New Strategies for Communicating Climate Change

New Strategies for Communicating Climate Change
August 1, 2008

Thank you for the invitation and for this opportunity to share with you some insights from the North American context.


I want to talk about the fact that climate change seems to finally have showed up on the public agenda.  You know that for a long time this was basically a conversation among us experts and maybe among some elitist politicians or NGOs.  However, it seems to have now appeared on the public agenda, and I want to talk more about where the public really is on global warming and, resulting from that, what the needs for communication are at this point.  I will discuss how difficult it is to talk about climate change and how well we have done today, what we have achieved and what is left to do, and I will take a pretty critical look at that. Finally, I will share the insights from this project that I have been involved in for the last three or four years on communicating climate change in a way that actually facilitates societal response to this problem -- not just communicating to get the word out, but to actually mobilize the public, which is, I think, the necessity now.

US Public Attitudes and Perceptions

In the last few years we have seen Al Gore receive the Academy Award for the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, we have seen Hurricane Katrina, etc.  The recent turnover in the US Congress opened up the opportunity that finally allows political discussion on this issue in Washington, and obviously the latest report of the IPCC has been released as well.  There have been a lot of opportunities for climate change to be heard in the news and to be discussed.

In 2007, we’ve had the “Live Earth” concert series that Al Gore organized with many collaborators around the globe.  He claims billions on TV were watching it; of course we know that was a bit exaggerated, but it was a global event and you would think that finally the issue is on the agenda and has engaged people.
A colleague of mine, Jon Krosnik at Stanford, has compared people’s perceptions of major global environmental issues and how they have changed over time.  On global warming there has been a change for the better recently, which is the good news.  Finally, many more people than before now think that global warming is a big issue we should address.  The vast majority of people, 80% now, at least believe that global warming is happening; that is really good news, and it is slightly up from 10 years ago.  Knowledge about global warming has also increased in recent years; at the same time there is a fairly consistent finding across different studies that there is still confusion in the public about whether or not scientists agree that global warming is happening and that humans are the cause.  Still more than 50 % of people believe that scientists disagree about it.  During the 1990s a major campaign by (fossil fuel industry sponsored) contrarians put out a lot of skeptical messages to the public, so we are still in a place where people doubt that we are convinced that this is really happening.  Finally, there has been an increase in the belief among the general population that humans are the main cause of the problem.  That wasn’t measured in the late 1990s, and as you see it is probably among the lowest ranked in terms of the public’s certainty or confidence.
So, on the one hand climate change is much in the media, we see it discussed a lot, and on the other hand, there is still a significant lack of understanding, lingering doubts, and remaining uncertainties among the public.  Every time I give a talk to the public, the first question is: Is it really happening¬?  So I actually have far greater doubts then even these survey data suggest that the general public is convinced that this issue is important, that it is scientifically certain, and that we need to do something about it.

As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The problem with communication … is the illusion that is has been accomplished.”  I don’t think so.

According to a Gallup poll conducted yearly since 1988, and most recently in February 2007, “To most Americans global warming is not an imminent threat.” Americans tend to believe that is far away and will happen to other people, in other places, or to animals, other species, to nature. It is not something they need to worry about right here, right now.
When it comes to how people in the US feel about global warming, or how urgent a problem it is to them, just around 40% of people view it as personally serious, urgent and worth worrying about.  There are very stark differences here in terms of political affiliation: Republicans or conservatives, while their worry over time has somewhat increased are generally much less concerned than Democrats and liberals.  As a result you see a widening gap between these two political camps’ perception of whether or not this is an issue we need to address.

Another important finding is that when you ask people in personal conversation or you probe a little bit more deeply, and ask if they can explain how global warming works, very few people can explain to you even the basic causes of global warming.  The principle thing we still hear in the US, and I am sure you hear it in Europe, is the confusion of this issue with stratospheric ozone depletion.  This is because the first global atmospheric problem that people ever heard about it was the ozone hole, and that was one they could intuitively understand with a lot of metaphors, images, and iconic events - people could really produce a mental model in their minds for that process.  People now try to understand this new atmospheric global problem through that same mental model, and so, it’s not surprising that they imagine there is more sun coming through the hole in the ozone layer and that is why the globe is warming up.  That typical reasoning illustrates how people’s mental models work, and that is something we have to work on.

