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Kate Zerrenner headshot

After the IPCC Report: Why Communications Absolutely Matter

The latest IPCC report also has seeds of hope. But judging from most headlines, it’s panic time: an unfortunate message if you want people to take action.
By Kate Zerrenner
california wildfires glowing sunset climate change ipcc report

Smoke from wildfires across the Western U.S. obscures the setting sun over Ramon, California, making it glow a hot orange. 

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contains alarming news: Since 1970, global surface temperatures have risen faster than in any other 50-year period over the past 2,000 years. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called the IPCC's findings a “code red for humanity.” But in the report are also seeds of hope that we’re not yet too far gone to enact some mitigating measures. Still, judging from most of the headlines, it’s time to panic, and that's an unfortunate message if you want people to take action.

Why headlines can hinder climate action

The majority of Americans now believe that climate change is real — 72 percent compared to 57 percent in 2010 — and even larger numbers support action on climate change. But less than half believe climate change will affect them personally. That gets to the problem of how climate change is communicated to people. The flood of negative news, especially in the wake of the latest report from the IPCC, and any lack of a personal connection may lead people not to act.

Despite years of talking about how we should better communicate the urgency of climate change, the overwhelming findings of the latest IPCC report seems to have thrown that out the window for a lot of folks. It’s not surprising — climate change is scary and getting scarier. But in order to ensure people do not check out and do nothing, the urgency needs to be communicated in a way that can settle into action.

The human brain is not designed to react immediately to perceived future threats. We have to balance future threats with the immediate demands on our lives. Traditionally, climate change has been presented as a single issue: an environmental issue. But it is not one thing. It is also an issue of public health, inequality, poverty, violence, trade and commerce, infrastructure, recreation, and national security. Most people’s immediate concerns center on job security, the quality of their local school, or the crime rate, but all those are inextricably linked with climate change. Treating them as separate issues means people have a harder time contextualizing the actual impacts of climate change.

The brain has two processing centers: one for analytical processing and one for experiential. An emotional appeal may work in the short run, but it could backfire long-term, leading to inaction. It’s what psychologists and scholars call emotional numbing. It’s seen in people who live in war zones, for example, or have survived multiple hurricanes in a relatively short period of time. Humans have what is referred to as a finite pool of worry, and a torrent of catastrophic headlines about climate change as an environmental issue will not break the surface of that pool.

To avoid emotional numbing, scientists and journalists communicating about climate change and its impacts need to balance the information that triggers an emotional response with more analytical information. That can help to settle into the brain’s two processing centers. A deluge of terrifying scientific predictions does not add much to the individual experience of climate change. That is where the messaging lacks staying power.

Communications in the wake of the IPCC report

Most people, regardless of where they live, are already experiencing some impacts from climate change. Yet even in places where the most dramatic instances occur — hurricanes, wildfires and droughts — people may not necessarily make the connection to climate change. They’re too busy dealing with the trauma of the impacts. And at this point, wondering whether climate change is exacerbating weather patterns is not necessarily helpful, because we already know that it is.

Like steroids for an athlete, climate change is a performance enhancer. Storms, droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters are made more likely and more severe by climate change. Now, it’s time to bring that home to push for action rather than numb people with scary statistics.

There are ways to talk about climate change that localizes it. Some of it comes down to framing: Talk about risk, rather than uncertainty. Most people understand risk — we buy health and home insurance. Acting on climate change operates in much the same way. Frame uncertainty in a positive light. For example, if we take preventive action, the worse may not happen.

Communicating through human stories is more impactful than abstract ideas. An average person in Omaha, Nebraska, may not know what to do with information about keeping temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But they will understand information about increased flooding in their city. Same with a person living in a coastal city where sea-level rise is a risk. Localizing climate change shows people that the impacts are not limited to coastal regions or developing countries. It turns the distant, abstract idea into an immediate concern.

Businesses are becoming more proactive in making their companies net-zero carbon emissions. Part of that is likely due to external pressures from customers (and, in some countries, mandatory carbon regulations), but to a large extent, companies also act out of immediate concern. When water is an immediate risk to the production of your product, it’s in your best interest to take measures that both mitigate climate change — and thereby help reduce the risk of future droughts — and implement adaptive measures to reduce your demand for water.

Finding hope in the midst of a climate crisis

The hope may feel like the small print when reading the headlines about the IPCC report, but it’s there. In order to drive people to action, policymakers, businesses, scientists and journalists need to communicate the urgency of climate change in a way that nestles in the emotional and analytical parts of the brain. It needs to be framed in a way that does not look like the harbinger of doom. Rather, that it is an immediate concern that will affect everyone, albeit to different degrees, and there is still time to act to avoid the worst impacts.

On some level, people already understand that. A majority of Americans believe the U.S. should invest in more renewable energy, regulate carbon as a pollutant, and require fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax. All of those actions go directly to the heart of climate change mitigation. Individual action can also be taken, such as ensuring your savings, investments, and pensions are not going to support the fossil fuel industry as well as voting for policymakers who understand not only the importance of acting on climate change, but also all the ways it links to every facet of American life. It’s no longer enough to wins hearts. We also need to win minds.

Image credit: Raju Bhupatiraju/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner