THE BLOG

Why Communicating About Climate Change Is so Difficult: It's 'The Elephant We're All Inside of'

02/05/2015 08:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

How stakeholders communicate about climate change has long been framed by who's doing the framing as much, or more so, than the information being communicated. So I am forever curious how various stakeholders -- believers, skeptics and deniers alike -- are talking about it and who, if anybody, is "moving the needle" in either direction.

One of the most salient and recent inputs to the climate communications conundrum is Don't Even Think About It -- Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall in Oxford, England.

Marshall's work deserves to be spotlighted for how it illuminates why skeptics and deniers alike will not be moved to engage in thoughtful exchanges unless those communicating respect certain tenets of what academic and nonprofit research are finding.

Marshall draws on the efforts of the climate information network (COIN) he co-founded along with research by two leading university-based centers: the Project on Climate Change Communications at Yale University in Princeton, NJ and the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.

George Marshall is the co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, a nonprofit organization that specializes in public communication around climate change.

Marshall also taps into the works of authorities who've written and/or spoken extensively about climate change, such as Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert, GOP pollster Frank Luntz, Princeton Psychology and Public Affairs Professor Daniel Kahneman, former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Oregon Kari Norgaard and ABC-TV network correspondent Bill Blakemore.

Perhaps it would behoove those preparing for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, aka COP21, in Paris November 30 - December 11, 2015 to heed much of what Marshall and other top-tier researchers are finding and sharing if they are serious about forging a legally binding and universal agreement on climate.

Here is my synthesis of the most illuminating take-a-ways from Marshall's book. I offer it as a checklist with which to gauge climate communications efforts, regardless of which -- if any -- side of the issue you're on. Be sure to share your thoughts.

  • Perceptions are shaped by individual psychological coping mechanisms and the collective narratives that they shape with the people around them.
  • A compelling emotional story that speaks to peoples' core values has more impact than rational scientific data such as hotter global temperatures and rising sea levels.
  • People's social identity has an extraordinary hold over their behaviors and views.
  • Drawing too much attention to an undesirable norm (e.g. catastrophic weather) can seriously backfire.
  • In high-carbon societies, EVERYone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi. What might work better are narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests and a common humanity.
  • The real story is about our fear, denial and struggle to accept our own responsibility. "Climate change isn't the elephant in the room; it's the elephant we're all inside of," said ABC's Bill Blakemore.
  • Our brains are UNsuited to deal with climate change unless the threats are personal, abrupt, immoral and immediate. A distant, abstract and disputed threat does not have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.
  • Without a clear deadline for action, we create our own timeline. We do so in ways that remove the compulsion to act. We make it just current enough to accept that something needs to be done but put it just too far into the future to require immediate action.

We'd all benefit the most from: what models for communicating about climate change are working, and which ones are not?

  • The messenger is more important than the message. The messenger can be the most important -- but also the weakest link -- between scientific information and personal conviction. Building on that, to break the partisan "deadlock" and public disinterest starts, Marshall asserts educational efforts need to create the means for new messengers to be heard.
  • There may be lessons learned from the campaign by oil giant BP in the early 2000s offering person-on-the-street testimonials about the need to deal with climate change. Full disclosure: While a Senior Vice President of Public Affairs with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide from 2001-2006, I helped develop and execute elements of BP's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign.
  • Until the economy is back on a strong growth track, climate change advocates will struggle to earn attention in their home countries as long as bread-and-butter 'pocketbook' issues are more important to an overwhelming majority of citizens.

See George Marshall in action from this recent interview on TalkingStickTV via YouTube.

While we're on the subject, I recommend reading Connecting on Climate: A Guide To Effective Climate Change Communication, completed in 2014 by ecoAmerica and Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. It includes 10 principles for effective climate change communication based on research from various social science fields.

See more at The EnergyFix.com.