When it comes to solutions, people mostly do not understand which solutions are possible or feasible, what portfolio is necessary, what the solutions might cost and entail, or – by contrast – what doing nothing might cost. Most of the solutions people hear about, is what I call the “light bulb problem”: People go see Al Gore’s movie, and get a feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket… things are really bad, all is going to come to an end, and then – at the very end, if they stay long enough to see the credits, they hear “but you can change a light bulb!” In short, the problem and the solution are incommensurate.  People are basically overwhelmed by a global problem that they feel they can do nothing about, and the solution we offer them makes no sense to them. As a result, global warming is seen now as inevitable and unfixable. When you probe a little more deeply, as the American Geophysical Union did a few years ago, you find that people associate this degradation of the environment, and the climate in particular, as a symptom of the moral decay of society – in other words, they feel we “deserve” it.  Global warming shows we are so bad, we are such greedy people, that this is the result we get.

There are no studies that I am aware of that take a close look at how people feel about adaptation:  Can we cope, can we deal with the consequences?  But as a result of these findings, I would suggest that most people think global warming is simply a problem that overwhelms them, that immobilizes them rather than mobilizes them to act.

The Challenge of Communicating Climate Change

So, why is it so hard to communicate climate change?  First, there is a lack of immediacy between cause and effect, between turning off a light switch (or flying to Prague) and the atmospheric and environmental effects of those actions. People still think that the impacts of global warming will affect others somewhere in the Arctic, they don’t see the effects in their daily lives yet.  It is very hard for people to see that what they do now does in fact impact the environment and the climate. Moreover, climate change is a “creeping” problem, something where the incremental change from day to day is so small that it is very hard to perceive.  By the time it shows up as a major problem, we have probably gone far beyond the point where we can prevent it or mitigate it in major ways.  And not only are the impacts, at least for now, perceived as far away, there are indeed time lags between our actions now and when their impacts manifest. Finally, people are not only uneducated about solutions, but also very skeptical of them. For example, many perceive doing something about climate change as a threat to their self-interest, to their values.  I think this aspect of their perceptions we can do something about, it does not have to be that way, but that is how it is perceived at the moment.  Imperfect markets, injustice in the political economy, which party is in political power -- all of these make climate change very difficult to communicate.  What needs to be done is also difficult to communicate to individuals who may think, “Why should I change my behavior if my neighbor drives a gas-guzzling, big car, or if my neighbor is a scientist who works on climate change and is constantly flying around the globe emitting CO2?” 

So, in summary, global warming is hard to grasp for the American and probably the European public.  It is not interesting, it is irrelevant to most people’s daily lives, and partisan discussion of the topic is a turn-off. People view it as being still highly uncertain, controversial, far in the future, and overwhelming. People believe that there is little that can be done about it, and compared to other things on the public agenda like terrorism, the war, the economy, health care -- in other countries the agenda may be jobs, food, water, you name it -- it just doesn’t rise to the top of people’s priority list.  Of the top 10 problems that people are concerned with, the environment is typically number 16.  It is very far below the radar screen for people in their daily life, even though many Americans profess to hold “environmental values”.  What we have achieved with global climate change communication is that we have given out a lot of information, raised people’s awareness and concern, but we have not gotten through to people in a way that truly connects with them and their daily life, and mobilizes them to act.

A Critical Look at Past Communication Efforts

Allow me to take a more critical look at what we have done, why we have not achieved our aim.  As in all good communication, let’s think about the audience first. Who are we trying to reach with our climate change communication?  We need to talk to politicians and policy makers at all levels, and to “the media” (even though talking to someone on TV or a newspaper reporter or to someone in a monthly magazine aims at rather different audiences). Obviously there are also individuals, the public, some might see them as consumers or share-holders, others might differentiate between lay people and experts, and so on. I am not aware of a single communication campaign that distinguishes between reaching men vs. women, or older people vs. youth (though numerous youth groups are mobilizing or forming around climate change).  I think these various groups are very different in terms of what they care about, what their values are, what their needs are, via what channels of communication they receive information.  I think it is time we consider that.

