Is local always better for climate communication?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Group assignment was random.

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

The Uncertainty Handbook

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the British actor Tom Cullen says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally published by The Guardian 05.06.15

From financial to ‘cultural’ divestment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal climate stories

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

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

Its a catch 22.

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

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

Climate Wisconsin

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


The Climate Reality project

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

For the Love Of

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

Years of Living Dangerously

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

Nature speaks

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

The Story Group

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

More Than Scientists

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

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

Project Aspect

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

Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming

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

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

Alternating climate impacts: stories about security?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social consensus on flooding and climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published by The Guardian on 29.01.15

Why its good to laugh at climate change

Can comedy about climate change cut through the social silence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published by The Guardian on 20.01.14

Connecting on Climate: a new communications guide

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

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

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

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.

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.


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

Communicating climate change by celebrating nature

Celebrating nature offers one way of bringing home to people what the challenge of climate change is all about. And in this way, its a powerful communication message.

In this guest post, Ralph Underhill, from the Public Interest Research Centre, explains why their new report ‘Common Cause for Nature‘ offers one way of bringing the meaning of climate change home.

Why does climate change matter to me?

It is not that I have an issue with a change in the long term weather patterns of our planet, if these had no knock on consequences I might be indifferent to the human impacts on the climate. The reason I care about climate change is because of it’s potentially massive social and environmental consequences. I care most about climate change because of what it will do to the natural world and the wildlife that has provided me with my most inspiring and memorable experiences.

Importantly I am not alone, although some might not currently share my concerns, they do value the same things that I do.

The combined membership of the conservation organisations in Wildlife and Countryside Link is over 8 million. People aren’t motivated to join these organisations because they think nature conservation contributes significantly to the economy or because of the ecosystem services that certain wildlife rich habitats provide, they join because they love wildlife and want it to be protected. Some of these members are the civil servants, politicians and other decision makers that environmental organisations spend our time trying to persuade.

If a large number of people are motivated by the awe inspiring brilliance of nature why don’t those in conservation speak about it more?

This week marks the publication of the Common Cause for Nature report. Commissioned by the 13 leading conservation organisations (including WWF, RSPB and the Ramblers) and drawing on social psychology, it provides an original analysis of the values being encouraged in the communications of the sector.

The research shows that conservation organisations don’t talk about how inspiring and engaging the natural world is any more frequently than the rest of society. If the conservation sector is not celebrating the beauty and wonder of nature, who is? Social psychology shows that experiences or communications celebrating and appreciating the natural world are likely to strengthen people’s connection the natural world and bring about lasting concern about conservation.

The findings also show that the sector tends to focus heavily on the threats and dangers to nature, something familiar to those working on climate change. Research shows that the emotional responses to such communications can actually reduce people’s motivation to act environmentally, particularly when people aren’t given a way of responding that is proportionate to the scale of the threat. This is not to say that negative messages have no role: but they should be appropriately balanced with actions people can do and framed in a way that illustrates how it will help address the overall problem.

Another key finding of the report is that many communications share much in common with those of commercial businesses providing the ‘product’ of conservation to their supporters who are viewed as ‘customers’. Research shows that appealing to peoples consumer side reduces their willingness to act on behalf of the environment, something I covered in more detail in another blog.

CCfN sets out the values theory and how it applies to many different work areas – communications, working with volunteers, membership, the media, influencing government. There should be something in the report that is applicable to all staff in nearly every role and many of the recommendations should apply equally to those working on climate change as they do to those who are focused on conservation.

What I have laid out here is just a very short overview. The research and theory of this work, as well as many more findings and recommendations are in the full report. I encourage you all to read it and welcome any feedback that you have.

I feel strongly that Common Cause for Nature is a significant step towards understanding how we can inspire people to work with us to save nature and address climate change.

Frackers: Ignore public values at your peril

A new report finds that fairness, security, affordability and avoiding wastefulness are key to forming public views on energy. Frackers beware!

Certain truisms have wormed their way into the national discourse of how people think about energy. We’re told that no-one wants a wind turbine in their back yard. It’s common knowledge that going green is only for the economic good times. And everyone knows that the only thing people are interested in when it comes to the energy system is the cost of their bills.

The trouble with truisms, though, is that they aren’t always as true as they first appear. And as a new report on a major programme of work exploring public attitudes towards the UK energy system shows, many widely shared assumptions about what motivates public views on energy are probably in need of revision.

The report – produced by researchers in the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University for the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) – is one of the first to document public perceptions of the energy system as a whole (rather than as individual technologies such as nuclear or solar power).

Based on a series of interviews, in-depth discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, the project documented how people think the energy system should change between now and 2050 – the date by which British emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced to 80% of their current level.

First and foremost, people expect and even want change. Taking a pragmatic position in the face of inevitable transformation over the next 30 years, most people see an opportunity to “do it right”. And for the majority of people, doing it right means a reduction in fossil fuels – seen as archaic, polluting and finite – and an increase in renewables.

There were mixed views on whether wind turbines spoiled landscapes, or were actually good for local communities. But when considered in the context of other technologies, such as nuclear power, the message was clear: 21% opposed the building of a wind farm in their area, while 54% opposed the building of a nuclear power plant.

Cost was found to be a critical determinant of public perceptions, with energy bills understandably featuring prominently. But, strikingly, the cheapest options were not necessarily the most preferred, particularly if they came with other undesirable attributes (eg fossil fuel reliance).

In fact, through a closer inspection of the underlying principles on which public views were based, the report was able to describe a set of core values on which perceptions of the energy system seem to crucially hinge. These values included fairness, security, affordability, minimising damage to the natural environment and avoiding wastefulness.

Particular technologies or social practices that embodied these values were likely to be viewed more favourably. Fairness, for example, was found to underpin beliefs about the openness and accountability of energy suppliers, the involvement of local communities in decisions about siting new technologies, and the potential for importing fossil fuels to cause global conflict.

Only by taking a more holistic approach to the study of public views about the energy system were commonalities like these possible to identify. And, as the increasingly heated debates around fracking demonstrate, these are lessons that urgently need learning.

Despite acute concern over the development of fracking operations in Balcombe, West Sussex, and broader debates about the implications for climate change and energy policy, government and industry rhetoric has failed to engage with public values. In fact, local authorities have apparently been advised by central government to ignore fracking protests.

This strategy, however, is likely to run into trouble. As the Cardiff report says: “If actors do not consider and take into account public values in their decision-making, resistance to energy-system transformations or conflict over particular issues is more likely to result.”

In other words, governments and energy companies ignore the views and values of the public at their peril: a contract for social change will not be achieved by marginalising or otherwise excluding public views from the debate.

And nothing less than a contract for social change is likely to deliver transformation in the UK energy system between now and 2050. For sure, there are multiple pathways to sustainability. But none will come to fruition if they do not embody values such as fairness and frugality – the underlying drivers of public beliefs.

Public views about the energy system are about much more than household bills and nimbys. The sooner the government and industry bodies engage seriously with the values the public cares about, the more successful – and politically popular – that transformation is likely to be.

First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business on 20.08.13

A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change

How to begin a new conversation with the centre-right about climate change: values, frames and narratives


The Climate Outreach & Information Network’s latest report, ‘A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change’, has been published and you can download it here:

COIN – A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change

Warning: may cause climate change

Could warning labels on gas/petrol pumps help make the link between fossil fuel use and climate change more explicit?

This guest post is from Robert Shirkey, lawyer and executive director of Our Horizon, a not-for-profit climate change organization based in Toronto, Canada. He describes how Our Horizon’s campaign for warning labels on gas/petrol pump nozzles is drawing on climate change communication research.

Climate change warning labels on gas pump nozzles.

A gas nozzle with a warning label
A gas nozzle with a warning label

Our Horizon has a simple, low-cost idea that we believe will play an important role in addressing climate change. We want to put warning labels on gas pump nozzles just like we do with cigarette packages. The idea helps us to connect the dots between our use of fossil fuels and the effects of climate change. Honestly facing our problem is a first and necessary step for taking meaningful action.

