Don't think of an elephant

Wait. Stop reading right here. Don’t dare think of an elephant.

Didn’t work, did it. Just mentioning it implanted it in your mind, in your consciousness.

It’s an argument made by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, among others, and a key point in climate communicators’ lessons on how to – and how not to – talk about that dreaded “climate change” term.

In this month’s Yale Climate Connections “This Is Not Cool” video, by regular contributor and independent videographer Peter Sinclair, Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out that the “greatest advances” in understanding of climate change over the past decade have come not from the physical sciences, but from the social sciences.

Emotion and climate change ... 'I want to ski with my kid ... eat salmon ... I am invested.' Click To Tweet

A mere headline along the lines of “Myth XYZ” implants that myth, even if subsequently and thoroughly “debunked,” in the audience’s mind, says John Cook of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “After time, all the details fade,” says Cook, the founder of the Skeptical Science website. “And all they can remember is the headline,” reinforcing the myth.

“In your brain, the neural circuits have to activate what you are negating in order to negate it, and that strengthens what you are negating,” Lakoff says. He points to then-President Richard Nixon’s famous ‘I am not a crook’ statement, “and people thought of him as a crook.”

Hayhoe, of Texas Tech, supports connecting with others “over a shared value …. then connect the line between what we care about and climate change.”

TV meteorologist Amber Sullins of ABC 15 in Phoenix says avoiding the words “global warming or climate change” is part of her strategy to avoid turning-off some of herĀ  audience. “You remove those two words and just talk about how they’re going to be affected as things change,” she says, “and they’re much more open to listening.”

“You have to use emotion in the way you talk about things. People respond to emotion, they don’t respond to facts,” says climate scientist Sarah Myhre of the University of Washington, notwithstanding the importance of facts and evidence.

“You want to introduce people to the field of climate science?” Myhre asks rhetorically. “You got to say something like, yeah, this hurt, this is scary. You have to say, ‘Hey, I want to ski with my kid in the future. I want to eat salmon in the future … I have a stake in this, I am invested, I am not separate from this. And I do have emotions around this, and I share this with you.”

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