The Debate Over Climate Communication Heats Up

What else, besides fear, might galvanize the nascent climate movement?

Earlier this year, in a widely read essay, University of Minnesota scientist Jon Foley advised that it was time to “stop bashing people over the head with climate science.” He didn’t say that the science should be ignored, only that other means of persuasion should be tried, given how polarized the climate debate has become.

Some scholars, noting the toxic politics and lack of policy progress, have recently suggested talking less about climate change and more about the need for clean energy innovation. Others favor “reframing” the climate issue altogether (making it about public health, for example). Proponents of these alternative approaches define them as “pragmatic” and intended to broaden the base of support for policies that would ultimately benefit the climate.

However, in a recent series of posts, Grist blogger David Roberts pleads for keeping climate change a central focus of the public dialogue. He argues that, “what drives social change and shifts in politics is not broad-based support but intensity” among a critical mass. Here’s his prescription for a game-changing climate narrative:

Any effective political communications strategy needs three things: a victim, a villain, and hope. First, you have to convince the audience that they face a real, pressing danger. Then you identify the people and institutions behind the threat. Then you show how the villain(s) can be defeated and security restored.

The idea is to produce a sense of threat or unease — a cognitive and emotional itch that needs to be scratched — and simultaneously scratch it by offering a sense of hope, efficacy, and shared purpose.

One concern is that this message on climate change (as communicated by mass media) is stuck at the “real, pressing danger” stage, otherwise known as the “tragic narrative.” Additionally, a body of social science literature suggests the unrelenting gloom and doom theme of that narrative may be counterproductive. For example, in a 2009 paper titled “Fear Won’t Do It,” authors Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, describe results from two of their own studies:

This research has shown that dramatic, sensational, fearful, shocking, and other climate change representations of a similar ilk can successfully capture people’s attention to the issue of climate change and drive a general sense of the importance of the issue. However, they are also likely to distance or disengage individuals from climate change, tending to render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed when they try to comprehend their own relationship with the issue.

The two researchers conclude that gains made in the initial, attention-getting stage are undermined by long-term reliance on fear-induced messages, which risks desensitizing people. At that point, the authors write, “fear approaches need to be made more intense as time goes by because of repeated exposure to threatening information in order to produce the same impact on individuals.” The end result seems obvious: the “tragic narrative” loses its power and appeal.

Roberts acknowledges that even a forceful, fear-based message must include hopeful solution-oriented information that can empower the intensely committed. Additionally, he’s “absolutely in support of pluralism (a variety of messages, strategies, and policies) and opportunism (taking whatever gains become available).” But he insists that “pushing climate danger” be the tip of the sword in the communications battle:

Knocking people out of their tunnel-vision daily lives and into civic or political action — a necessary precondition for any action that’s not to the liking of status quo elites — requires more than hope for a better future; it also requires fear of losing what is now possessed.

Some scholars argue that any science-centric prodding is also going to require a better understanding of the cultural values at loggerheads in the climate debate. To that end, more attention needs to be paid to the worldviews that filter what’s being communicated about climate science, Yale University’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues write in a recent working paper. They warn:

A strategy that focuses only on improving transmission of sound scientific information, it should be clear, is highly unlikely to achieve this objective. The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand. Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey values — communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; humility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it — that divide them along cultural lines.

Given such divisions, is it possible for the nascent climate movement to articulate a shared set of values that can unite disparate worldviews? If so, would a larger conversation framed around notions of sustainability, as opposed to increasingly louder warnings of catastrophic climate change, better serve as that bridge?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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15 Responses to The Debate Over Climate Communication Heats Up

  1. Bob Doppelt says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how little climate change practitioners know about how people and organizations change, and the role of communications in the process. Psychologists have long know there are three keys change: 1. Sufficient dissonance (tension) between a desired and current condition. No tension, no change. But if all people feel is dissonance they will often ignore, deny, or attack the source; 2. Thus, a sufficient level of efficacy is also needed–the belief that one has the skills and capacity to do what’s needed to reduce the dissonance, as well as; 3. a sufficient sense of the advantages or benefits of making the change (usually the pros need to outweigh the downsides by at least a 2-1 ration–i.e. people need to believe there are 2 benefits for every of downside of making the change).

    In the U.S. we have mostly focused on dissonance–building tension with information about how bad climate change is, but even this has been done poorly as it has not been localized or personalized. We have done an even worse job of building sufficient efficacy and benefits. Thus, we have moderate dissonance and low efficacy and benefits. There should be no wonder about why we can’t make progress on climate change.

  2. Keith, you nicely sum up the different theories about how best to communicate about climate. But since they differ so much, and since their proponents seem to be sticking with their stories, then no, I don’t think it’s possible at this point for the “nascent climate movement” (strange choice of words; seems to me there’s been a climate movement for a very long time) to articulate a shared sense of values that can unite disparate worldviews.

    How, given the circumstances, could it?

  3. Alexander Harvey says:


    I am a bit baffled by your usage of “nascent”. In what way is the climate movement starting, beginning, coming into existence?

    Even if you are refering to the US, was the movement’s nativity later than elsewhere?