In 2001, Canada became the first jurisdiction in the world to require pictorial warning labels on cigarette packages. Since then, approximately 50 countries have adopted our innovation. Studies show that these labels are effective at providing information and changing attitudes and behaviours.

Many gas stations come equipped with “nozzle talkers.” A nozzle talker is like a rubber sock that fits over standard gas nozzles and is equipped with a flat surface to display advertising. The medium is an ideal place to communicate the link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change.

Creating feedback and locating responsibility

Climate change is a problem of no feedback. There is a delay between cause and effect. We get little feedback from our actions today so there is no signal to change our behaviour.

The labels create feedback. The image and the text on the warning label bring far away consequences – like famine, extinction of species and extreme weather – into the here and now. They build feedback to provide an important signal to change our behaviour.

Climate change is also a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contributions to the problem are small, but collectively, our actions are altering the chemistry of our planet. Psychologists know that when responsibility for something is diffuse, we fail to act.

The labels locate responsibility. The placement of the image on the nozzle takes a problem of diffuse origins and locates responsibility right in the palm of your hand.

Could labels like this make the link between fossil fuels and climate change more explicit.
Could labels like this make the link between fossil fuels and climate change more explicit.

Communicating externalities in a qualitative way

Climate change is a problem of externalities. Certain externalities can be reasonably captured through pricing mechanisms. For example, our use of fossil fuels is causing rising sea levels and the need to upgrade our existing coastal infrastructure. The cost of these upgrades can be estimated and then internalized into the price of the product. This way, we come to know the “true cost” of the product and we adapt our purchasing decisions accordingly.

But what is the cost of a species that faces extinction? And, to the extent that drought will cause famine and death, we also need to ask: what is the dollar value of a human life? These are all important externalities that need to be communicated to the market in order for it to function as it is intended but how can we capture these particular values via pricing mechanisms?

Our solution addresses this too. The labels capture and communicate costs to the market in a qualitative way – through the use of image and text. These labels have the potential to engage our sense of humanity in a way that a 10-cent price increase at the pump never will.

The labels will cause some individuals to change their behaviour but, more importantly, they will result in a shift in our collective demand that will allow for meaningful action on climate change. It’s what will give an auto-maker a market for their ultra efficient vehicle or their electric car. It’s what will give an elected official the political capital to fund public transit in a big way or implement a carbon tax.

How we’re getting this done.

Municipalities in Canada can use their licensing powers to require gasoline retailers to place these labels on their gas pumps. With over 4,000 municipalities in Canada, we expect a number of communities to pass the by-law soon.

We also see the idea quickly spreading from here. Citizens in countries that have warning labels on their tobacco packaging are cognitively primed to adopt our concept.  We anticipate the idea will go global and play an important role in prompting us all to rise to meet the greatest challenge of our time.

Is there a corporate ‘common cause’?

The Common Cause challenged the charity sector to work together – rather than compete – on issues like climate change. Could the corporate sector ever do the same?

This was originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19/02/13

Sometimes, simple ideas have far-reaching implications, and the Common Cause report – which created ripples throughout the charity sector in 2012 is a perfect example of this. The central argument in Common Cause is deceptively simple: there is a cluster of values like concern for the welfare of others, that underpins social and environmental concern. Any campaign that does not seek to support or nurture these values risks undermining the common cause that links all organisations working for a fairer, more sustainable world.

While it may be advantageous in the short term for an environmental charity to emphasise the financial benefit of household energy saving measures, this will do nothing to build public support for tackling climate change. Evidence suggests it may actually backfire, reinforcing the values that undermine social and environmental concern.

Common Cause presents a robust challenge to the status quo of charity campaigning (increasingly built around superficial monetary transactions, rather than more substantive engagement), the arguments have for the most part fallen on receptive ears. After all, if there is a part of society that would be expected to understand the value of working together to achieve a shared, common purpose, it is the charity sector. But can the same be said for the corporate world?

