The Best Ways to Communicate Climate Change

Aug 13, 2018

Credit Elizabeth Lies / unsplash

Just over a year ago, NY Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer ran a story by David Wallace-Wells entitled The Uninhabitable Earth. It was a litany of apocalyptic worst-case climate change scenarios that sparked an energetic conversation about the value of shock and fear in motivating climate action. 

A week ago, the NY Times Magazine dedicated an entire issue to a single story entitled Losing Earth. It detailed the early days of climate science and policy and the many missed opportunities to stop – or at least minimize – the impacts of climate change.   

Not surprisingly, Jimmie Kimmel has taken a rather different tack in his treatment of climate change this past week in an ad designed to convince President Trump of the reality of climate change.

So, what is the best way to talk about climate change? Is it humor, fear, facts, or emotions?

Meaghan McKasy is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah and winner of The International Association for Media and Communication Research’s 2018 Climate Communication Award. She studied climate change communication and looked into whether fear appeals and doom and gloom work with audiences.

"What we found is that people tend to become overwhelmed and shut-down. Fear is really an avoidance emotion, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to motivation,” McKasy said. “And it can backfire. Often it can lead to increased skepticism.”

McKasy went on to explain that facts are the most important part of disseminating climate information, but research has shown that how you package that information is important to consider because it can increase people’s understanding and motivation.

McKasy studies information processing and attitude formation. She tries to figure out why people can receive the same information, but come away with different understandings and attitudes.

“We talk a lot about self-efficacy. We want to be able to leave people with the notion that they can do something,” McKasy said. “And present people with tangible actions that they can take.”

In the past, some climate scientists have shied away from emotional or moral cases for climate change, but McKasy said that’s not necessarily best.

“If we tie in emotions, they can actually work together. Emotions can be a variable in the way that we process the information. It can inhibit or increase our ability and motivation.”

She also noted that fear appeals can cause people to shut down and not take action, and that hope is considered an approach emotion which can lead to more action.  

Anger, though, is trickier. It can make people hot-headed and lead to impulsive decisions, but anger can also lead people to more buy-in.

McKasy has some tips next time you’re trying to speak with someone with a differing view about climate change, “Engage but be respectful. Stick to facts. And don’t overload the facts."