    Putting a date to the birth of something as nebulous as a mood, a shift, a sentiment, or a move is dubious but their are some events that are linked to the development of the movement more globally. Rio was in 1992, the IPCC AR was in 1990, memorable events (particularly Rio) but I think the start goes back a little or a lot further.

    Other adjectives that come to mind are stagnant or moribund. Perhaps they are too severe and lethargic might be more apt yet all would imply that the movement was beyond nascent but stalled, inactive or dying.

    It does seem to be ineffective and disorganised, although the latter may be simply a deduction from the former. Perhaps insufficiently organised is closer to the truth. That does not seem to have been the case in some other countries where the movement is organised, effective and mature.

    Different countries are at different stages, those of the EU do have goals if not broadly known detailed plans, The UK seems to be an outlier in that it has reached the position of holding fast, weathering the storms, and keeping on track.

    The US, is perhaps the founder of a new climate movement, one dedicated not just to stasis in the US, which is their your prerogative, but to stasis worldwide which is not. It is accompanied by a strain of thought that seeks refuge in attempts to undermine or at least rubbish the progress that is being made elsewhere. A manifestation is a determination to portray the efforts of other nations in a poor light, to ridicule, belittle, caste doubt on, and ultimately to charaterised as doomed and manifest failures. A strain of thought that seeks refuge in failure, both at home and abroad.

    The US may lead the world in this specific, the dawn of the climate refugee movement. Those that seek refuge in failure, defend failure, seek to propagate failure, build failure, hide behind failure. A culture of failure residing in a land of impotency, adrift in a ocean of self-doubt.

    A tragedy if this is delusion, an aberation, a distortion, a crisis if this is real.


  4. keith Kloor says:


    I don’t think there was much of a climate movement to speak of before it started to come together over the Keystone pipeline.

    As for what might unite disparate worldviews, I’m thinking that something other than climate change is going to be required, which is why I suggested sustainability, though even what that means is elastic and ill defined.

    But I do believe that whatever works, values will play a more enduring (and integral) role than the drumbeat of climate fear. I elaborate on that thought (and this post) here:

    • Alexander Harvey says:


      That seems a bit screwy, but I guess you should know best. It would explain a lot.

      Keystone is recent, nothing before that?

      The impetus, namely the science, largely originated in the US. It was first picked up over here more or less before the most recent phase of warming started (mid 70s).

      I believe you do have some organised groups but I am not sure which they are. Any names for ones active on climate?

      Was the recent Keystone XL Protest and it was covered by the Huffington Post here:

      It was the first piece I found and so may not be representative.

      I did not read as a climate protest, I can’t see the written piece even mentioned climate (it is a minority feature in the video piece but Mckibben’s ( piece to camera didn’t contain the Climate word)

      There were perhaps >~10,000 demonstrators, is that considered a large turn out?

      Were it attempted, how many people do you think could be turned out to protest, campaign, demonstrate on Climate, by the organisation that you have?

      Ten Thousand, Tens of Thousands?

      If it is not tens of thousands then perhaps what you need is activist organisations not more column inches.


      • keith Kloor says:

        The anti-keystone campaign has been successful because the pressure points are coming from different groups part of a larger coalition, with climate being one of them.

        But the McKibben-led protests have, as I mentioned, in this post, breathed new life into what I considered a listless and disorganized climate movement:

        • Alexander Harvey says:


          Perhaps someone should consider why it is a much smaller country can turn out several times more people specifically on the climate issue and do so after it has had all the legislation that it needs passed into law.

          Obvious choices might be the level of organisation and activism.

          Perhaps I am old fashioned but turning out the legions makes news and shows commitment. It also brings people together and so builds and binds a movement.

          In terms of what is on our agenda, it is moving on from climate to transitioning to life after fossil energy, because that is what the future holds. Right now it is a done deal although some, and annoyingly some US pundits, would like to undermine that. But there has been a shift, a change of sentiment, one would have to be pretty optimistic to see a long term future for fossil fuels in this country.

          Now protesting is not your job, you do other stuff. But wouldn’t it be nice for the media to be able to report on people doing brass tacks climate movement stuff rather than yet more pundits making yet more noise.

          I realise that you are in the middle of electioneering but you are always in the middle of electioneering.

          If government isn’t listening, shouting at them very loudly and in person seems worth a try.

          I have now tried to find a credible figure who has been taking responsibility for pushing this thing through in the US and you seem to have been correct, it is nobody. Isn’t that kind of negligent?


  5. Gosh what happened to our infinite world? We now discover it is finite and dangerous.

    It’s just physics – just atmospheric and ocean chemistry. Just because climate scientists warn we are in grave danger does not mean anyone is brandishing fear.

    We are adrift in a wooden lifeboat and have been burning and pulling it apart for decades. If we keep knocking a hole in bottom of the boat, it will sink. That is not politics or ideology; that is not fear, that is certainty.

    Just because one is fearful of the consequences does not mean we can escape reality. To ignore or deny will not work.

    Some passengers in our lifeboat still endanger the rest of the survivors by risky behavior.

