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Climate change and the science of communication

By now, I’m guessing many of us have already read several articles, or at least several headlines, about the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the report, if we want to prevent the worst effects of global warming, there must be major changes in the way our civilization is run. Furthermore, these major changes must happen within the next dozen years or so, otherwise it might be too late.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, the solution must also be at an equally grand scale. In other words, addressing  climate change will require as many of us to contribute in ways both effective and efficient. Talking about the science of climate change is necessary but far from sufficient in making this possible. To get as many people on board with the project, we need the help of another science—the science of science communication.

According to the IPCC report, the world is already currently warmer by 1 degree Celsius compared to the previous century, and the effects of this are already being felt. This warming will only increase over the next decade. However, if we are able to limit the warming to 1.5 degrees, we will avoid the more catastrophic effects.

For example, a warming of 1.5 degrees would result in around 9 percent less available freshwater in some regions. For a warming of 2 degrees, that number would be 17 percent.

For a warming of 1.5 degrees, 90 percent of the world’s vital coral reefs would be at risk. For a warming of 2 degrees, that number goes up to 98 percent.

If we simply extend this list—which we easily can—we run the risk of inadvertently making the following mistakes. First, we end up sending a doom-and-gloom message. Second, our message might focus too much on the general effects rather than on specific actions that people can take to protect the things they care about.

The effectiveness and ethics of fear messaging in climate communication is an area of active debate. Many scientists, such as Michael Mann, Susan Joy Hassol, and Tom Toles have argued that focusing on doomsday messaging is harmful because it leads to feelings of hopelessness and paralysis, feelings that result in a public uninspired to act on the matter.

Many studies on the matter, such as the one done by Joseph Reser and Graham Bradley, have shown mixed results for the effectiveness of fear messaging in climate change. The results, however, vary by context.

This brings us to the second point: Communication leads to action only when it is specific for a certain audience.

For instance, studies have shown that fear might lead people to care about climate change if the fear is not general and vague future effects, but rather about the specific effects on people’s health. In fact, framing climate change as a health risk seems to be an effective tool in making people care.

This fact is replicated in many studies that show that people are spurred into action on climate change when the framing is specific to their values.

In his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alan Alda points out to the importance of relating in science communication. “Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something,” Alda says. “It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you.”

Since relating requires a deep understanding of the target audience, this means that effective climate communication has to be done by people who know their audience.

The corollary to this is that we need a variety of communicators.

For instance, Pope Francis is an effective champion of climate change to the millions of Catholics around the world. In what has been dubbed as the “Francis Effect,” the Pope’s speeches on the urgency of climate action has shifted opinion polls by up to 20 percentage points.

Of course, Pope Francis is not going to be the most effective champion to non-Catholics. Other groups will need their own climate champions who can relate to the things they value that are threatened by climate change.

Another effective way of spurring people into action is through framing the issue as an issue of justice. This fact is highlighted in a study by Emma Thomas, Craig McGarthy, and Kenneth Mavor. Their results suggest that outrage over the injustice of the climate change issue—that the countries least responsible for it are the ones most affected—might have the ability to “transform advantaged groups’ apathy into positive action.”

Given that addressing climate change requires a “whole of society approach,” effective communication between members of different sectors, each having their respective relatable champions, is necessary to transform the science of climate change into the necessary social changes.

Topics: Climate change , science of communication , Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , IPCC
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