A lot of news and research about climate change can be quite bleak. Take, for example, this article by New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth”. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writer David Wallace-Wells begins quite ominously. While this certainly packs a punch in terms of letting people know the potential havoc climate change can wreak, is this an example of effective climate change communication?
It may be mind-boggling to some, but not everyone is sold on climate change. There are those who still think that climate change is a hoax, or some fabrication by a foreign power. There are also those who think that things won't be as bad as scientists think, or those that aren't as well-versed in climate change.
Then there are the scientists, and those who may be a bit more aware of the effects of climate change than others. These are the people who are still figuring out how to best communicate the science of climate change to others.
Energizing vs Paralyzing
Climate change communication can be like flipping a coin. Say that you're a scientist who wants people to understand the dire effects of rising temperatures. You want people to change behaviors that are actively harming the Earth and making climate change worse. You want governments to listen when the scientific community says that urgent steps are necessary to address climate change. What is the best way to go about this?
So then you tell them about what the planet may be like decades from now, after the world has ignored warnings from scientists or taken too long to take action. You may convince people that yes, things need to change. You may make some people feel vindicated about their own views. On the other hand, all the gloom and doom may make other people feel hopeless. After all, if the planet is headed towards certain doom anyway, why bother?
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, says that scaring people about the effects of climate change isn't enough. When the narrative becomes too depressing, it can also become paralyzing.
What, therefore, can scientists, concerned journalists, and interested citizens do to communicate climate change science more effectively?
Acting on Climate Change Communication
What people need may be more action, less talk. According to Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project, the news doesn't actually do much to sway people's opinions on a given topic. According to Kahan's research, it's cultural identity—the groups to which people belong—that shapes their views on climate change.
Thus, you can bombard a climate change denier with as many facts as you know, but it's likely that it won't change their mind. Facts and knowledge won't spur people to change their beliefs, Kahan says. The way their peers act based on that evidence will.
More action, less talk may be the key to more effective climate change communication. The question that remains, of course, is how we get people to act based on evidence and subsequently influence their peers.
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