    I don’t fear scientific certainty. But I am horribly afraid of human blundering and our inability to break from folly. That’s why any ship has a captain. That’s what we need now.

  6. BBD says:

    Given such divisions, is it possible for the nascent climate movement to articulate a shared set of values that can unite disparate worldviews? If so, would a larger conversation framed around notions of sustainability, as opposed to increasingly louder warnings of catastrophic climate change, better serve as that bridge?

    Only if this notion of sustainability includes a huge effort to displace coal with nuclear for baseload generation. Which seems unlikely at present, trapped as we are in the lee of decades of anti-nuclear fear-mongering by environmentalists.

  7. Bud Ward says:

    I liked Keith’s use of the adjective nascent given not so much the definition of it as having recently come into existence — true enough given earlier clean air/clean water/workplace safety movements, etc. — but even more because of its being defined as beginning to display signs of future potential and not yet fully developed.

  8. Fear is just our reaction to the ruthless severity of climate change. Fear is not a factor in climate science.

    We bring fear to the problems of heat, melting, rising seas and destabilizing climate. Fear is the human part of the problem.

    Everyone is whining about fear – using it as the excuse for inaction and inactivity. That is why the future will belong only to the very, very young – who shrug and move to survive.

  9. grypo says:

    Well done. Let me add that the mountaintop blasting and anti-slurry movements have been around in the south for a while. James Hansen has been arrested for civil disobedience in both tar sand and coal demonstrations. Also, there is the story of Tim DiChristopher.

  10. Russell Seitz says:

    <To write of " the nascent climate movement" is like referring to Agincourt as an early skirmish in the 100 Years War, because though hostilities began four generations earlier, they had another two to go.

    Victorian journalists reported the Physiocrats' concern with coal induced climate change, The New York Times warned of a post-Ice Age inundation in 1932, and a further half century has passed since the NAS reported fears of long term AGW to have a physical basis in 1965.

    While levels of zeal last seen during the 30 Years War seem endemic on both sides of the current unpleasantness, both the rhetoric and the models center on the delta T in 2100.

    Welcome to The 100 Years Climate War.

  11. Lisa Jaccoma says:

    As a lifelong marketer I would like to suggest you begin where all marketers begin: with the audience. It’s standard operating procedure in marketing everything from chocolates to hair color to advanced information technology to ask a few discreet questions: 1) What level of understanding does the target have of the subject? (a big topic for a science-driven subject being explained to a largely science-illerate population). 2) What motivates my subject? and 3) What exactly am i asking them to do?

    Grist’s David Roberts got closest to this in his problem/villian/action scenario – but I would suggest you all try something simpler. Climate change science needs to be expressed, from the beginning, in very simple (8th grade level) terms, with certainty (no wiggle words or scientific hedging about probabilities), to the gatekeepers of media (the talking heads, the newsreaders, the everday reporters) and the general public. This is a complicated subject and we expected everyone to just “get it”. I have never heard a single, simple clear explanation of the basic underlaying science expressed in the general news media, and as a practitioner of marketing I can tell you – you can’t just say it once, you have to say it over and over and over again – in multiple contexts, with extremely simple data points.

    You can not crush your audience with an existential threat by backing up a dump truck with all kinds of “you’re going to die” scenarios and expect anyone to go other than fetal. There is crises fatigue. There is an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

    If we dump advanced-degree level science on a general population, with the message that they are helping to destroy the planet, while not fully explaining the science (or how we got there) in human terms — we cannot then wonder why they’ve decided to get their science and interpretation of climate change from shock radio.

    You have to let reporters and the public know that this is a problem we can solve. Less “heroic victim” and more “herioc leadership”. You must convey that we can fix this. We can do this.

    So, we need to offer solutions. As a communications practitioner, I think it should be illegal (kidding of course) to offer a problem this massive without offering up serious, credible solutions. We haven’t done this. We’ve decoupled the climate change discussion from the “set of solutions” discussion. That’s malpractice.

    We are going through an astonishing renaissance in innovation in fields from materials science, to energy, water, agriculture and efficiency. We are halving costs and improving outputs across the specturm of clean tech solutions — which are now capable of being networked into a world of smart objects that will let us do a great deal more with much, much less. No. We can’t invent our way out of this problem- but providing first-tier solutions that will take a huge chunk of the problem out of the way should be a core focus. We can provide “hope” not “helplessness” in the array of brilliant innovations coming online almost daily. Laying out the problem with solutions is far different in motivation than backing up the “doom” truck.

    I’ve read the science and studied the economics of climate change and resource depletion and I know how bad it is for species, water, soils, air. As a student of environmental policy I get the challenges – and know how ill-equiped our policymakers are for real leadership. As a student of people – I know you can’t depress people into action. And, as a lifelong marketer, I know you have to restate the problem, simply, and repeatedly, and you have to offer solutions. And you have to do this over and over and over again.

    Your opponents will say one thing simply, and repeat it a million times — so that a lie repeated becomes fact. For climate change to really be broadly understood, a set of simple truths needs to be presented alongside a set of new and exciting solutions. Clearly, simply, repeatedly, with your audience in mind.

    Just a suggestion.