By Bridget Stuart
A haunting vision of a skeletal polar bear staring into the camera, clinging to a piece of melting ice.
This is an image all too well associated with climate change, and while pictures can indeed be powerful tools of communication, the emotive visual appeal of this particular image hasn’t been as powerful as perhaps it was intended to be. People just don’t care enough about polar bears to stop flying or become vegan or install solar panels or protest against their government’s lack of climate action. And why should they? For most us, polar bears exist far-away in the ‘North Pole’, are not important for our livelihoods, and confusingly abstract climate change in our minds. This highlights the true fickle nature of the beast that is climate change, and explains in part why so many people across the world are disengaged from the issue, or worse, deny that it is even happening.
The very definition of climate change is a thorny one, and evidence shows that people often conflate it with other environmental issues, such as ozone layer depletion (1). Also, as its effects are not directly observable, people perceive climate change to be distant in time and space. For example, just 43% of American adults think that climate change will harm them personally (2). There is also a stark cultural divide on this matter. A 2019 YouGov survey of 30,000 people across 28 countries found that the percentage of people in Eastern and Middle Eastern countries who think climate change will have a great impact on their lives ranges from 38-75%, whereas in Western countries people’s perceptions of the risk is much weaker, ranging from 10-32% (3). This is an example of spatial and temporal cognitive discounting, which refers to the process of cost-benefit analysis that people perform to weigh up the probability and cost of potential risks. While some of climate change’s effects are being felt today, it is predominantly people in the Global South who are suffering; and much of the worst is still yet to come. Therefore, for many people the costs of taking action currently do not seem to outweigh the benefits, as climate change is just not seen as a big enough threat in day-to-day life.
While opinion polls show that 63% of US adults are worried about climate change (2) and 69% of UK adults believe the climate situation to be just as bad as scientists have proven (4), the rates of inaction by individuals and government alike are stark. This phenomenon is called the attitude-behaviour gap, which occurs when what people say doesn’t correlate with what they actually do. There is of course a plethora of reasons for this. Psychological factors include inertia, limited cognitive resources, the externalisation of responsibility, and fatalism. However, structural and institutional factors are probably more significant, as well as socio-demographic ones.
Giving governments’ and people’s inaction (predominantly of those in the Global North) the benefit of doubt, it could be argued that there is still some confusion around the topic of climate change. Despite the 97% consensus within the scientific community that climate change is happening and is the result of human activity (5), as with all science, there does remain some degree of uncertainty. However, the media has played a major role in wildly exaggerating that uncertainty and fostering scepticism, thus enabling institutional negligence.
But, uncertainty aside, when it comes to climate change beliefs, partisanship (in the US) has been shown to be a stronger influence than the level of knowledge or understanding of climate science (6). Indeed, political ideology is widely acknowledged to be a significant influence on climate change-related beliefs. The general trend is that right-wing conservatism is associated with less engagement on issues of climate and less support for environmental policy, in comparison to liberal social ideologies. This socio-political divide can be better understood if we perceive climate change as a narrative, socially constructed through societal and group norms. Individual members of a group, such as a political party, will endorse the values and opinions most central to their group. If a strong awareness of climate breakdown and a passion for climate justice are not included within these group values, then they will generally not be endorsed by individual members. This in-group homogeneity is perpetuated further by confirmation bias, or the tendency to selectively seek and process information that aligns with your existing values and views, and actively ignoring information which contradicts them.
So, there exists a two-fold problem in that climate change itself is a highly technical, multi-faceted issue and that, as the title of George Marshall’s 2014 book states, people’s “brains are wired to ignore climate change” (7). It is at this intersection of factors that corporations, mass media and political parties exploit individuals’ understandings of an already complex issue, driving wedges into the fault lines of their psychological biases. These ‘wedges’ include 'fake news', subliminal messaging, polarisation and disinformation, all increasingly proliferated via social media.
So, what can be done about the situation? How can we communicate with people on climate change in a way that is effective and influential? On a positive note, most people feel it is not too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change, if the necessary drastic changes are achieved fast enough (3). This represents a window of opportunity through which climate communications can apply existing scientific research to empower people with accurate information, in order to galvanise collective action and systemic change. There are many brilliant scientific research bodies, charitable and public sector organisations, and global initiatives who are working tirelessly to spread these important messages and calling loudly for a socially just and cohesive global mobilisation. We should heed their call—otherwise, denial, discounting and disenfranchisement will steadily, and ever rapidly, drive us forwards to the point of no return.
Summary by Bridget Stuart
To kick off Hilary Term 2021, we were joined by George Marshall, the Founding Director of Climate Outreach, and Matthew C. Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.
George started off by impressing upon the audience the social justice and ethical element of climate communications. He stressed that all people have a right to adequately understand climate change and the impact it will have on their lives, so that they are able to make informed decisions. A lack of information leaves people vulnerable to misinformation, which can make climate change an “amplifier of the existing schisms in society”.
George pointed out that the narrative around climate change is socially constructed, conveyed through social and normative mechanisms. The identity of the communicator is also important, and to be trusted they need to reflect the listener’s own identity and values. Therefore, people’s perceptions and processing of climate information represents a nexus of identity, values, social norms and group affiliation. As a result, individuals are susceptible to polarisation on issues of climate.
George proceeded to talk about some work carried out by Climate Outreach. He emphasised the importance of connecting with the people, establishing shared identities and values, and framing communications in a way that is culturally significant. He finished by asking the world to unite its different narratives into a cohesive broad public mandate with a shared purpose.
Professor Matthew Nisbet began by defining this time as a critical transitionary moment in which important work needs to be done to translate the findings from climate communications research into material applications. Climate communications has its work cut out for it in this regard as even the definition of climate change is thorny. Misinformation campaigns have capitalised on that fact, creating debate around objective science rather than subjective values and ideologies.
Professor Nisbet described the different historical frames which have described climate change: an issue of market failure, of tech innovation, and now of social justice. He presented a series of climate opinion polls in America, pointing out that support for policy can exist independent of agreement on the science. He rounded off his presentation by talking about the importance of socially cohesive movements in providing a window of opportunity to create positive systemic change.
The presentations were followed by a lively Q&A session, summarised below.
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