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Communicating climate change

Communicating climate change
to mass public audiences
Working Document
September 2010

Original PDF document: http://is.gd/g253x

Communicating climate change to mass public audiences
This short advisory paper collates a set of recommendations about how best
to shape mass public communications aimed at increasing concern about
climate change and motivating commensurate behavioural changes.

While this paper does not dismiss the value of
individuals making small private-sphere behavioural changes (for example,
adopting simple domestic energy efficiency measures) it is clear that such
behaviours do not, in themselves, represent a proportional response to the
challenge of climate change. As David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the
UK Department of Energy and Climate change writes: “Don’t be distracted by
the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a
little” (MacKay, 2008).
The task of campaigners and communicators from government, business and
non-governmental organisations must therefore be to motivate both (i)
widespread adoption of ambitious private-sphere behavioural changes; and
(ii) widespread acceptance of – and indeed active demand for – ambitious new
policy interventions.

Current public communication campaigns, as orchestrated by government,
business and non-governmental organisations, are not achieving these
changes. This paper asks: how should such communications be designed if
they are to have optimal impact in motivating these changes? The response to
this question will require fundamental changes in the ways that many climate
change communication campaigns are currently devised and implemented.
This advisory paper offers a list of principles that could be used to enhance
the quality of communication around climate change communications. The
authors are each engaged in continuously sifting the evidence from a range of
sub-disciplines within psychology, and reflecting on the implications of this
for improving climate change communications. Some of the organisations
that we represent have themselves at times adopted approaches which we
have both learnt from and critique in this paper – so some of us have first
hand experience of the need for on-going improvement in the strategies that
we deploy.
The changes we advocate will be challenging to enact – and will require vision
and leadership on the part of the organisations adopting them. But without
such vision and leadership, we do not believe that public communication
campaigns on climate change will create the necessary behavioural changes
– indeed, there is a profound risk that many of today’s campaigns will actually
prove counter-productive.

Seven Principles
1. Move Beyond Social Marketing
We believe that too little attention is paid to the understanding that
psychologists bring to strategies for motivating change, whilst undue faith is
often placed in the application of marketing strategies to ‘sell’ behavioural
changes. Unfortunately, in the context of ambitious pro-environmental
behaviour, such strategies seem unlikely to motivate systemic behavioural
change.
Social marketing is an effective way of achieving a particular behavioural goal
– dozens of practical examples in the field of health behaviour attest to this.
Social marketing is really more of a framework for designing behaviour
change programmes than a behaviour change programme - it offers a
method of maximising the success of a specific behavioural goal. Darnton
(2008) has described social marketing as ‘explicitly transtheoretical’, while
Hastings (2007), in a recent overview of social marketing, claimed that there is
no theory of social marketing. Rather, it is a ‘what works’ philosophy, based
on previous experience of similar campaigns and programmes. Social
marketing is flexible enough to be applied to a range of different social
domains, and this is undoubtedly a fundamental part of its appeal.
However, social marketing’s 'what works' status also means that it is agnostic
about the longer term, theoretical merits of different behaviour change
strategies, or the cultural values that specific campaigns serve to strengthen.
Social marketing dictates that the most effective strategy should be chosen,
where effective means ‘most likely to achieve an immediate behavioural goal’.
This means that elements of a behaviour change strategy designed according
to the principles of social marketing may conflict with other, broader goals.
What if the most effective way of promoting pro-environmental behaviour ‘A’
was to pursue a strategy that was detrimental to the achievement of long
term pro-environmental strategy ‘Z’? The principles of social marketing have
no capacity to resolve this conflict – they are limited to maximising the
success of the immediate behavioural programme. This is not a flaw of social
marketing – it was designed to provide tools to address specific behavioural
problems on a piecemeal basis. But it is an important limitation, and one that
has significant implications if social marketing techniques are used to
promote systemic behavioural change and public engagement on an issue like
climate change.

2. Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate
change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding
these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
There is no merit in ‘dumbing down’ the scientific evidence that the impacts of
climate change are likely to be severe, and that some of these impacts are
now almost certainly unavoidable. Accepting the impacts of climate change
will be an important stage in motivating behavioural responses aimed at
mitigating the problem. However, deliberate attempts to instil fear or guilt
carry considerable risk.
Studies on fear appeals confirm the potential for fear to change attitudes or
verbal expressions of concern, but often not actions or behaviour (Ruiter et
al., 2001). The impact of fear appeals is context - and audience - specific; for
example, for those who do not yet realise the potentially ‘scary’ aspects of
climate change, people need to first experience themselves as vulnerable to
the risks in some way in order to feel moved or affected (Das et al, 2003; Hoog
et al, 2005). As people move towards contemplating action, fear appeals can
help form a behavioural intent, providing an impetus or spark to ‘move’ from;
however such appeals must be coupled with constructive information and
support to reduce the sense of danger (Moser, 2007). The danger is that fear
can also be disempowering – producing feelings of helplessness, remoteness
and lack of control (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Fear is likely to trigger
‘barriers to engagement’, such as denial2 (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001; Weber,
2006; Moser and Dilling, 2007; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole & Whitmarsh,
2007). The location of fear in a message is also relevant; it works better when
placed first for those who are inclined to follow the advice, but better second
for those who aren't (Bier, 2001).
Similarly, studies have shown that guilt can play a role in motivating people to
take action but can also function to stimulate defensive mechanisms against
the perceived threat or challenge to one’s sense of identity (as a good, moral
person). In the latter case, behaviours may be left untouched (whether driving
a SUV or taking a flight) as one defends against any feelings of guilt or
complicity through deployment of a range of justifications for the behaviour
(Ferguson & Branscombe, 2010).
Overall, there is a need for emotionally balanced representations of the
issues at hand. This will involve acknowledging the ‘affective reality’ of the
situation, e.g. “We know this is scary and overwhelming, but many of us feel
this way and we are doing something about it”.

3. Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and
adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ -
as well as the benefits - that these will entail. Narratives that
focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely
to be unconvincing.
While narratives about the future impacts of climate change may highlight the
loss of much that we currently hold to be dear, narratives about climate
solutions frequently ignore the question of loss. If the two are not addressed
concurrently, fear of loss may be ‘split off’ and projected into the future,
where it is all too easily denied. This can be dangerous, because accepting
loss is an important step towards working through the associated emotions,
and emerging with the energy and creativity to respond positively to the new
situation (Randall, 2009). However, there are plenty of benefits (besides the
financial ones) of a low-carbon lifestyle e.g., health, community/social
interaction - including the ‘intrinsic' goals mentioned below. It is important to
be honest about both the losses and the benefits that may be associated with
lifestyle change, and not to seek to separate out one from the other.
3a. Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
Be honest about the limitations of voluntary private-sphere behavioural
change, and the need for ambitious new policy interventions that incentivise
such changes, or that regulate for them. People know that the scope they
