and political ideologies. To the extent that people in the study were both evangelical and individualistic, they tended to doubt the reality of climate change. But evangelicals who were more egalitarian in their outlook were less sceptical – and more concerned – about climate change.

Partly because of the significant overlap between Christian beliefs and politically conservative ideology, therefore, right-leaning evangelicals were more sceptical than the general population about humans’ impact on the climate. Climate change, as the authors of the survey note, has become as divisive within this group as it has among the broader American public.

The survey is important because it provides the first direct comparison between the beliefs of evangelical Christians and the rest of the US population on the contemporary environmental issue of climate change. But debates about what the teachings of the Bible imply for society’s relationship with the natural world go back a long way.

Did God grant humans dominion and therefore domination over nature? Is nature there simply to be utilised by us? Or does dominion mean a duty of care – a responsibility for stewardship and a mandate to live within our means?

The question of how God and green relate to each other is not confined to the US. Operation Noah is a British Christian organisation that describes itself as “faith inspired, science informed and hope motivated”. It campaigns for the complete decarbonisation of the British economy by 2030, in response to the “growing threat of catastrophic climate change endangering God’s creation”. The theology thinktank sees no contradiction between radical lifestyle change and the teachings of Jesus – and provides resources and support for Christian groups who want to make climate change part of their identity.

And although the Church of England has been in the news recently for defending fracking (arguing that it will reduce fuel bills, and therefore help people with lower incomes), there is also broad-based agreement among British Christian institutions that climate change is a serious threat. International charities such as Christian Aid have been at the forefront of the push for a binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions. So it is certainly not the case that Christian beliefs and scepticism about climate change necessarily go hand in hand.

Even in the US, there have been examples of evangelical groups calling on their supporters to confront climate change, arguing that a commitment to Christianity implies a duty and responsibility to protect the planet. And climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe are evangelical about both climate change and their Christian faith. The relationship between God and green is not straightforward: there is no monolithic Christian view on the climate.

Human influence on the climate is a question of science. But the challenge of how to respond to climate change is squarely in the realm of morality – where religious and other belief systems reign supreme. And given the limited impacts of most campaigns to communicate climate change, might our dry, detached discussions of scientific uncertainties have something to learn from the passion and commitment of the pulpit?


Originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 11.09.13