By Iben Holstener Hjorth
There are a myriad of psychological biases that stop us from acting on climate change, and in some cases from recognizing it as reality altogether. These cognitive biases help us to "think fast" most of the time, but the consequence is that our thinking is consistently faulty in specific ways.
This prevents us from responding rationally to certain issues. Climate change, an unfathomable prospect that requires us to make sacrifices now for uncertain gains in the future, represents a combination of factors that are exceedingly difficult for our brain to respond to.
It is the task of communicators to minimize these barriers between science and people. Unfortunately, this is not yet well understood by communication practitioners. Some communications strategies do the exact opposite of inspiring action, by making people feel further removed from climate change or helpless against it, or by focusing on the sacrifices mitigation requires of us instead of what we might gain from it.
For example, most people would feel powerless reading the headline "millions of people on the other side of the world will die from climate change, and the cost of preventing it is insurmountable." And maybe not just powerless, but worse, disinterested due to hearing too much news about climate change.
My colleague at the Green Climate Fund (GCF), Archi Rastogi, recently argued that climate strikes that do not articulate specific demands are unlikely to lead to meaningful change. The same is true for any messaging meant to inspire action.
Instead, communicators need to be smart about how to present information. Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) gives science-based, practical suggestions for climate change communicators. Below are a few key takeaways from CRED about what (not) to do when communicating evidence.
Both experiential and analytical processing centers of the brain need to be evoked. In this regard, using videos, vivid images or engaging graphics could help. When using tables and graphs, supplementing them with human impact stories is recommended. Whereas charts need to be analyzed deliberately, we instantly relate to the experiences of other people. It is important to make your content relatable by connecting it to what matters to your audience.
Translating jargon into terms that laypeople can easily understand is also important. For example, the terms upward trend and positive trend mean the same, but the public is likely to misunderstand the latter as a good trend.
Similarly, rather than "anthropogenic," terms like "man-made" or "human-induced" allows the text to be understood by more people without losing meaning. If a specific action by people is required, do break it down into small, easily followed steps.
Presenting numerous issues in an urgent manner should be avoided. People have a finite pool of worry. Increasing the wealth of information about evidence is counterproductive to spurring people to action. Instead, improve the quality of information and present it well.
Be careful not to send politically polarizing messages that align the issue of climate change with a particular social group. Avoid framing the issue in a context that creates negative associations; rather than focusing on the hardship of responding to climate change, focus on its benefits..
There is always a risk of making mistakes when communicating evidence. However, there is also plenty of research that can help us avoid them. We now know, for example, that people get emotionally numbed by having too much urgent information thrown at them. We can respond by selecting just a few issues to communicate about at a time. We also know that balancing emotional and analytical appeals leaves a more memorable impression.
We know that research and investment are not enough to solve problems like climate change, and we know that behavior change through nudging is one path worth exploring.
For this reason, the Independent Evaluation Unit of the GCF hosts a Behavior and Design Lab (BaDLab), whose most recent award-winning paper used GCF projects to showcase how behavioral insights can contribute to climate action on the ground. It is up to communicators to listen to research like theirs because it has the potential to benefit our work immensely.
Iben Holstener Hjorth is IEU's communications and uptake intern. She holds a bachelor's degree in media studies and an MA in global economy and strategy from Yonsei University.