The science on climate is in, but is the psychology understood?

A guide to the psychology of communicating climate change offers tips on making science more clear – but is it too late to be heard?

The news about the most recent survey on public opinion about climate change didn’t go unnoticed by science communicators. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, there’s been a decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. This doesn’t mean that the evidence itself is less solid, or that there is no longer a consensus among scientists on the subject. It means that for some reason, the public’s belief in climate change is slipping.

At EarthSky, we frequently discuss how scientists have struggled for decades to get the point across that human activities are irreparably impacting the planet, and that the consequences are dangerous. It’s only been recently that scientists, generally speaking, have keyed in to the importance of communicating their results in a way that’s understandable to the public. It’s not just about publishing the data, it’s about making sure people understand what the data means. And as science communicators, it’s our job to explain what climate change means, the science behind it, and why you should care about it. But judging from the Pew poll results, this job has not been done in a media environment that’s crowded with constantly changing information and opinions.

That’s the reason for “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication,” published in November 2009 by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) of Columbia University. It’s a guide for effectively communicating about climate change, for scientists, journalists, educators, and anyone else who wants to read it for free on the internet. It reinforces the idea that most people are confused about the science and the implications of climate change. It begins, “Research shows that most Americans do not feel a personal connection to climate change… In fact, despite scientists’ calls for urgent action, climate change has slipped to the bottom of the list of American priorities.”

How’s that for a sense of failure? (Fortunately, the book features some clever cartoons that lighten the mood somewhat.) The authors discuss some common missteps: For example, using jargony terms to describe climate science lead to a lack of interest in the subject. Meaning, the phrase “385 parts per million” is kind of a snooze, rather than a call to action for most people. Too often, the guide says, using unclear or vague language to describe scientific uncertainty – always a factor in science – can cause confusion among a lay audience about how confident scientists are in their results. Also, using graphs and charts, despite their sometimes alarmingly clear appearances, doesn’t directly translate to a desire to change one’s personal behavior.

The need for changes in personal behavior – replacing light bulbs with CFLs, commuting on a bike or public transportation rather than a car, and supporting public decisions based on climate change science, for example – is the basis of the psychology of climate change.The guide offers some interesting explanations as to why people haven’t changed their behavior. People seek out or absorb only the information that confirms what they already believe about an issue, which may cause them to misinterpret scientific data. People also have a limited capacity for worrying about issues, which is why climate change gets bumped down to the bottom of the worry list when an economic recession threatens their jobs. On the other side of the coin, if people get overexposed to doomsday messages about climate change, they may become numb to it.

The psychology of climate change is based on human nature, and that’s why it’s so difficult. The human mind isn’t wired to objectively weigh future consequences against immediate concerns. Nor do we particularly welcome major change to our lifestyles. If you think it’s tough to convince a friend to quit smoking, imagine trying to convince a global economy to quit fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, as we mull this over, the pace of climate change continues to accelerate. I’m always wondering, “Is it too late?” Is it too late to save countless species, to protect areas from sea level rise, to conserve our natural resources? And now I wonder, is it too late for people to really understand what’s happening, and want to act on it? That’s still the first step.

There’s been tremendous effort by science journalists and many scientists to inform the public, and we do our part here, everyday, at EarthSky. Although “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” offers many valuable tips on communicating in certain situations, it doesn’t provide a path to navigating a infinitely complicated and changing media environment, in which decisions about climate change are inextricably tangled.

Lindsay Patterson