Moreover, there is a whole range of civil society organizations in the US active around climate change. For example, the faith community has emerged as a very important communicator and political player, especially the most fundamentalist among the religious groups. But communicating to them versus a labor union versus members of the Sierra Club poses very different demands on communication. Then there is the business community, which is a key mover in this field yet also very diverse in concerns, attitudes, and interests, and educators.  I would say university and school administrators are important, since campuses are “incubators” for future leaders, voters, consumers, managers.  You can pull them together, show them a different lifestyle, educate them about the issues, and engage them in clear ways on this issue while they live on campus.

So the first implication of this differentiated look at the audience is that there are huge differences in where and when we can reach people.  Who among us has ever tried to reach the audience that works on the nightshift? Those are the audiences we might want to try reaching when we talk about the public, but we have not done it, we are not thinking about these kinds of issues.  What matters to them, how they think about it, what they already know, what language resonates with them, is very different compared to other groups.  How do we need to frame the communication?  To the environmental community I would frame it maybe as a stewardship issue, to the business community as a business opportunity issue.  That is a very different type of communication. What do they need to know about this issue?  How can we engage them in a more constructive manner? In short, if we really think about the audience, then we have to conclude that one-size fits all communication (a press release from the IPCC, a report in The New York Times) will not suffice to reach people. 
We should also think about who the messengers are who are doing most of the talking. Scientists have historically been the principal communicators on this issue – people who are very busy, focused on their science, on what they care about and what they get rewarded for.  For scientists, the greatest challenge and interest typically lies in improving the knowledge.  Most scientists think of communication as the last thing they might to do at the end of their important research.  Moreover, most of them are not trained in public communication and outreach.  Few of us ever get training or support from our institutions, and most of us do not know how to do that, nor are we necessarily aware of the social scientific insights on communication that our colleagues elsewhere might be more familiar with.

We also hear communications from government officials.  In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency is a good illustration of an agency that is compelled to speak the party line (of whoever is in the White House).  Officials may have the mandate to neutrally educate the public, but not influence them in terms of behavior. Nongovernmental organizations are also key communicators in the climate change arena.  In the US there are some that advocate for action on climate change and many that are very much for the status quo, and so that adds to the public perception of controversy, to the perception that nobody knows what climate change really is and what to do about it. For non-scientists it is extremely difficult to evaluate whether what one expert says is true or somehow better than what another expert says, especially if the experts are saying completely opposite things.  That is exactly the situation in the US. 

All communications are typically conveyed (media-ted) through some form of media. Communication studies have shown the media are really good at setting the agenda, at giving people something to think about, if you will. These studies have also shown that the media are perpetually bad at persuading people to change their behavior. Mediated forms of communication are far less effective in persuading people to change.  If you hear something from your child, who comes home from school and says “You ought to recycle”, or if you hear something from your mother or your uncle who is a climate change expert on the IPCC, you are far more likely to believe the message and act on it, than if you hear it in some newspaper in your town.  To hear a message from someone directly, face-to-face, may affect you personally, might affect the way you act in the world, and much more so than   if you hear it through a mediated channel.

The controversy over the reality, certainty and need for action on climate change that has been created in the US has for many years been perpetuated through the journalistic norm of “balance”, which is basically shorthand for what journalists think constitutes “neutral” reporting.  However, many lay individuals do not have a scientific background and do not understand or cannot judge what is more likely or what is true when confronted with the statements of “dueling experts”. This is made worse by what I call the “sound bite” culture, which means that you are mostly likely to hear a news report less than two minutes long.  It is very difficult to engage on an issue as complex and serious as climate change in such little time.

