Climate Change: Better Communication is Key

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Climate change is arguably one of the most significant and potentially destructive problems that humans have ever faced.  It's insidious, because the damage it causes is spread over time scales that people are not accustomed to thinking about – ten years in the future, it will be difficult to remember what the weather, the quality of infrastructure, or the price of food was like today.  Regardless of our difficulty understanding slow, drawn-out change, the earth is on average getting warmer and everyone on the planet will increasingly be affected.

Why, then, do many people not care?  Is there anything to be done about this?  A recent paper in Nature Climate Change proposes methods to help explain the benefits of emissions reduction in ways that more people will support, regardless of whether they take climate change seriously – or even believe that it is occurring.

The authors polled a group of people who professed to believe in climate change and another that denied its existence, asking two sets of questions.  First, each group was asked how they thought that mitigating climate change would affect society with regard to five parameters – interpersonal warmth, competence, morality, societal dysfunction, and societal development.  In each group, the poll showed that many people believed these societal characteristics would improve – people would be more conscious of the environment and each other, jobs would be created, and technology would progress – if action is taken.

The second experiment tested whether promoting action as a path to these societal benefits, rather than to prevent environmental damage, would garner more support.  The authors found that it could; both climate believers and deniers were more enthusiastic about environmental protection when it was framed in terms of societal warmth and development than when only the consequences of climate change were mentioned.

These results show that while people may not be motivated by the key benefits of emissions reduction and environmental protection, they can be persuaded to support mitigating action if other potential societal improvements are mentioned.  This communication approach is clearly not optimal, as it would be preferable if people took the threat of a warming world seriously; but if it motivates support, it is worthy of an attempt.

While there are various reasons why climate change in particular has been challenged in the public sphere – many involving the real or perceived financial impacts of emissions reduction on established organizations – this study highlights the general difficulty of communicating science to the public.  The scientific community often feels that presenting results in anything other than a straightforward, rational way is at best inefficient and at worst intellectually dishonest.  But, the style of presentation accepted among scientists is rarely effective with the public, perhaps because people are not accustomed to gleaning societal consequences from technical results.  While much scientific work has direct and extremely significant implications for the public, these impacts are often not obvious.  It is essential for the scientific community to keep this in mind when presenting work, especially when it is as important and requires as broad a response as does that involving climate change.

Photo credit: NASA

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