Climate Communication Tips  
Note to self: “It’s the fear, stupid!”

We have to address the fears.     That is my #1 take away climate communication message from the AGU meeting in San Francisco.

For many skeptics, resistance to accepting climate science stems primarily from fear, not ignorance or misinformation.    Fear of what could be “taken away” from them if government mobilizes to address this problem.    This came up in session after session on climate communication.

The corollary:     We can never make progress with ardent skeptics by arguing endlessly about scientific nuances, because scientific quibbles are so often defenses against deeper fears.  We have to acknowledge and address directly the fears about solutions.   This was the main point of  fascinating AGU presentation titled “Creative Affective Solutions to Climate Communication,” by Dr. Jeff Kiehl(UCAR), a climate scientist also trained in psychology.

Fear of what?   Well, put yourself in their shoes.    Imagine discovering that you’ve been wrong about a  strongly-held belief?   It’s humiliating.   Even scientists — schooled in objectivity, open-mindedness, and constant revision — sometimes get locked into positions and refuse to budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.      And what will your friends say?

For those with even moderate libertarian or conservative tendencies, accepting the reality of climate change can threaten their

  • identity, defined by their worldview and expressed by consumption patterns
  • peace-of-mind and sense of personal security
  • self-esteem; admitting error is hard for anybody
  • relationships, if friends and colleagues become alienated
  • consumer choice and freedom (e.g. light bulbs)
  • prosperity and economic security for future generations.
  • personal freedom and liberty, if government controls more areas of life.

Needless to say, perceived threats lead quickly to anger — which is always rooted in either fear or hurt — at those who are threatening us.

So how do we address these fears?    Well, one thing, “you can’t scare somebody out of fear.”    You can only help them ease their way out.

I asked Richard Alley, who received an award for climate communication on Tuesday, what he’s found to be effective in communication with climate skeptics.  Like others this week, he stressed that it must start with respect and listening.

Mutual respect and empathetic listening are not striking features of climate debates.    When George Mason’s Ed Maibach runs dialogue groups with climate scientists and skeptics, his first ground rule is  respect.    And guess which side is usually the first to violate that rule?    Our side.

There’s much to reflect on here.   More on dealing with fears about climate change and climate solutions, in a future post.

8 thoughts on “Climate Communication Tips  
Note to self: “It’s the fear, stupid!”

  1. John

    The key point though is that it’s not the active sceptics (those often referred to as ‘deniers’) that we need to convince — many of them are already much too hardened in their views — it’s the ‘don’t knows’ and the ‘don’t understands’ standing on the sidelines that need to be our target.

    When a vociferous sceptic makes strong, and erroneous arguments in public it’s our duty to make robust rebuttals in a firm, confident, voice, pointing out the where the science shows they’re wrong (similarly on websites). Surely we cannot give them credibility by appearing to accept their arguments as valid when — as so often the case — their arguments are based on deception, or lying?

    What matters above everything is that the audience to the argument is aware that there is an alternative view which appears to be based on scientific fact and, what’s more, the person presenting that alternative to the sceptic view can provide references to credible sites like NASA to back up that evidence. That’s not to say we should ever get personal about sceptics — however idiotic their arguments. It’s their views that are crazy, not them (even if they are!). If we stay calm and considered and the voice of reason, we are likely to carry the argument in the face of empty rhetoric and ill-considered statements.

    To repeat, the person with strong sceptic opinions who repeats memes in public, is too far gone — and not the person we’re trying to convince. Rather, our target should be the onlooker. My first tactic in such a situation is to say to the outspoken person in an authoritative voice, “I’m sorry, that’s an opinion you’re repeating; not a fact. The scientific evidence is that…” …and so on.

    Best wishes,


  2. John

    Hey Tom, I notice that the software on the comments here automatically turns a double hyphen into an ’em dash’ — < like this (I've just typed two hyphens)!

  3. Tom Smerling Post author

    John — I totally agree that its the “middle group,” — onlookers and undecideds from the middle of the Six America’s segmentation studies, who may not have focused much on this issue — that should be the priority, not the few who are actively and aggressively spreading misinformation.

    But, as you suggest, the tone we take with the misinformers has a impact on onlookers. All the more reason to remain, as you say, “firm and confident” — rather than dismissive, aggressive or contemptuous — when addressing the misinformers.

    Frankly, I wasn’t actually thinking so much of people one encounters on blogs — who are a self-selected fraction of the public — so much as people encountered face-to-face, individually and in groups.

    PS — Glad the em dash is working in WordPress!

  4. dwighttowers

    Fear eats the soul, to coin a phrase.

    The firm voice and tone relies on a moderator who will “hold the ring”. The very fact that the “debate” is happening sends the message that “the science is uncertain”. And deniers use the infamous Gish Gallop technique a LOT.

    But the key points, already mentioned are, imho
    a) compassion and understanding for the fears of change people have
    b) metaphors and examples that they can understand
    c) solutions that they can see as feasible etc.

    But I fear (!) that we will keep having shouting matches (they feel good) and more Durbans – agreeing to talk more…

    On the psychology of climate denial etc, I have found Rosemary Randall (UK psychotherapist) to be extremely insightful and useful, btw.

    Many thanks for reading my burblings.

  5. Tom Smerling Post author

    @dwighttowers I’ve heard about Rosemary Randall. Hey, how about writing a short blog about her work and the implications for climate communicators? A cross post would be fine, of course :).

    Meanwhile I saw today this interesting Christian perspective on fear, from Katharine Hayhoe, in an article posted today, titled “What Strategies for Convincing Evangelicals about Climate Have Been Effective?

    “. . . it’s our global neighbors—the poor and needy, the disadvantaged and hopeless—who are already being affected by climate change. . . To ignore their cries and cast scorn on those who attempt to draw our attention to their plight is not a response of love; it is acting out of fear, and God is not the author of fear.”

  6. Pingback: ClimateBites

  7. Pingback: A thoughtful conservative perspective on climate

  8. Pingback: A thoughtful conservative perspective on climate « Firewood for sale

Leave a Reply