So, in summary on the “messengers” - there is a lack of training, a lack of the understanding of the communication process among those who do the communication.  What is out in the public sphere is often sensationalized, politicized, and very inadequate to capture the complexity of the issue.  The messengers are trusted to varying degrees; scientists tend to have a modicum of trust in general, but not necessarily among all audiences. Certainly there are some audiences who might believe something if they heard it from their priest or from another fundamentalist Christian, or from President Bush. For these audiences, scientists might be seen as having some kind of an agenda, as trying to get more money for research or something of that nature. In addition, most people are extremely turned off by the partisan, controversial communication on this issue, and the result is that the public is in truth only very superficially engaged on climate change.  I would argue that most people who are not experts or not environmentalists do not care about this issue most of the time.  When asked if they care in a survey, it is not unreasonable to suspect they might give a “politically correct” answer, or even might genuinely care, but this does not necessarily translate into changes in political behavior or lifestyle. 

Why is that?  Since scientists for a long time have framed this issue and been the principal messengers, it means we have framed global warming as a matter of science. For the longest time the communication has mainly been about whether global warming is really happening.  Then the question was:  If it is happening, is it really caused by humans?  Then people asked:  If it is human caused, can or should we do something about it? Isn’t it more expensive to mitigate than to deal with the impacts later? Or more recently, is it too late to do anything at all?  To the extent we frame climate change as a matter of difficult questions that scientists have to figure out, only a tiny percentage of the population can ever really engage in the discussion. Moreover, we have done not very well in explaining the causes and solutions; if people don’t understand at least a minimum of what actions release emissions and what alternatives are available, how can we expect them to know what to do. In general, most communicators are terrible at realizing the pre-existence of people’s mental models, what the effects of different framings are on people, what the emotional impact is, and what the audience truly needs.  Many of my colleagues are good at simply giving just another science talk, and the talk that they give is very official, they give the same talk every time, but different audiences cannot take in all that information and know how to respond to it.

I also think that social scientists have been just as bad as climate scientists in communicating their knowledge. Social scientists have not shared what they know about effective communication and social change to those who do most of the talking or try to affect change.  I think we need to bring some of these insights to wider audiences.  We also need to train people in how to be more effective in communication, and we have to learn how to effectively respond to (and pre-empt) the deception campaigns that are being run on a public that is extremely challenged to separate the grain from the chaff.  As for media practices,  I think some practices are slowly changing, but there are still many issues facing the smaller newspapers in the US, and as communicators and climate change experts we need to engage with them and bring the best knowledge to these outlets.

Our Favorite (and Misguided) Ways to Get Attention

It is worth highlighting some of our favorite strategies for making climate change more urgent in the public’s mind?  One we have often used is making the problem scarier; using so-called fear appeals. However, just telling people how bad the impacts will be, does not suffice to truly engage people This is the principal strategy of many non-governmental advocacy groups, in particular environmental groups.  The cover of Time magazine (in 2006), with the message “Be worried, be very worried,” is a classic example of this form of trying to get people engaged, and it has been very successful in specific cases, for example, with terrorism.  However, when people do not know how to constructively turn their fear and concern into action, if they do not know how to avert the danger they are warned of, they instead will only deal with the feelings provoked by the warning.  They will manage their feelings; they will not manage the danger.  So what we have to do is to direct people towards managing the danger, rather then just going into denial by providing clear and practical help with appropriate actions.

Another favored strategy is to blame others for the problem.  We use guilt appeals and point the finger at their actions.  For example, the conference organizers went to a lot of trouble to enable me to participate in this workshop via teleconference rather than fly half around the globe, emit lots of CO2, and sit with you in the room.  It’s hard for me to ignore what I know about global warming and jet-set around the planet. It makes me feel guilty. What we have learned in our work is that people are more interested in maintaining their integrity,, their image of themselves as individuals, than necessarily be “green” citizens.  So, if you tell me I should not drive an SUV, I will rationalize for you why I need an SUV rather than get rid of my SUV.  For example, someone might have children and drive a SUV because they believe it protects their children to drive in such a big car, or they need to haul big loads of machinery. People will give you their rationalization to maintain their sense of integrity, rather than reverse the environmentally wrong action.
And then there is the favorite strategy we scientists use which is based on the assumption that if people only understood the problem, all will be well, they will act on that knowledge. The lack of widespread action must mean that they obviously do not yet understand the gravity of the situation, and so we just need to give them more information and then they will, miraculously somehow, act appropriately. In psychology this assumption is called the “information or knowledge deficit model”, based on the idea that the other person must lack some knowledge or information or understanding and if we fill that “hole”, they will somehow come around.  This assumption has been proven wrong over and over and over again. If the workshop discussions so far have focused on how we can make sure that everybody understands even just the most important findings of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, then I urge you to not think about that any longer. Action does not just depend on people taking in information. In fact, moving people to action is a daunting task, and it is only made harder by what we know about where people’s minds are and how busy they are.  The question is:  Is it hopeless?

