How to communicate climate change threat?

What is your opinion on how to communicate a threat of climate change? Some observers claim that being too alarmist might be counterproductive as many people simply refuse to process a danger of the end of the world as we know it. Would you agree, or not, and why? Read few comments.


Michael KraftEmeritus Professor, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay

There is a whole field of academic inquiry these days about climate change communication, driven by the same concerns that you express. Obviously, citing the scientific evidence is not sufficient, and can be easily misunderstood given the complexities of climate monitoring, projections for distant times, and the challenges of separating natural cycles from human causes such as emissions of greenhouse gases and deforestation. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the problem has become linked to partisan polarization on climate change, with conservatives and Republicans far more resistant to information than others.

To directly answer your question, it is indeed important not to be too alarmist. This drives people away from productive action. On the other hand, scientists and policy experts cannot be too complacent either, as doing so translates into insufficient action. We might choose to do little to nothing. So striking the right balance is the trick. I would say a well-informed and objective approach is best, combined with real, positive actions that can be taken at moderate cost would be best. People must be able to see that we can indeed change our use of energy, that alternatives are available and not more costly, and that moving toward sustainable energy use is both good for the economy and for our lives (e.g., by reducing air pollution as well as lowering the risks of climate change). The same is true for infrastructure, such as building highways and storm water management systems that are less vulnerable to rising water levels. And building housing and commercial structures that use less energy and water, saving money in the long term while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Most polls show that the public, both in the U.S. and globally, favors taking action. But climate change is still not a very salient issue for most people. Thus it is hard to get people’s attention and build support for sensible actions, particularly when fossil fuel interest and others opposed to taking strong action are determined to influence any governmental decisions to favor their position. That’s where we stand at the moment.

I would strongly recommend a terrific article that sums up the literature on the subject. It is by Matthew Ballew and colleagues in the current issue of the journal Environment, and called “Climate Change in the American Mind.”  Yale’s program has published a great deal on climate change communication.

Gabriel Filippelli, Professor, Director, Center for Urban Health, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

As a climate scientist, I recognize that climate change is best seen over decades or centuries, whereas people’s typical attention and experiences are on much shorter time scales than that. So when I communicate about climate change, I put my own life in context. For example, I will show a plot of carbon dioxide and have an arrow pointing at when I was born on the carbon dioxide curve. Then I show when my oldest son was born, and my youngest daughter. People immediately see that not only is carbon dioxide going up rapidly, but that increase is exponential, with significant differences even in one generation (oldest son to youngest daughter). I then show the IPCC projects of climate over the 21st century, and place the likely birth of my granddaughter and great-granddaughter on the various emission curves, showing that much of the difference in my offspring climate future depends completely on the choices that we humans make.

I agree that alarmist stances can polarize audiences, making those who understand the threat of climate change to be more inspired, and those that don’t actually doubting climate change even more. I tend to bring more of a geologists view to this–the Earth’s climate has shifted rapidly in the past without humans, usually because of changes in greenhouse concentrations. These past climate changes have already resulted in massive extinction events. The Earth then recovers and carries on. So why do you expect our human-caused rapid climate change to have a different ending, unless we take simple and proven steps to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. The question isn’t whether climate change will have serious impacts, but rather how do we limit the severity of those impacts.

Joshua BusbyAssociate Professor of Public Affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin

It may vary by audience so I’m not sure there is a universal answer. There is likely country variation. I’m not sure if we have definitive findings from the field of climate communications. Moreover, whose opinion matters? Are we talking about the mass public or elites? I think elite opinion matters more, particularly in regimes without electoral competition. Even in countries like the United States, mass publics look to elites for cues about what to think about complex problems though the process is likely iterative, elites react to public sentiment and then frame wider public sentiment.

I think the best advice to encourage people broadly to care about climate change is to emphasize the local effects in particular areas and what it means for their lives so people can think about how places where they live are and will be affected by rising sea levels, more floods, droughts, stronger hurricanes, more severe weather of different sorts, more heat waves, changes in seasons, etc. When you say, your city or town are being affected this way and this is how much worse it could get if we do nothing, I think that concentrates the mind on the need for climate adaptation but also a clean energy transition.

People often say that you need to connect climate change messaging on the risks with the solutions (like making our cities safer from natural disasters and the business opportunities from clean energy), and that may be helpful too.

Thomas Birkland Associate Dean for Research and Engagement, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, North Carolina State University

The problem with communicating the risks of climate change is that many of the problems that will be caused by climate change will be caused in the future. And people tend to discount the importance of future events, because they are more worried about what is happening now. So, for example, if a country or a state (like in the United States) imposed a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that would increase energy costs to consumers now, all for an uncertain, at best, benefit. What makes this even more difficult is that a lot of the ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions don’t necessarily mean that there are no future risks from climate change–they just make future climate outcomes less bad. To summarize: people are better about making decisions about things that are happening now than about things that will happen in the future. So governments have to design policies that take this bias into account–and that’s hard to do.

Christian WebersikProfessor, Deputy Director, Centre for Integrated Emergency Management (CIEM), Department of Global Development and Planning, University of Agder

Yes, I agree, I would not be alarmist as this also does not reflect the body of research. We have the capacity to change the course of environmental change but there needs to be the political will and personal initiative.

I see that there is momentum these days where people understand and agree voluntarily to reduce emissions.

Climate change is long-term, and its impacts, too. Therefore, it is important to stress that large impacts of climate change are likely but should be put in a longer-time perspective.

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