Competition is a principle at the heart of capitalism. A company may take significant steps towards improving the sustainability of its supply chain. But ultimately, it is seeking to gain a bigger market share than its competitors. It is not looking to share.

A small minority of brands (such as Patagonia) have begun to raise really difficult questions for the corporate sector – not just consuming differently, but consuming less. While these companies clearly take sustainability more seriously than most, they are still seeking to increase their market share. In short, they are still in competition. Could the private sector ever conceivably develop a common cause around sustainability, based on co-operation not competition?

One challenge that many businesses with sustainability goals have in common is how to encourage their customers to act on the sustainability guidance they give them. A drinks company will want their products to be recycled; a clothing company may encourage their customers to use less energy in the washing process.

In exactly the same way that charity and governmental campaigns on climate change have targeted specific behaviours – switching off lights, or unplugging phone chargers – detached from the context in which they occur, businesses currently focus exclusively on the single issue related to their product.

Perhaps, the common cause for corporations seeking to make real progress on sustainability would mean investing their significant communications resources in engaging their customers around climate change and sustainability, but without these campaigns being linked to a particular product or sales pitch.

The payback, from the perspective of the companies investing in such a strategy, would be that each individual behaviour they wished to promote – recycling or washing clothes at a colder temperature – would be made more likely by a common determinant: the values, beliefs and identities that underpin all of their customers’ behaviours.

Once a critical mass of companies were committed legally, morally, and institutionally to sustainability goals that were predicated on selling less, making things that lasted longer and expected to be fixed rather than replaced, could companies conceivably promote public engagement with climate change for the good of the sector as a whole?

This currently inconceivable approach would not be the end of the story however. As Tom Crompton, the author of the original Common Cause report has explained, there is also an internal challenge for companies that are serious about sustainability:

“The marketing industry has a particular responsibility to examine the impact of its activities on cultural values [but] a company’s management culture, the incentives it offers its employees, and its contribution to public priorities through the lobbying activities of its trade associations, are all likely to have crucial impacts on cultural values. It is quite conceivable that these factors – hitherto largely ignored in the debate on sustainable business practice – may be of far greater environmental significance than the direct material impacts of a particular range of products or services.”

There is a mountain to climb before the corporate sector could even begin to start thinking about developing a common cause around sustainability. If ultimately, the secret to a truly engaged public and genuinely sustainable society is the promoting and nurturance of values like altruism, above and beyond competitiveness, is there any choice but to start the ascent?

Climate Change through the Eyes of a Californian Farmer

A new study shows why the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change matters for farmers’ perceptions of climate change in California.

This guest post is by Dr. Ryan Haden and Ph.D. candidate Meredith Niles at the University of California Davis. Their recent study in the journal PLoS ONE is the first to use an approach called Construal Level Theory, which considers the ‘level’ – local or global – that people construe a problem, to examine the experiences and attitudes that motivate farmers to implement sustainable farming practices in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In California, the farmers who raise cattle and cultivate the Central Valley’s diverse mix of orchards, vineyards, and row crops are well-aware of how dependent they are on favorable climatic conditions. As one grower puts it, “Agriculture is more vulnerable to climate change than anyone who is not a farmer can even imagine”. Helping farmers anticipate and adapt to changes in the local climate is therefore vital to preserving rural livelihoods and safeguarding global food security.

With the implementation of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act now underway, local farmers are also being asked to consider their role in the state’s carbon footprint. Since agriculture in California accounts for roughly 6-7 % of total greenhouse gas emissions, state agencies have opted for a voluntary approach to mitigating emissions from agriculture compared to mandatory reductions from the industrial and transportation sectors. This reliance on voluntary action by farmers raises the question – What motivates them to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

To answer this question our research team worked with local stakeholders in the Central Valley to conduct a survey that examined farmers’ experiences, perspectives, and behaviors related to climate change. Our questions covered a range of topics including; i) farmers’ past experience with local climate impacts (e.g. changes in temperature and water availability), ii) their beliefs about the existence, causes, and risks of climate change, iii) their concerns for global and local impacts on agriculture, and ultimately iv) their willingness to adopt various mitigation and adaptation practices.

As it turns out, what motivates a farmer to take action is quite different if the goal is reducing the emissions that cause climate change (i.e. mitigation), as opposed to coping with the consequences (i.e. adaptation). Perhaps more importantly, the specific concerns that motivate each response depend heavily on whether the risks of climate change are framed in a global or local context.

To understand the distinction between global and local framing we drew on several recent psychological studies that apply Construal Level Theory (i.e. the level at which people ‘construe’ ¬the problem) to environmental decision making and behavior. In particular, work by Alexa Spence at the University of Nottingham and several of her colleagues at Cardiff University recognized that the “psychological distance of climate change” has strong implications for what experiences and attitudes motivate people to respond to climate change. They observed that the impacts of climate change can be perceived in either a psychologically distant or proximate mindset (i.e. distant = high level construal and close = low level construal). This conceptual framework was then used to understand how personal experience with flooding helped to motivate people in the UK to reduce their energy use and thus mitigate emissions.

Our work, which looks at the psychological distance of climate change through the eyes of a California farmer, goes one step further by considering the subtle difference between mitigation and adaptation goals. We found that past experience alone did not directly motivate climate action among farmers. Instead, the effect of past experience on behavior was mediated by their level of concern for either the local or global impacts on agriculture.

Moreover, we also observed that the attitudes motivating mitigation and adaptation behaviors tend to be cognitively represented at different construal levels – with psychologically distant “global concerns” driving mitigation and more proximate “local concerns” spurring adaptation. For instance, farmers who expressed concern about the global impacts of climate change on agriculture were more willing to adopt mitigation practices such as using energy and fertilizers more efficiently. In contrast, those who were concerned about local impacts, particularly on water availability, were more motivated to adapt by implementing improved irrigation practices.

So what might explain these results? We think it’s likely due to the fact that mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is a classic collective action problem that cannot be solved by the actions of one person alone. It requires cooperation on a global scale. Also, the outcome our personal efforts to reduce emissions are diffused globally and thus difficult to see firsthand. As such, the concerns and behaviors linked to mitigation tend to be psychologically distant.

In contrast, farmers who anticipate local climate impacts and take specific measures to adapt can often see tangible evidence of their efforts. Thus, the concerns and behaviors motivating adaptation are psychologically closer than those which influence mitigation. This example from agriculture also underscores the fact that both cooperative and self-interested behaviors will each be necessary if we hope to address the causes and consequences of climate change.

So for those of us who are interested in more effectively engaging farmers (and the broader public) in initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change, our study offers several conclusions to consider:

1. Keep the messages on mitigation and adaptation strategies focused on their respective global and local spheres. The real value of this approach is that people pay closer attention to messages that match attitudes with desired behavior according to their psychological distance.

2. Develop information resources that equip farmers to identify and address local climate-related impacts. This approach strengthens local adaptive capacity because individuals who are operating in a psychologically proximate mindset will tend to pursue feasible goals that they perceive as being effective for dealing with problems near at hand.

3. Use messages that emphasize the societal benefits of mitigation rather than fear of personal consequences. This is important because the main benefits of farmers’ efforts to mitigate emissions are diffused globally and thus may not directly benefit their crops or economic returns.

4. Remember that many farming practices have complex ramifications for both mitigation and adaptation. This means that climate change initiatives should be designed to help farmers weigh the mix of benefits and tradeoffs that generally accompany new farming practices.

Even if we eventually achieve the mitigation targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, our past emissions will continue to impact the climate for many decades to come. Therefore, we may want to pay close attention to the common wisdom of our California farmer when he emphasizes that we “need to be thinking about mitigation and adaptation” in our future policy and outreach initiatives.

What would I advise climate science communicators?

Professor Dan Kahan, of Yale University’s Cultural Cognition project, offers some answers to the question ‘what is the best advice for climate science communicators’?

(guest post by Dan Kahan)

This is what I was asked by a thoughtful person who is assisting climate-science communicators to develop strategies for helping the public to recognize the best available evidence–so that those citizens can themselves make meaningful decisions about what policy responses best fit their values.

