How to communicate climate change

BOOK REVIEW: By David Hamilton

“What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming ― towards a new psychology of climate action”

I have just finished reading this book by Per Espen Stoknes. The book explores the psychology of climate denial and inaction on climate change, and suggests framing and communication strategies that are less likely to trigger denial responses.

Some of his key points are highlighted here, as they are clearly relevant to how we frame and communicate our messages.

Five main barriers to climate action

After reviewing climate change denial from the perspective of some sub-disciplines of psychology, at the end of Part 1 of the book Stoknes list the five main barriers as:

Distance. The threat seems remote, and humans are best at responding to immediate threats.

Doom. The framing of climate change as the approach of disaster (no matter how accurate the representation) can create revulsion in some people – they will simply not want to know, particularly if they feel powerless to influence the outcome.

Dissonance. Stoknes argues that cognitive dissonance arises from a gap between behaviour and belief, and beliefs tend to be moulded to be consistent with behaviour. Thus a person who is aware that they live a high emissions lifestyle may look for reasons to deny the science to reduce their cognitive dissonance. This point – that belief follows behaviour, not the other way around – was a surprise to me, but I am sure that if I look hard enough at my own life I could find examples of my doing that.

Denial, which Stoknes says is based in self-defence, not ignorance, intelligence or lack of information. Thus positive framings which focus more on opportunities are less likely to trigger guilt and lead to denial.

Identity. This one is very obvious in Australian politics: people tend to filter news through their professional and cultural identity, and search out information which confirms existing values.

Communication strategies that work

In Part 2 of the book, Stoknes looks at alternative communication strategies which have a better chance of getting through the above barriers to action. He advocates communication strategies which turn the above barriers on their head, by using approaches which:

1. Make the issue feel human, personal and urgent,
2. Provide framings which are as supportive as possible,
3. Reduce dissonance by providing opportunities for consistent and visible action,
4. Avoid triggering denial by inducing guilt, and
5. Reduce cultural and political polarization on the issue.

Quite a lot of that is easier said than done, but let’s appreciate the need to be more creative in how messages are framed.

A better way to frame the issue using language

Some examples of the framings that Stoknes prefers are:

• He prefers “climate disruption” to climate change or global warming.

• He prefers “preparing for climate disruption” to “adaption”

• He thinks we should talk about “risk reduction” when discussing the need to reduce emissions. We could, for example, compare reducing emissions to “insuring against climate disruption”.

Part 3 of the book heads into more mystical territory. While I agree with the author this is important, I did not connect with this Part so well, although I thought his discussion of optimism vs pessimism and various flavours in between is very good.

Psychology of climate change denial is relatively new to me, so I am sure there is quite a lot more I could get out of this book. For readers who are familiar with the book and the climate denial psychology literature, does Stoknes do a good job of representing the science in this area?

Just as we would like to see action on climate change, we need to accept and act on the psychological science of climate change denial.

Note: The Tasmanian Library has two copies that can be borrowed.

See also this related story.

David Hamilton is a member of the Climate Tasmania board.

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