In my view it is not hopeless until we try to do a much better job at communicating and linking our knowledge about communication with that on social change. There is hope because we have been so bad at communicating and because we can do better. 

The Challenge of Effective Communication

The ultimate challenge of effective communication is this: First let me define “effective” communication as communication that does in fact facilitate an intended social response or leads to a desired social change.  One can communicate and accomplish unintended goals.  That is not effective in the sense defined here, but it may still be useful – that depends. To be effective is to achieve what you really have in mind, and for that you have to do four things: improve communication practices, alleviate the motivation to change, reduce barriers and resistance to change, and apply it at the appropriate leverage points where that social change can actually be initiated and carried out.
Let me address each of these. First, how do we improve our communication? At this point, given the urgency of the climate change issue, we need to be much more strategic about who we reach out to.  Who can make certain changes?  That is our target audience, and that is where our efforts must begin.  Once our key audience(s) are identifies, we can try to understand how they think about this issue already, what their values are, what their level of understanding is, what they are concerned about, what would make it possible for them to integrate climate action into their daily lives, into their decision-making.  That lays the foundations for how and what knowledge is to be communicated. We have to match what we (or other scientists) have to say with a frame that resonates with the audience. We have to make climate change “locally” relevant, and by that I do not just mean geographic downscaling to a particular place, although that is one option or aspect. What I mean is how to make the issue relevant and meaningful to a particular industry, to a particular coastal community, to a particular faith community.  It has to become salient to the particular audience at hand.

Another aspect, particularly difficult often for scientists, relates to the issue uncertainty.  Climate change still involves many uncertainties, and scientists love to talk about those, more so than about what we are very confident about. And so here is my number one suggestion: lead with certainty, lead with what we are most confident about.  What we scientists typically do instead is to give all the caveats up front.  For five minutes we talk about all the reasons why our models are not doing this or that thing and why we cannot be entirely certain that it is really so.  By the time a lay audience is done listening to your first five minutes, they wonder:  Why should I believe anything you’re telling me now, if the science or the models are still so uncertain?  The effect of you emphasizing the uncertainty is that people do not know why they should believe you when you come with the big take-home message at the end of your presentation.  So we need to simply turn our presentation around.  Talk about what we are confident of first, and put the caveats in later.  People are actually used to dealing with uncertainty, contrary to common belief, all the time.  We deal with stock markets, or we deal with whether our children will come back from school safely today.  We deal with our health, our insecure jobs all the time, all of this is uncertain.  So dealing with uncertainty is something people are able to do.  However, if you emphasize it first, they will have very little reason to listen to you or believe you. Too many other pressing things are clear and loud right in front of them…

Another improvement in communication would be to use PLUs, an abbreviation that stands for “People Like Us”.  The point here is that some people, some audiences, would rather hear a message from someone who understands them, who comes from a similar background.  A colleague of mine, a person of color, works with communities of color, and even though he has the same skin color as the majority of people in those communities, he conveys what he has to say via someone who actually lives in the same community in his stead.  He suggests gaining one person’s trust, then training that spokespersons, and then letting that person be the messenger to bring the message to the community.  The same may work in a faith or business community.

Another point alluded to above where we can improve our communication relates to the emotional impact climate change information can have. We have overwhelmed people with pretty dark images of the future, and given them very little to do about it, nothing concrete or convincing that people believe will solve the problem or at least make a real difference.  as a result, people shut down, go numb, go into denial. This is a commonly observed phenomenon in psychology. People believe the overwhelming image either cannot be true, or that they cannot do anything about it, even if it were true, and so they stick their heads in the sand.  What we as communicators have to do is go beyond the science and the scary impacts, and instead talk a lot more about practical solutions and give people hope. We need to be clear about why we need to act, but empower people to take action. Otherwise, if the future is so dark, then why should I not just enjoy myself and stop caring about it?

