If you, like me, have been trying to get people to take action on climate change at home, in the workplace or through communications sent out to customers or members, then this is for you. I summarise sociological studies that have analysed concern for climate change as well as barriers of engagement. I conclude by providing some of the best ways to communicate climate action.
It is very apparent why we need to take action on climate change as well as biodiversity loss. We have witnessed and taken notice of the severe weather events, climatic anomalies, the numerous protests that raise awareness of future catastrophic impacts, as well as governments actively pursuing agreements that will limit temperature rise. We know it’s serious.
Although this is the case, people aren’t making change at scale. Even organisations are dawdling in delivering real net zero plans. And although governments are making commitments, evidence shows they are falling behind these short lived public statements.
This is after 30 years of communications efforts have been made to tackle climate change. So what’s missing? Why are people turning off to the idea of taking action?
It turns out that people work hard to avoid acknowledging disturbing information. They don’t want to feel emotions of fear, guilt, or helplessness. Where possible, people simply want to follow cultural norms and maintain positive conceptions of individual and national identity. When climate change is mentioned there is an in-built instinct to protect oneself, to move the subject on, or to simply walk away.
Some of the other trends are also useful in noting. Concern for climate change is higher in poorer countries even when they have been exposed to less information. In wealthier countries, it appears that people turn off their concern for climate change in part to protect their cultural norms. Outrageously people with a higher level of knowledge about climate change, tend to show less concern. All of this is due to the sense of helplessness and frustration.
“Informing the public of the problems can increase frustration and apathy rather than build support. Our research suggests that what the public is most skeptical about is not the existence of problems but our ability to solve them. What will make the public invest energy in these issues is not the conviction that the problems are real, but that we can do something about them.” (Immerwah, J. 2009)
So what gives? The more we inform people the more they switch off?
Climate denial is not just stimulated by creating doubt about climate change – a widespread phenomenon in the U.S. particularly in the 90s and 00s. Societies develop and reinforce a whole repertoire of techniques for ignoring disturbing problems. They do this to maintain coherent meaning systems, desirable emotional states, to maintain belief that they can succeed, and in order to follow norms of attention, emotion and conversation. In other words we pull the wool over our eyes so we can maintain our collective illusion that everything is fine, so we can all ‘live the dream’.
Powerlessness and guilt were also found as being major means of avoiding taking action. Studies found a consistent expression that this is not an individual’s problem, or that carrying the guilt is simply too much to bear. What is tied to this is the impact taking action has on individual and national identity. A respondent of one of the studies sums this up well:
“We shouldn’t consume so many resources, drive so much, or travel so much by air. We know that it is bad because it increases CO2 levels. And creates a worse situation. But at the same time of course we want to go on vacation, we want to go to the South, we want to, well, live a normal life for today. So many times I have a guilty conscience because I know that I should do something, or do it less. But at the same time there is the social pressure. And I want for my children and for my wife to be able to experience the same positive things that are normal in their community of friends and in this society.” (Interview with Eric, Norgaard, 2009)
If climate change switches people off, how do we enable change?
What is consistently found through studies is that people do care about climate change, and want to do the right thing. This is counter to the belief that people don’t care and are selfish. So as a starting point it is a consistent recommendation to not assume people are selfish in communication, which frames the tone of voice being used.
However, the interplay with the systems of denial that protect the self from guilt, powerlessness, and alienation from societal norms, needs careful consideration.
To avoid denial, messages need to be non-threatening and frame a positive view of self. And to avoid negative emotions realistic opportunities need presenting that allow people to participate in positive action. Where possible these need to counter alienation, by allowing people to participate in community collective action with a positive framing.
What is also important is to convey the message that a difference can be made now through personal action, and where possible to highlight the immediate economic benefits of a decision. An atmosphere needs to be created for people to experience positive emotions and positive views of the self, through real opportunities for change.
To counter-cultural norms community movements need to be started which represent a view of parts of society. An example of this is Fridays for Future, started by Greta Thurnburg, or flight shaming, a phenomenon in Sweden. Both of these movements have galvanised a certain spectrum of society to reconsider what should be the cultural norm, whilst also shifting national perspective.
To achieve pan societal change, movements need to occur through all parts of society where people associate their identity; workplaces, gyms, churches, political parties, clubs, and societies. Movements needn’t be big, they can simply be a regular conversation or communication that support collective action. This could occur through groups talking about what they could do, emails that simply outline what can be done to live more sustainably, and through public declaration of the club/society to take action on climate change. All delivered within a positive framing.
Great ideas, but how do I put them in action?
If you are trying to encourage your family or friends, the best way is not to expose them to your feelings of guilt or powerlessness or encourage that within them. One needs to be a source of helpful, positive information on the subject, which can be practically put in action. That could be health benefits of a new diet, positive gains from the use of low carbon technology, or benefits of using a bike. There should be some challenge on carbon-causing choices, like flying, but these need to be framed as being counter-cultural.
If you’re in a workplace and you are trying to achieve change, then forming a group is a great start. Finding small things that can be done to improve the office, like plants, recycling, or purchase of recycled paper, as well as forums to exchange means of living sustainably, bring a sense of community around the issue. Once this baseline enthusiasm is initiated, company-wide declarations may be made. The important thing is to build a positive community around change.
If your organisation is trying to get your customer base or membership to take action, it would be a great thing to have a well-respected member of that community to outline what they had done, and how it had made a difference to them. To go further community-wide actions may be called for whereby aa community-wide carbon reduction targets are achieved.
It’s important to remember that the most recent survey conducted by the government found 80% of people were fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) about climate change. You are pushing at an open door so why not use this information to galvanise change!
Got your own views on the subject or need more help?
If you have ways to build upon this thinking or need help in engaging your friends, family, or club/society, we have a community at Better Century which is bringing together useful information for people, with a positive framing. You can get input or get help from our digital community. Simply sign up.
If you’re trying to get members of your organisation to make a change this can be more challenging. You may want to join a new group on our community site to get support from people like you – click here to sign up.
If you’re working to make a declaration to be a carbon-neutral or net-zero organisation, you are likely to need some consultancy support in assessing baseline carbon emissions and setting trajectories to net zero. Our consultancy can help you with this – click here for more information.
If you are trying to galvanise action on climate change through your customer base or membership, we can help by writing tailored communications with tips on personal action with a positive framing. We can also provide digital tools that help your community take collective action with a joint goal. If you’re interested in this then set up a call with me to discuss how we could help.
Thanks and further research
I want to give a special thanks to Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote the paper Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change, Background Paper to the 2010 World Development Report, to which much of the information shared here may be attributed. This paper may be found online if you want to learn more.
Go to the next page to learn more about other references used.