So below are the person’s questions (more or less) and my responses, and I welcome others to offer their own reactions.

1. What is the most important influence or condition affecting the efficacy of science communication relating to climate change?

In my view, “the quality of the science communication environment” is the single most important factor determining how readily ordinary people will recognize the best available evidence on climate change and what its implications are for policy. That’s the most important factor determining how readily they will recognize the best available scientific evidence relevant to all manner of decisions they make in their capacity as consumers, parents, citizens—you name it.

People are remarkably good at figuring out who knows what about what. That is the special rational capacity that makes it possible for them to make reliable use of so much more scientific knowledge than they could realistically be expected to understand in a technical sense.

The “science communication environment” consists of all the normal, and normally reliable, signs and processes that people use to figure out what is known to science. Most of these signs and processes are bound up with normal interactions inside communities whose members share basic outlooks on life. There are lots of different communities of that sort in our society, but usually they all steer their respective members toward what science knows.

But when positions on a fact that admits of scientific investigation (“is the earth heating up?”; “does the HPV vaccine promote unsafe sex among teenage girls?”) becomes entangled with the values and outlooks of diverse communities—and becomes, in effect, a symbol of one’s membership and loyalty in one or another group—then people in those groups will end up in states of persistent disagreement and confusion. These sorts of entanglements (and the influences that cause them) are in effect a form of pollution in the science communication environment, one that disables people from reliably discerning what is known to science.

The science communication environment is filled with these sorts of toxins on climate change. We need to use our intelligence to figure out how to clean our science communication environment up.

2. If you had three pieces of advice for those who are interested in promoting more constructive engagement with climate change science, what would they be?

A. Information about climate change should be communicated to people in the setting that is
most conducive to their open-minded and engaged assessment of it.

How readily and open-mindedly people will engage scientific information depends very decisively on context. A person who hears about the HPV vaccine when she sees Michelle Bachman or Ellen Goodman screaming about it on Fox or MSNBC will engage it as someone who has a political identity and is trying to figure out which position “matches” it; that same person, when she gets the information from her daughter’s pediatrician, will engage it as a parent, whose child’s welfare is the most important thing in the world to her, and who will earnestly try to figure out what those who are experts on health have to say. Most of the contexts in which people are thinking about climate change today are like the first of these two. Find ones that are more like the second. They exist!

B. Science communication should be evidence-based “all the way down.”

The number of communication strategies that plausibly might work far exceeds the number that actually will. So don’t just guess or introspect, & don’t listen to story-tellers who weave social science mechanisms into ad hoc (and usually uselessly general) “how to” instructions!

Start with existing evidence (including empirical studies) to identify the mechanisms of communication that there is reason to believe are of consequence in the setting in which you are communicating.

But don’t guess on the basis of those, either, about what to do; treat insights about how to harness those mechanisms in concrete contexts as hypotheses that themselves admit of, and demand, testing designed to help corroborate their likely effectiveness and to calibrate them.

Finally, observe, measure, and report the actual effect of strategies you use. Think how much benefit you would have gotten, in trying to decide what to do now, if you had had access to meaningful data relating to the impact (effective or not) of all things people have already tried in the area of climate science communication. Think what a shame it would be if you fail to collect and make available to others who will be in your situation usuable information about the effects of your efforts.

Aiding and abetting entropy is a crime in the Liberal Republic of Science!

C. Don’t either ignore or take as a given the current political economy surrounding climate
change; instead, engage people in ways that will improve it.

Public opinion does not by itself determine what policies are adopted in a democratic system. If “public approval” were all that mattered, we’d have adopted gun control laws in the 1970s stricter than the ones President Obama is now proposing; we’d have a muscular regime of campaign finance regulation; and we wouldn’t have subsidies for agriculture and oil producers, or tax loopholes that enable Fortune 500 companies to pay (literally) zero income tax.

The “political economy climate” is as complex as the natural climate, and public opinion is only one (small) factor. So if you make “increasing public support” your sole goal, you are making a big mistake.

You also are likely making a mistake if you take as a given the existing political economy dynamics that constrain governmental responsiveness to evidence and simply try to amass some huge counterforce (grounded in public opinion or otherwise) to overcome them. That’s a mistake, in my view, because there are things that can be done to engage people in a way that will make the political economy forces climate-change science communicators have to negotiate more favorable to considered forms of policymaking (whatever they might be).

Where to engage the public, how, and about what in order to improve the political economy surrounding climate change are all matters of debate, of course. So you should consult all the evidence, and all the people who have evidence-informed views, and make the best judgment possible. And anyone who doesn’t tell you that this is the thing to do is someone whose understanding of what needs to be done should be seriously questioned.

This post was originally published on, on 29th January, 2013.

God & Bombs: reframing climate change

This week Barack Obama framed climate change as a patriotic, religious responsibility for Americans, while Greenpeace warned of ‘carbon bombs’. Are these good ways of talking about climate change?

Barack Obama’s re-inauguration provided plenty to talk about – but only one real surprise. After a long, frustrating first term in which climate change was notable only by its absence from policy and rhetoric, Obama headlined his speech with a strong, unambiguous commitment to renew America’s efforts to tackle climate change.

It is more than a little absurd that a few sentences were received with such desperate gratitude by environmental campaigners around the world. That the leader of the American government acknowledges that something ought to be done about climate change should not be news in 2013.

But it is – and thankfully, Obama’s climate silence is finally over:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

The language with which the climate silence was broken was intriguing.

For a speech of this significance – setting the agenda for his second and final term in office – every word would have been crafted and sweated over. So when Obama talks about ‘our obligations as Americans’ (patriotism), refers to a duty of care from God to care for the planet (religion), and confronts directly the science-denial of the Republican Right (‘some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science’), he is using some very interesting and strategically deliberate ways of framing climate change.

Obama’s choice of rhetorical frames tells us more than simply that climate change is back on the agenda. It tells us how climate change is going to be re-animated in the American mind – signposts to the way that Obama wants Americans to think about climate change.

Obama wants to persuade the American public that not acting on climate change is a betrayal to their children, God and their country – powerful, deeply American values. If he manages to do this, he will have achieved what every environmental campaigner for the past two decades has failed to do: break climate change out of its ‘environmentalist’ niche, and make it something that ‘ordinary’ folk care about.

As if to answer Obama’s rallying call for confronting climate change, Greenpeace released a report identifying 14 enormous fossil fuel projects that would – if they were all to go ahead – push us past the point of ‘no return’ regarding the ‘2 degrees’ limit that is widely considered to represent ‘dangerous’ climate change.

From offshore oil drilling in Brazil, to the Tar Sands in Canada, these industrial projects would all but condemn us to a hugely unpredictable, unprecedented and over-heated world. They are climate disasters waiting to happen, or, as Greenpeace describe them, ‘carbon bombs’.

As James Murray, editor of Business Green pointed out, ‘carbon bomb’ is an incredibly powerful term:

“For too long environmental campaigners and green businesses have spoken about ‘carbon
emissions’ and ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’. It is time to talk of ‘climate crisis’, ‘gargantuan carbon bubbles’, and ‘carbon bombs’…The ‘carbon bomb’ is in danger of going off. We have never needed the clean tech bomb disposal team more”

Murray’s views will resonate with many climate change campaigners frustrated with the lack of urgency that has infected everything from international negotiations to behaviour change campaigns. The carbon bomb is a war metaphor. A co-ordinated societal response on the scale of a war effort would undoubtedly be more proportionate than the extensive deckchair re-arrangement plan currently in place.

But is it a useful way of reaching the un-convinced, or otherwise disinterested?

There is a fair amount of academic research that has asked whether – and under what circumstances – using fear and threats is a good tactic for public engagement. The take home message is that fear can motivate engagement and behaviour change, but only when the threat (e.g. lung cancer from smoking) is personal, tangible, direct and something under and individual’s control.