What can we do to increase the motivation to change?  For scientists it is incredibly difficult to understand that understanding and knowledge are not motivation enough because they are so fundamental to our ways of being.  What we know about a topic, however, tends to be a fairly superficial way of engaging with it. On the other hand, if you can speak to my deeply held beliefs, my concerns, my values, and if you can make whatever action there is to take commensurate with the social norms that guide my behavior – in effect, establishing a new social norm – then that is far more powerful than anything you can convince me of, than any detail you might give me, than any piece of information that I might get in the mail or read in the paper. (The best of us at least recycle it after we read it!).  If we can make use of the importance of social influence, if we can speak to people about what they want to do in their lives, about their aspirations, who they want to be in the world, their identities, and link climate change action to those, it is far more powerful than to just hand another report across the table.  For some people their concern is the bottom line, the risk of financial loss, liabilities, for others it is political gain (Arnold Schwarzenegger in California comes to mind).  Some people will not act until you make it a mandate, until you tell them:  You have to put on seatbelts, and that is just how it is.  Some people will only act on legal mandate.  Others are influenced by direct impact. In Alaska, obviously the impacts of global warming are happening outside their doors.  One contributor to our communication work examined whether the direct experience of climate change impacts could motivate people to take action against climate change – it does, but it is all about coping.  It does not necessarily translate into action to minimize the problem so it will not get worse.

A final point on motivation: we have to keep people engaged through a vision of a worthwhile future.  I can give you an example from the American context, that of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, in a very famous speech:  “I have a dream.” He did not say: “I have a nightmare.”  It is so important that we do not continue to talk about the nightmare; we need to find a good reason to engage with this issue to speak to a future that is worth fighting for.

What about overcoming barriers and resistances? The number one barrier at this point is, I think, disinterest, apathy, the filters we all have against incoming information.  If there is just another headline in the newspaper that sounds just like a story I already read, why should I read another one?  It is just not interesting, the same story over and over again.  We have to tell the story differently.  I think one of the interesting, novel experiences is that more and more engagement with climate change is happening around arts and the environment. Certainly visual communication (such as in films) is becoming more important.  There are musicians, poets, novelists, street and theater artists who are beginning to develop art that reflects the urgency of global warming.  It will engage some, and won’t speak to others -- nevertheless we have to break through with surprising novelties like this. 

Another insight from our work relates to media channels. As I mentioned before, they are good at setting the agenda, and that has been achieved and needs to be continued in some ways, but persuading people to change their behaviors happens in small interpersonal contexts. And so we need to augment mass media communication with small-group dialogues, with neighborhood support groups, with forums to envision a desirable future together. Some of the issues we need to talk about, the kinds of major changes we need to make in society, involve very difficult discussions that are much more about values, quite frankly, than about science.  Scientific information should guide us in the right direction, but I think the value judgments that will define the course we will take require a form of dialogue that is much more powerful in small groups – some in new settings, others in settings that already exist.  You might think small group dialogue is incommensurate with the scale of the problem, but there are many social forms that already exist that we can make use of.  If your goal is to truly engage, to convince people and change their behavior, change policy, change the course of direction, then that is where it will happen, it will not happen through the media alone.  

It is very difficult to change behavior; I do not know how many of you have ever tried to lose 20 pounds or give up smoking.  It is incredibly difficult and people go through different stages during the change process and need different things to keep them going at different stages.  So we need to recognize how hard it is to change behaviors, many of which are constrained by infrastructure, by institutions, by what is available around us, or by our habits.  Our social norms can be such barriers and they are much more difficult to address than a specific behavior. 

In addition, more solution information is needed, very practical help. It is not enough to just tell people to change their lifestyle or drive a new car; we need to help them understand what the implications are of their actions, and where they can get practical help. 

