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What's the EFFECTIVE Way to Discuss Climate?
You might be surprised at the answer.
There are headlines every day about global warming. I just did a Google search and found these two:
1 July 2021, New York Times, “Arctic’s ‘Last Ice Area’ May Be Less Resistant to Global Warming”
3 July 2021, Washington Post, “Climate Change Has Gotten Deadly. It Will Get Worse.”
But does all of this information help to combat inaction on global warming? There’s actually a counterintuitive case to be made that continuing to “shovel an ever-increasing number of scary facts about the consequences of climate change will not only fail to change minds but will harden preconceptions”.
When you provide someone with new data, they quickly accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions (what are known as prior beliefs) and assess counterevidence with a critical eye. Because we are often exposed to contradicting information and opinions, this tendency will generate polarization, which will expand with time as people receive more and more information. In fact, presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view; this is known as the “boomerang effect.”
And the 2017 book argues that greater cognitive capacity makes things even worse, since greater cognitive capacity means greater “ability to rationalize and interpret information at will” and greater ability to “creatively twist data to fit your opinions”, so that “people may use their intelligence not to draw more accurate conclusions but to find fault in data they are unhappy with”.
I recently experienced an embarrassing “boomerang effect”. A climate-communicator told me that I wasting my time trying to share climate-science with a friend, but I insisted that my strategy would work as soon as my friend learned about the information. But sure enough, my attempt to talk to this person was a total disaster, and I would imagine that I only made things worse (“boomerang effect”).
What does work, then?
Katharine Hayhoe has an answer. In 2020, Hayhoe asked the attendees at one of her talks to name things that might be effective things to share with people who aren’t worried about climate-change, and the top answers given were: extreme weather, melting Arctic ice, and rising sea-levels.
But Hayhoe argued that instead of bringing up things that are distant in time/space, it’s better to:
emphasize how global warming will harm the person personally
give examples where increasing fires/floods have already caused their government to (1) change zoning-laws and (2) spend more money on public-safety responses
show them localizing/scaling data that quantify how global warming will harm specific people in specific places in terms of specific effects and in terms of specific dollar-amounts
show them local data on progress that’s being made on decarbonization
show them how specific beneficial practices are gaining traction
make sure not to bombard them with data about ice-sheets/whatever
use insightful methods to connect with people
talk about how/why addressing global warming is important to them right here and right now
share what can be done—to improve the situation—in a way that inspires them to take action
So you can’t talk about what the world will be like in the year 2070 or something. You need to make it personal (how is it harming them right here and right now) and you need to focus on solutions (or else fear/anxiety will paralyze them and shut them down).
There’s a must-read new piece on how to talk about climate. I urge everyone to read it. It starts off with this:
New normal. Record-breaking. Unprecedented.
In recent days, as Western Canada and the United States have been broiling under a climate-fuelled heat crisis, all sorts of superlatives have been used to describe never-before-seen temperatures: the British Columbia community of Lytton hit a mind-boggling 49.5 C on June 29, breaking all-time temperature records three days in a row.
People are understandably shocked and scared by those numbers. But should this have come as a surprise? No. Scientists have been warning about the link between longer, more intense heat events and climate change for over 40 years. The language of “normals” and “new records” is rapidly becoming meaningless.
But the notion that humanity should have known, or should have done something about the crisis earlier—that we should be ashamed for our lack of action—is unhelpful for dealing with the climate crisis.
The piece gives some smart ideas for how to spur action:
don’t rely too much on fear
make sure to pair fear with a focus on hopeful solutions (you don’t want people to shut down)
you can set a tangible personal example of what pro-environmental behavior looks like (you can post “photos to social media from community cleanup drives, nature walks or posts about any kind of pro-environmental behaviour, such as taking transit”)
these tangible personal examples will help to normalize that the problems are urgent and that there are solutions
it’s important to rely on “descriptive social norms” and not on moral injunctions—this means that you don’t give people moral warnings/orders
if you’re talking to Bob, don’t tell Bob: You’d better do this or else bad things will happen. You’d better do this or else you’re a bad person.
instead tell Bob: Other people just like you are doing X/Y/Z right now and this is how these people—who are just like you—are actually benefiting from X/Y/Z right now.
stories are absolutely crucial ways to communicate the climate-emergency
stories send a message that action on climate is “doable, normal, empowering and desirable”
these stories “energize and mobilize members of the public ready to take action, by providing visual examples of who is leading the way”
these stories also “move the conversation beyond the conventional emphasis on skeptics and deniers, and normalize pro-environmental values and behaviours for the growing number of people who are already alarmed or concerned about the climate emergency”
these stories “unlock people’s sense of efficacy and agency in the face of impending danger” (rather than getting people to shut down) and “engage the public on climate change by doing what all good communication does: meeting people where they are at, through a mobilizing story”
“This is storytelling 101: engaging audiences, not turning them away, as most climate reports do.”
I’m interested in these questions: What percentage of climate-concerned people understand all of these insights? And how many climate-concerned people understand that the intuitive method is not working, and that it might even be making things worse? And what can be done to spread the word about the effective ways to talk about climate?