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How to Get People Talking About Climate Change

Climate change denial is mercifully rare, with those who enjoy second-guessing scientific opinion from a position of ignorance in a dwindling minority. But it's still an inconvenient truth even for those who believe in it.
November 3, 2014, 3:40pm

Photo via Flickr user  torbakh​opper

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Climate change denial is mercifully rare, with those who enjoy second-guessing scientific opinion from a position of ignorance in a dwindling minority. But climate change is still an inconvenient truth even for those who believe in it. Like Louise Mensch's Twitter profile, it would be a lot easier on everyone if it would just go away, and so people don't like to engage with it in a meaningful way. That's despite the fact that it's an issue that could change the world beyond recognition, making large areas uninhabitable, causing resource wars, massive migration and starvation, and nobody's really doing a whole lot about it.


To counteract this inertia, climate change campaigners have pulled plenty of tricks to attract public attention--but most of them have failed miserably to connect with ordinary people.

I work for the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), a UK-based charity which focuses on building wider societal support for climate change. Here's an idea of what we get up to, through the kind of sound bite we use in presentations: "We see the issue as being more about the science of communication than the communication of science."

Last week we released a new report. Bizarrely, it was the first to ask how climate change could be communicated more effectively from the perspective of 18- to 25-year-olds. Compiling the report told us a lot about how to get people to care about climate change, and how not to achieve that. So, here are some things we should consider when trying to convince ourselves and others to give a shit about probably the most important issue in the entire world:


Public information campaign by the Department of Energy and Climate Change

One popular tactic has been to try and ease people into the issue gently. If overhauling the global energy supply and reconfiguring our economic systems seems a little overwhelming, why not start by unplugging your phone charger instead?

This seasonally themed p​amphlet from the UK government's Department for Energy and Climate Change illustrates perfectly why the "simp​le and painless" approach has unsurprisingly backfired.


People are not stupid. If climate change really is a game-changer, the defining issue of the 21st century that will require global cooperation on a scale never-before witnessed, then switching the TV off standby hardly seems a proportionate response. It's like saying that by merely taking that first step of logging out of Facebook, your day's work will suddenly be complete.

Top tips for saving energy might make a neat social media campaign, but there's no evidence that reusing plastic bags leads people to consider eating less meat or lobbying their politician for a carbon tax, which are both massively more consequential in terms of climate change.


This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate  trailer

Whilst you shouldn't patronize people with baby steps, you shouldn't freak them out either. Strangely, the proliferation of "ten easy ways to tackle climate change" type lists reached its peak at the height of public concern about climate change, just before the "Hopenhagen" UN negotiations in 2009. These were widely billed by campaigners as the "last chance to save the world," but when the negotiations failed to deliver (and the world didn't end), supporters were left feeling deflated. Campaigners vowed not to make the same mistakes again, to renounce the hyperbole that left them so vulnerable, and to avoid the "scare tactics" that for most people are simply a turnoff.


Scary stories about the world we'll leave for our children, and apocalyptic prophesies of a scorched Earth have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. But while graphics of a burni​ng globe (a classic environmentalist image of old) are no longer part of most campaigners' armories, the leading journalist Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate revives some of the rhetoric.

Klein describes climate change as an existential crisis for the human race, arguing that we are now in such dire straits that there are no non-radical options left if we want to prevent dangerous and deeply unjust impacts on people and planet.

While her position is completely legitimate, we've been here before. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric and demands for climate justice, the international political community failed to deliver in 2009, the issue began to abruptly polarize along partisan lines in many English speaking nations, and everyone else went back to sleep.

Its not that climate change isn't something to be scared about--Klein's analysis is grounded in fact. But most people don't feel scared yet. And the lesson from the psychological research is that you can't force people to feel frightened, no matter how hard you try.


Melting ice at Copenhagen City Hall Square. Photo courtesy of  Anders Sune Berg/Group Greenland)

One problem is that for most people in the Western world, climate change is "not here and not now." In other words the problem is that it's not a problem, yet. This "psychological distance" throws a disarmingly comforting veil over it: we can't see it, or touch it, so it might as well not be there.

Last week as hundreds of scientists were putting the finishing touches to the final  ​re​port of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body that summarizes the latest scientific research for politicians (coincidentally also in Copenhagen), artists​ placed 100 tons of melting ice in the town hall square, to try and bring the urgency of the situation to life. But research has found that images like these only serve to emphasize that climate change has no relevance to our everyday lives. Who identifies with a lump of melting ice?


Also falling into the "not here not now category" is climate change denial: Nobody has taken those cranks seriously since about ten years ago, so spending ages proving climate change deniers wrong is a waste of time.


A cyclist navigated the floods in Somerset earlier this year. Photo by Jake Lewis

Campaigns need to beathe a sense of social identity into the subject. That means giving up on the tired environmentalist clichés that scream "someone else's problem" is the first step. Technocratic jargon about "carbon budgets" is not a language most people speak.

People want to hear about specific policies, not just vague invitations to support "more ambitious climate action." Widely-used campaign jargon is unfamiliar and off-putting. Phrases like "managing climate risks" and "decarbonization" are understandably seen as hollow and vague. So tell people you think your house would be less freezing and expensive to heat if the government subsidized you to get some double-glazing, and that your town needs a new damn to stop it flooding. Not that you reckon we should "maximize energy efficiency" and "mitigate water based weather potentialities."


Overall, people need to have a sense of ownership over climate change from the language used right through to the types of policies being debated. This means telling human stories that show the diversity of people who have a stake in climate change, not dishing out dry descriptions of climate impacts in a far-away continent. Although we're told that this is the defining issue of the 21st century, there's nothing in the social signals we get from our friends, family or politicians that backs it up. This social invisibility allows climate change to hide in plain sight, which makes it the ultimate elephant in the room.

For sure, talking about climate change is not enough to solve the problem on its own. But if we're going to get past the melting lumps of ice, the farcical requests to fiddle with our dimmer switches, and the prophecies of impending doom, then catalyzing conversations about climate change that go beyond the usual suspects is a crucial first step.

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