9 April 2019 | Reading 7 mins.

The essence of communicating climate change


George Marshall

George Marshall, Environmentalist

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.

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