As Boris Johnson’s willful and calculated misrepresentation of the difference between weather and climate proved this week, the evidence outside of people’s windows can be important. In the US, Hurricane Sandy prompted Mayor Bloomberg to break cover on climate change. In Australia, adding a new colour to the temperature scale has provided a powerful visual signal that the climate is changing.

But in the UK, in January 2013, we see snow but no carbon bombs.

See No Evil?

What if – despite positive attitudes towards the environment – people unconsciously block out images of climate change they don’t want to see?

This was originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business, on Thursday 13th December, 2012.

Here’s an old chestnut: why, if people’s attitudes towards the environment are (in general) positive, and if levels of concern about climate change are consistently high, don’t these attitudes translate into meaningful behavioural changes?

Typically, answers to this question cite financial and motivational barriers that create an attitude-behaviour gap, or the lack of infrastructure (e.g., public transport) required for people’s low-carbon intentions to become a reality. But a new study released this month suggests a different answer – the views that people express in opinion polls may not actually be the best guide to what they really think about climate change and sustainability.

Geoffrey Beattie and Laura McGuire at Manchester University asked whether people’s ‘explicit’ attitudes (the responses people give in surveys and opinion polls) or their ‘implicit’ attitudes (which can only be revealed by people’s reaction times on a specially designed task) best predicted the amount of attention they paid to iconic images of climate change.

Implicit attitudes are measured using something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed in the 1990s, and now widely used in social psychology. The basic premise of the IAT is that if two concepts are strongly associated in someone’s mind, then they will be able to quickly and correctly categorise them in a computer task (whereas concepts that are less strongly associated will take longer to process).

Beattie’s previous research has found that people’s explicit and implicit attitudes towards climate change and low-carbon products do not always match, suggesting that some people may not be as green as they say they are. But in their new study, Beattie and McGuire took this argument one step further.

Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements such as ‘I prefer a product with a low carbon footprint’, but they also completed an IAT where they had to assign a series of positive or negative terms to the target category of ‘low carbon footprint’. The researchers then showed them a series of images, some of which were iconic negative images of climate change (e.g., a stranded polar bear) some of which were positive images of nature (e.g. a field of sunflowers), and some of which were everyday household objects. Intermingled across a series of slides, participants could choose which images to look at.

The results were striking: only implicit attitudes predicted how long people looked at iconic images of climate change. It did not matter if people had expressed a positive explicit attitude towards low-carbon products. Only people with strongly positive implicit attitudes (i.e., the people with quick reaction times between positive terms and the category ‘low carbon footprint’) chose to linger on the climate change images.

These findings suggest that even people who express a high degree of concern about climate change, or who claim a great deal of interest in low-carbon products, may actually be unconsciously shielding themselves from imagery associated with climate change, and by extension, deeper reflection on how to change their behaviour in response to it.

As Beattie and McGuire put it:

“People can choose not to go to the cinema to watch An Inconvenient Truth, people can ignore television documentaries on climate change, people can fail to attend to images of climate change (and this whole process does not have to be conscious either)…(W)hat happens if you never see the evidence for climate change? What hope for the planet then?”

Beattie and McGuire’s study provides a partial answer: that we cannot necessarily trust survey findings to tell us the full story about people’s views on climate change and sustainability. But although implicit attitudes may paint a more complex story about public perceptions of climate change and sustainability, psychological research is starting to reveal what influences people at the implicit level.

For example, one study asked people to associate themselves with a particular brand of drink rather than another, and then looked at how this influenced their scores on the IAT. Implicit attitudes became more positive when people believed that the drink in question was linked to their self-concept – the kind of drink that someone like them would buy.

Making sustainable behaviour something that is linked to people’s self-identities, rather than simply a series of unrelated, disjointed actions, has been shown to increase the chance that people will act sustainably across a range of different situations. Perhaps one way in which developing a green self-identity manifests itself is through increasingly sustainable implicit attitudes.

And it is these hidden thoughts – rather than the views measured in opinion polls – that may hold the secret to deepening public engagement with climate change and sustainability.