Avoiding Babel: Improving Climate Change Communication

28 mai 2019

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On January 29th, 2019, US President Trump mockingly tweeted about the need for some good, old-fashioned global warming, writing, “Please come back fast, we need you!”[i] Such a derisive statement, by the President of the largest polluter per capita in the world, is in stark contrast to the near unanimity of scientists regarding the causes and effects of climate change. Yet, these inflammatory statements often resonate with people who struggle to reconcile the idea of global warming with the reality of their daily lives. If it still snows several months a year, global warming must be a hoax, right? Such misguided, yet seemingly logical assumptions, have the power to instill doubts in the minds of many. The science is indisputable – so why is it so hard to convince people of it?

A Cognitive Issue: Our Brains vs. Physics

In 2018, only 49% of people in the US believed that the majority of scientists agree on the existence of human-caused global warming — and only 41% believed they would be personally impacted by it.[ii] These alarming figures point to the fact that, somewhere along the line, the nature of climate change has been poorly communicated to the average person. Scientists and communication experts agree that attributing the smoking gun to any single individual or entity would be a pointless exercise and that, on the contrary, the biggest culprit is human nature itself.[iii] As a species, we are used to thinking of issues in a linear way. In the context of climate change, this means that if an individual were to be made aware of the existence of global warming, he or she would expect an observable, consistent and constant rise in temperature. Any deviation would prove the premise wrong, leading to a belief that climate change is a hoax.

Unfortunately, climate change is not a linear issue, but a systemic one. Through an accumulation of positive and negative feedback, global warming can not only translate differently to different parts of the world, but also to different regions within the same country. Because of this, the northern states in the US are expected to receive more and more precipitation, while the southwest is projected to become drier overall.[iv] Variations in thermohaline circulation caused by the melting ice caps will cause certain parts of the world to become warmer, while having the opposite effect on others.[v] These apparent contradictions are perfectly in line with the systemic nature of climate change and are explained in scientific literature.[vi] Yet, our linear causation mindset often prevents us from making sense of the apparent contradiction and creates skeptics of people who might otherwise be on the fence.

Change the Message to Change Minds

One Harvard Business Review article on linear thinking and consumer behavior argues that even when people are aware of the consequences of climate change, they will not perceive the threat as immediate enough to change their preferences.[vii] As global warming is narrowly understood to mean an expected increase in temperature, this will not elicit the kind of strong, emotive reaction necessary for meaningful action. Even when people agree on the existence of human-caused climate change, many still do not grasp the multiplicity of ways in which climate change might disrupt their own lives.

Marketing experts and environmental advocates like David Fenton have been advocating for a communication-side solution to climate change for decades. Fenton argues that the current climate discourse is akin to a tower of Babel; a multitude of voices from which no single message can emerge.[viii] He invites global leaders to take a page from the Trump textbook; to create a unified message and repeat it until it wholeheartedly resonates with people. To be clear, developing a common communication strategy would not yield positive results if not coupled with effective environmental policies. It could, however, encourage more citizens to support said policies and change their behavior in favor of a more sustainable future.

A Communication Strategy for a Better Future

As the fight against climate change denialism becomes more pressing, global leaders need to dedicate more attention to generating support for greener policies. Toward this end, two basic principles of communication should be applied. First, messages must be crafted to be as linear as possible. While global warming is a scientific fact, the term itself is misleading and can be used as ammunition by climate change denialists to discredit scientific facts and generate uncertainty. The idea of extreme weather events, on the other hand, is broader, provides more leeway in explaining climate change, and could be helpful to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Second, messages must be repeated continuously. To achieve this goal, harnessing the power of the private sector is essential. While discourse around climate change has intensified in recent years, much of the funding from foundations and donors is used to support supply-side information, such as research projects. Instead, governments should encourage philanthropists and private investors to invest in demand-side information, such as advertisement campaigns. As citizens are confronted by more and more voices warning them of the pressing nature of climate change, they will become more and more inclined to support greener policies.

Climate change communication is a textbook example of Bonini’s paradox: “A simple statement is bound to be wrong. One that is not simple cannot be utilized.”[ix] Global leaders have inherited the Herculean task of striking a balance between the wrong and the unusable. To do so, leaders must begin by capitalizing on the wealth of knowledge from the communication sector in order to create a linear solution to a systemic problem.

This article won the first prize of our 2019 Essay Writing Competition on Combating Climate Change.


Picture by Joel de Vriend

[i]Doug Criss and Judson Jones, “Here’s Your Answer When Someone Asks ‘How Can It Be So Cold If There Is Global Warming?’” CNN, January 29, 2019, accessed March 4, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/29/weather/global-warming-cold-weather-explainer-wxc-trnd/index.html.

[ii]Jennifer Marlon et al., “Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2018,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, August 7, 2018, accessed March 5, 2019, http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2018/?est=happening&type=value&geo=county.

[iii]George Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[iv]“How Climate is Changing,” NASA, 2018, accessed March 4, 2019, https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/.

[v]Thomas F. Stocker, Reto Knutti, and Gian-Kasper Plattner, “The Future of the Thermohaline Circulation – A Perspective,” February 1, 2001, accessed March 5, 2019, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0735/036d76df9051b156a3b9ca5f52d0ba8cd95f.pdf.

[vi]Sarah Gibbens, “Why Cold Weather Doesn’t Mean Climate Change is Fake,” January 23, 2019, accessed March 6, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/climate-change-colder-winters-global-warming-polar-vortex/.

[vii]Bart de Langhe, Stefano Puntoni, and Richard Larrick, “Linear Thinking in a Non-Linear World,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017, accessed March 3, 2019,  https://hbr.org/2017/05/linear-thinking-in-a-nonlinear-world.

[viii]“Selling the Science of Climate Change,” Climate One, 2016, accessed March 6, 2019, https://climateone.org/audio/selling-science-climate-change.

[ix]“Bonini’s Paradox,” University of Alberta Dictionary of Cognitive Science, 2007, accessed March 8, 2019 http://www.bcp.psych.ualberta.ca/Pearl_Street/Dictionary/contents/B/bonini.html.

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Tea Cimini

Tea is a dual degree student pursuing a Master of Public Policy and a Master of Global Affairs between Sciences Po and the University of Toronto. She is currently completing an internship at the World Bank Group in Washington D.C. and serving as a project officer at SDSN Youth. After graduation, Tea is interested in pursuing a career in philanthropy and development.