The Essence of Communicating Climate Change

9 April 2019 - // Interviews
George Marshall

REVOLVE talked with climate change communication expert George Marshall at COP24 in Katowice, Poland about how to better engage people in acting on climate solutions.

In your book Don’t Even Think About It, you state that people are aware of climate change but then why are we reluctant to take action?

We have to recognize that people can know things but not know them. People know climate change but actually they forget about it. Research and surveys state that 2/3 of people are concerned about climate change. Generally speaking, in Europe people are well informed about it and what causes it. But those surveys are dangerous, because it gives a false sense of awareness. What’s much more interesting is if you ask people: “What are the problems for the future? What are you concerned about?” And then actually very few people mention climate change. It’s something that people know, but somehow they don’t know. People completely, massively underestimate how big it is and how close it is.

With climate change, we have to make decisions now in expectation of a threat in the future.

The reality is that we are designed to ignore things – to block things out. Normally that is balanced by an internal system that makes dangerous things impossible to ignore. The problem with climate change is that it does not send those signals. It is something that we intellectually can understand but it does not have those alarming signals. It is something we can understand intellectually as a threat, but emotionally we don’t get it. It has many qualities that we are good at ignoring – for example, things in the future, are things we don’t pay much attention to.

There are already visible impacts on the climate. How can we better connect the impacts with the solutions – do we need better communication or something else?

It is all about communication, because it has to be about finding ways of making people anticipate a threat. Most what we respond to as a threat is here and now. With climate change, we have to make decisions now in expectation of a threat in the future. Communication is something that makes it real for people and the big problem with climate change is that we have to make decisions now in anticipation of 50 years in the future. The problem we have with the climate impacts now, is that they are bad, but people can adapt to it – especially to changing weather conditions human adapt very well. Also climate change often comes in a form that is not new weather, but that is a more extreme form of existing weather. The point when people start to switch on for climate change is when something freaky happens – like when a place that never gets a storm gets a hurricane. It is all about communication, because communication makes people realize: “This is something dangerous, we need to be prepared.”

What is the problem with climate change communication and what is the best way to communicate climate solutions?

One problem is that people still don’t understand that communication is so important. Here for example in Katowice, there are 1000s of events, 90% are technical, policy, science and impacts. Only 5 events specifically talk about communicating climate change. People who are acting on climate change believe and accept the science. They think it is easy – but they forget that nothing, no policy can work until people understand it. What we have been doing wrong is we have been depending on just information. We need to recognize that climate change is a very big issue and means different things to different people. We need to talk to people in ways that is carefully tailored to who they are, what they care about and what makes them who they are. The big thing is that we have to stop calling climate change an environmental issue, because then the only people who listen are those who care about the environment.

The key to communications is, explaining threats and risks as well as the reason why to take action that people care about. When we do research, we ask each audience: “What do you care about? What’s important to you?” Then we find the sense of identity of the audience and communicate around that. The big dividing line for climate change is often between people that are left wing and people are right wing. For people of the left wing we can talk about climate change as a social justice issue. For conservative people, we can say it is a threat to traditions and national security. Different people, different concerns. And in all cases, we can say it is a threat to the environment and economy. The solution to climate change are those values – you are acting out of being a good member of your faith and taking action on climate change.

What is the role of media in communicating about climate change?

Let’s open up the idea of media. Now the media is very distributed – what is important is that each aspect speaks differently to different audiences – a lot of media is now social media too. This is a challenge and an opportunity – the challenge is that people who are not talking about climate change they will never get exposure to climate change, because in their social media world nobody is talking about it. A big problem is that for a large part of the population there is complete silence. The challenge is how to feed a conversation into these groups so that people are starting to have a conversation. In some places that works very effectively. For the big news media, the problem is that they think of this as a big international environmental story and they fail to make a connection. There are organizations around the world that help with that and make the big media talk about climate change in a much more local way. The real opportunity lies with social media.

Why do people often prefer rather to stick to the more expensive and unsustainable system rather than to chose the more profitable and sustainable option? For example, there are huge investments into keeping the coal system running, whereas renewables are either already a lot cheaper or soon be very cheap available on the market.

This goes back to that people have an identity that they invested into the old way of working. In some societies, for example in Poland there is a lot of investment in coal as a form of identity. Of course, there is an economic investment, which is jobs and the energy infrastructure, but there is also a national identity and communities built around the identity of digging coal and that makes it very threatening. The reality is that people do not only have economics in their life – price is one component of many other elements influencing the decision. The have a sense of who they are and a need of security. The right argument is different for different places. Every place has a different argument for energy transition. For example, in Alberta/Canada, where the economy is based on oil, there is a very strong argument that this makes the people’s life insecure, because when the oil price goes down, suddenly thousands of people are effected. The argument is there that we need to develop new forms of energy so that we have stability. In some places such as India, the argument is about clean air, health and care of their children. All of these are making you more of who you are and in many cases it is not about climate change in the first place.

What are the 20% that will do 80% more effective climate change communication?

The first thing is that we have to break the silence and start talking about it. We have to talk about climate change silence the same way we talked about racism, gender issues – all areas where we had silence. Often the big changes happened because people were breaking the silence. Next, we have to support and encourage a much wider range of voices. Too much of this is coming from one place: it is coming from people like me – well-educated middle-class environmentalists. That’s what’s happening here – COP24 is thousands of very well-educated policy people. We have to find other people to talk. We have to find coal miners, farmers, mayors, car workers, priests to talk about climate change. The people only trust the problem, if they trust the communicator. The big issue with climate change is that people don’t trust the communicator. Also, we have to talk about adapting and preparing for the new conditions that climate change brings to your community rather than changing the way of life because of climate change.

George Marshall

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