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FEATURE: Getting to the heart of communicating climate change

Presenting the public with the best scientific evidence about climate change is not necessarily the best way make them take the issue seriously, as CDKN’s Phil Lewis finds out

If we want people to take on board the serious nature of climate change, we shouldn’t simply present them with the best scientific evidence. That was the message from Drew Westen, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University and author of the book The Political Brain, in a presentation in Washington, DC last week. Instead, he explained, we have to present information in a way that is emotive.

Professor Westen made his remarks at the World Bank Sustainable Development Network’s Forum, which attracted World Bank staff from some 92 countries. His remarks had particular resonance for CDKN, as we are supporting the next phase of the World Bank’s and Potsdam Institute’s Turn Down the Heat research: this looks at the development prospects for a world where the average temperature rise is 4 degrees Centigrade.

Professor Westen suggested his approach might be particularly helpful for communicators trying to engage people who remained sceptical about climate change. “The best scientific evidence suggests that the best way to win public support for comprehensive energy and climate reform is not by presenting the public with the best scientific evidence,” he said. It didn’t seem logical to me until he went on to explain that the key is to increase the emotional intelligence of climate change messages.

First, Professor Westen explained, we must connect with people. He used the example of talking about ‘the unemployed’ versus ‘people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own’. The first phrase presents the audience with a nameless, faceless group of people, whereas the second phrase allows the audience to connect with those people, and ultimately engage with the message.

Second, he said we should link our messages to other values and concerns. For example, he suggested we could link the impacts of climate change to our health, or to how energy innovations could help reduce a country’s dependence on fossil fuels. These are messages that people can directly relate to. He underlined the value of using intergenerational themes, around the type of world we want to leave our children and grandchildren.

Third, he said we should be aware of how the particular words we use can have a big impact on how people respond to what we are saying. For example, instead of talking about ‘renewable energy’, he suggested we talk about ‘energy that will never run out, such as that from the wind and the sun’, and instead of talking about ‘global warming’ (the word warming can set off positive neural networks in our brains), he said we might be better off talking about ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’.

Finally, he urged us to always have hope in our communications; we should never leave people with anxiety. People need to know the serious threat that climate change poses, and we hope that reports such as Turn Down the Heat, which spell out the impacts of climate change on economic growth and health, will communicate that message. However, as the report says: “Warming of 4°C [above pre-industrial levels] can still be avoided; numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2°C.” We need to work with people to not only increase their understanding of the likely impacts of climate change but also enhance their knowledge of the action required to avoid a global temperature increase of 4°C or higher.

Having attended meetings all week about the vital importance of taking urgent action to prevent this outcome, I felt Professor Westen’s approach made a lot of sense. Obviously there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and he was keen to point out that it is not about dumbing down our message. However, if we use the best scientific research to help inform policy, why would we not use the best research around framing climate change messaging to inform our communication of these important issues?

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