I also think it is important that we make much better use of the social support networks that we have.  Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is one of the most effective behavior change programs that we know.  Why is that?  AA provides social support for making a very difficult change in behavior. There is accountability, there is peer pressure, if you will, there is help with the next step, it is repetitive; you can go every week, every day to a meeting.  Weight Watchers follows a similar model: they all work with social support networks.  Within the environmental arena, there is the model of Eco-teams; In the UK some behavior change campaigns involve entire small communities.

If we have to make difficult changes, it is often easier to try them out on a small scale before going national or continental, even though we feel it is important to go to a large scale right now.  In the US the history of environmental policy change follows a consistent pattern: things are tried out at the local and state level; then several other states try them out and the ideas spread; regional collaborations are formed, and eventually – because it is difficult to do business in such a heterogeneous policy environment, industry puts pressure on Congress to level the playing field. What becomes federal policy is often based on a model that has been tested and refined at smaller scales for eventual adoption at the national level.

So, this then finally raises the question of the levers of social change: Where should we focus our efforts?  Here is the good and the bad news.  There is no one single sector or region or scale that we should focus our communication efforts on.  In our work on communication for social change we have learned about how important small changes in different places are which can spread and eventually translate up to higher scales.  Things that are developed in one sector eventually get translated to others, or from one region to the next. The regional cap and trade systems that are developed in several regions in the US are a good example..  Something can happen or begin in many different places simultaneously and there is a need for that to happen. 

However, in any particular context, there might be a strategic choice to make, as I mentioned above, in particular when there are long-term decisions at hand.  If we build power plants today, those will be with us for five decades.  If I were to put my money into a communication campaign, or some place where change is going to happen, it would be in the places where we make long-term commitments. 

Some are saying that now that we have convinced some people in the lay public or in some communities, we should move on to the next ones and forget about the ones that are already convinced.  In my view, I think there is always a need, with a long-term problem that requires deeper and deeper changes over time, to continue to sing to those who are already in the choir.  That choir will sing louder, and bring others into the church.

At the same time we need to build wider coalitions, we need to reach across to the people we tend to forget.  In the US, many who are engaged on climate change are white Anglo-Saxons.  What about the Hispanic communities, what about African-Americans, what about Asian-Americans?  We need to find ways to break into communities that have not been dealing with environmental issues or with different ones and in their own ways.  We have to build wider coalitions, and actually some of that we see happening in the US now.  Reaching and engaging a wider populace, will keep the issue on the political agenda longer.

A lot of communities in the US are trying out little things to address global warming.  They are important as laboratories, they are important as ways to spread the message that you can, for example, save money taking a first few steps.  You can make changes that do not drastically change your life, we are not going back to live in caves.  You can make changes in the way you heat your home, or the way you get around in vehicles, or the way you light our traffic lights, you name it.  These are very important as small first steps that demonstrate that we can do something, as a symbolic message.  At the same time, these are the easy ones to take, and we shouldn’t get stuck there.  We need to be very much paying attention to deeper social changes that are also needed.  Some of these, I believe, require engagement from the earliest time on, because that is where the grounds for our values and social norms are laid, in our family, in our schools, education, and so on.  They are hard to do and easily neglected, but we cannot afford to neglect them.


To summarize, I think the past communication efforts have succeeded in raising public awareness despite efforts to deceive the American public and others elsewhere.  Global warming is currently on the public agenda, but I would say it still affects people’s lives, choices and behaviors only in a very limited manner, for a small section of the population.  Because it is not yet linked very closely to our daily lives, in a consistent manner, I think it is very easy to relegate global warming again and again to the back burner.

If there were another major terrorist attack, or some other event that is not an environmental or climate catastrophe, I think we could forget about global warming pretty quickly, at least temporarily. We need to develop an outreach campaign that is far better informed by the social science of the communication of social change. We know a lot and we need to use those insights, to bring them into our thinking, and to train communicators to know about them.  The point is to give people very solution-oriented help, a positive vision, and hope.

I will close hear with a quote from Kofi Annan, who said this in 2006: “The question is not whether climate change is happening, but whether in the face of this emergency, we can change fast enough.”  I think there are many insights to be gained from communication science and the social and behavioral sciences that can help us change faster.

Thank you.