Communicating Climate Change with Compassion

Estimated Read Time: 4-5 min

TL;DR How we communicate climate change matters a lot for unified climate action, and the track record hasn’t been great. Views on climate change (in the U.S.) have continued to diverge, and conversations around climate change have become increasingly argumentative. Based on a presentation by George Marshall, I advocate for a “compassionate approach” to climate change communication: understand people’s values and incorporate their identities and what matters to them in the climate change narrative, conversations, and solutions. In other words: if you want unified climate action, make sure you’re including everyone in the conversation and solutions.


Last week I attended the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) Conference where George Marshall (author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and co-founder of the Oxford-based charity Climate Outreach) delivered the opening plenary. One of the key takeaways from his talk was the importance of understanding people’s values and incorporating them in climate change communication.

I was so excited to hear Mr. Marshall vocalizing something I have believed for years: divisive statements (us vs them) and combativeness is not how to communicate climate change if your goal is unified climate action 1.

Immediately following the plenary, everyone I spoke to seemed to agree with Mr. Marshall’s strategy, but within 24 hours it seemed everyone had forgotten his advice. Many attendees were speaking using divisive terms (e.g. “the other group”) and language which implied negative characteristics of people who did not fall into their group (left-leaning, climate change advocates). There were a lot of questions and conversations about “convincing Republicans” of the important of climate change. These statements in particular make two dangerous assumptions: (1) that political affiliation determines someones view on climate change, and (2) that those who they were speaking with did not identify as Republicans.

Of course, stated beliefs about climate change are correlated with political ideologies. Climate change has become a marker for our political identities: believing in climate change and advocating for climate action is associated with being liberal while the dissenting opinion is associated with conservative political views. This connection is well documented, see e.g. this Gallup Poll. And as our political ideologies have become increasingly polarized (see e.g. here), climate change gets sucked into a positive feedback loop wherein the liberal identity associates with the importance of climate action, the conservative identity forms around dissent, and the gap between those who advocate for climate action and dissenters continues to widen.

We then tend to categorize people into one of two groups (Democrat climate change advocates and Republican climate dissenters) and assign narratives to them without actually getting to know people as individuals.

But the reality is, people’s values and identities don’t fit into neat the little boxes many of us have in our minds2George Marshall shared this video in his presentation, which I found to be a great example of the importance of individual narratives3. If you advocate for climate action, how would you talk to the people in this video?


The question I was left with after BECC was how do we move forward in climate change communication when those who are attending a conference about climate change and action continue to alienate people of differing stated beliefs? And does there come a point where the argumentative approach is actually better to push climate action forward…?

Here’s my best advice:

To people who really do want to communicate the urgency of climate change and the importance of climate action: 

  • Take the time to understand individual’s values and incorporate their identities and what matters to them in the conversation
  •  Don’t enter a conversation on climate change as an argument. When you do this you’re emphasizing differences, not commonalities between you two. You likely have more in common than you think.
  • Be respectful

People want to be included in the narrative, conversations, and solutions of climate change. You just have to listen.


Footnotes:

  1. I think this is true for many (although not all) other issues too.
  2. This way we tend to think in groups is discussed in more detail in the wonderful book Factfulness by Hans Rosling (one of the the first people to get me really interested in data and trends with his amazing TED talk). Highly recommend.
  3. My favorite quote is at 1:16: “Al Gore is a cuss word” 😂

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