have, as individuals, to help meet the challenge of climate change is
extremely limited. For many people, it is perfectly sensible to continue to
adopt high-carbon lifestyle choices whilst simultaneously being supportive of
government interventions that would make these choices more difficult for
everyone.
The adoption of small-scale private sphere behavioural changes is sometimes
assumed to lead people to adopt ever more difficult (and potentially
significant) behavioural changes. The empirical evidence for this ‘foot-in-thedoor’
effect is highly equivocal. Some studies detect such an effect; others
studies have found the reverse effect (whereby people tend to ‘rest on their
laurels’ having adopted a few simple behavioural changes - Thogersen and
Crompton, 2009). Where attention is drawn to simple and painless privatesphere
behavioural changes, these should be urged in pursuit of a set of
intrinsic goals (that is, as a response to people’s understanding about the
contribution that such behavioural change may make to benefiting their
friends and family, their community, the wider world, or in contributing to
their growth and development as individuals) rather than as a means to
achieve social status or greater financial success. Adopting behaviour in
pursuit of intrinsic goals is more likely to lead to ‘spillover’ into other
sustainable behaviours (De Young, 2000; Thogersen and Crompton, 2009).
People aren’t stupid: they know that if there are wholesale changes in the
global climate underway, these will not be reversed merely through checking their tyre pressures or switching their TV off standby. An emphasis upon
simple and painless steps suppresses debate about those necessary
responses that are less palatable – that will cost people money, or that will
infringe on cherished freedoms (such as to fly). Recognising this will be a key
step in accepting the reality of loss of aspects of our current lifestyles, and in
beginning to work through the powerful emotions that this will engender
(Randall, 2009).
3b. Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and
adapting to, climate change may provide.
There will, undoubtedly, be economic benefits to be accrued through
investment in new technologies, but there will also be instances where the
economic imperative and the climate change adaptation or mitigation
imperative diverge, and periods of economic uncertainty for many people as
some sectors contract. It seems inevitable that some interventions will have
negative economic impacts (Stern, 2007).
Undue emphasis upon economic imperatives serves to reinforce the
dominance, in society, of a set of extrinsic goals (focussed, for example, on
financial benefit). A large body of empirical research demonstrates that these
extrinsic goals are antagonistic to the emergence of pro-social and proenvironmental
concern (Crompton and Kasser, 2009).
3c. Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a
response to climate change.
As mentioned above (3b), a large body of research points to the antagonism
between goals directed towards the acquisition of material objects and the
emergence of pro-environmental and pro-social concern (Crompton and
Kasser, 2009). Campaigns to ‘buy green’ may be effective in driving up sales of
particular products, but in conveying the impression that climate change can
be addressed by ‘buying the right things’, they risk undermining more difficult
and systemic changes. A recent study found that people in an experiment who
purchased ‘green’ products acted less altruistically on subsequent tasks
(Mazar & Zhong, 2010) – suggesting that small ethical acts may act as a
‘moral offset’ and licence undesirable behaviours in other domains. This does
not mean that private-sphere behaviour changes will always lead to a
reduction in subsequent pro-environmental behaviour, but it does suggest
that the reasons used to motivate these changes are critically important.
Better is to emphasise that ‘every little helps a little’ – but that these changes
are only the beginning of a process that must also incorporate more
ambitious private-sphere change and significant collective action at a political
level.

4. Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered
by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate
change.
Belief in climate change and support for low-carbon policies will remain
fragile unless people are emotionally engaged. We should expect people to be
sad or angry, to feel guilt or shame, to yearn for that which is lost or to search
for more comforting answers (Randall, 2009). Providing support and empathy
in working through the painful emotions of 'grief' for a society that must
undergo changes is a prerequisite for subsequent adaptation to new
circumstances.
Without such support and empathy, it is more likely that people will begin to
deploy a range of maladaptive ‘coping strategies’, such as denial of personal
responsibility, blaming others, or becoming apathetic (Lertzman, 2008). An
audience should not be admonished for deploying such strategies – this would
in itself be threatening, and could therefore harden resistance to positive
behaviour change (Miller and Rolnick, 2002). The key is not to dismiss people
who exhibit maladaptive coping strategies, but to understand how they can be
made more adaptive. People who feel socially supported will be more likely to
adopt adaptive emotional responses - so facilitating social support for proenvironmental
behaviour is crucial.

5. Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power
of social networks
One way of bridging the gap between private-sphere behaviour changes and
collective action is the promotion of pro-environmental social norms. Pictures
and videos of ordinary people (‘like me’) engaging in significant proenvironmental
actions are a simple and effective way of generating a sense of
social normality around pro-environmental behaviour (Schultz, Nolan,
Cialdini, Goldstein and Griskevicius, 2007). There are different reasons that
people adopt social norms, and encouraging people to adopt a positive norm
simply to ‘conform’, to avoid a feeling of guilt, or for fear of not ‘fitting in’ is
likely to produce a relatively shallow level of motivation for behaviour change.
Where social norms can be combined with ‘intrinsic’ motivations (e.g. a sense
of social belonging), they are likely to be more effective and persistent.
Too often, environmental communications are directed to the individual as a
single unit in the larger social system of consumption and political
engagement. This can make the problems feel too overwhelming, and evoke
unmanageable levels of anxiety. Through the enhanced awareness of what
other people are doing, a strong sense of collective purpose can be
engendered. One factor that is likely to influence whether adaptive or
maladaptive coping strategies are selected in response to fear about climate
change is whether people feel supported by a social network – that is,
whether a sense of ‘sustainable citizenship’ is fostered. The efficacy of groupbased
programmes at promoting pro-environmental behaviour change has
been demonstrated on numerous occasions – and participants in these
projects consistently point to a sense of mutual learning and support as a key
reason for making and maintaining changes in behaviour (Nye and Burgess,
2008). There are few influences more powerful than an individual’s social
network. Networks are instrumental not just in terms of providing social
support, but also by creating specific content of social identity – defining what
it means to be “us”. If environmental norms are incorporated at this level
(become defining for the group) they can result in significant behavioural
change (also reinforced through peer pressure).
Of course, for the majority of people, this is unlikely to be a network that has
climate change at its core. But social networks – Trade Unions, Rugby Clubs,
Mother & Toddler groups – still perform a critical role in spreading change
through society. Encouraging and supporting pre-existing social networks to
take ownership of climate change (rather than approach it as a problem for
‘green groups’) is a critical task. As well as representing a crucial bridge
between individuals and broader society, peer-to-peer learning
circumnavigates many of the problems associated with more ‘top down’
models of communication – not least that government representatives are
perceived as untrustworthy (Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2003). Peer-to-peer
learning is more easily achieved in group-based dialogue than in designing
public information films: But public information films can nonetheless help to establish social norms around community-based responses to the challenges
of climate change, through clear visual portrayals of people engaging
collectively in the pro-environmental behaviour.
The discourse should be shifted increasingly from ‘you’ to ‘we’ and from ‘I’ to
‘us’. This is starting to take place in emerging forms of community-based
activism, such as the Transition Movement and Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s
‘Carbon Conversations’ model – both of which recognize the power of groups
to help support and maintain lifestyle and identity changes. A nationwide
climate change engagement project using a group-based behaviour change
model with members of Trade Union networks is currently underway, led by
the Climate Outreach and Information Network. These projects represent a
method of climate change communication and engagement radically different
to that typically pursued by the government – and may offer a set of
approaches that can go beyond the limited reach of social marketing
techniques.
One potential risk with appeals based on social norms is that they often
contain a hidden message. So, for example, a campaign that focuses on the
fact that too many people take internal flights actually contains two messages
– that taking internal flights is bad for the environment, and that lots of people
are taking internal flights. This second message can give those who do not
currently engage in that behaviour a perverse incentive to do so, and
campaigns to promote behaviour change should be very careful to avoid this.
The key is to ensure that information about what is happening (termed
descriptive norms), does not overshadow information about what should be
happening (termed injunctive norms).

6. Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on
language alone
A number of recent publications have highlighted the results of focus group
research and talk-back tests in order to ‘get the language right’ (Topos
Partnership, 2009; Western Strategies & Lake Research Partners, 2009),
culminating in a series of suggestions for framing climate-change
communications. For example, these two studies led to the suggestions that
communicators should use the term ‘global warming’ or ‘our deteriorating
atmosphere’, respectively, rather than ‘climate change’. Other research has
identified systematic differences in the way that people interpret the terms
‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’, with ‘global warming’ perceived as
more emotionally engaging than ‘climate change’ (Whitmarsh, 2009).
Whilst ‘getting the language right’ is important, it can only play a small part in
a communication strategy. More important than the language deployed (i.e.
‘conceptual frames') are what have been referred to by some cognitive
linguists as 'deep frames'. Conceptual framing refers to catchy slogans and
clever spin (which may or may not be honest). At a deeper level, framing
refers to forging the connections between a debate or public policy and a set
of deeper values or principles. Conceptual framing (crafting particular
messages focussing on particular issues) cannot work unless these
messages resonate with a set of long-term deep frames.
Policy proposals which may at the surface level seem similar (perhaps they
both set out to achieve a reduction in environmental pollution) may differ
importantly in terms of their deep framing. For example, putting a financial
value on an endangered species, and building an economic case for their
conservation ‘commodifies’ them, and makes them equivalent (at the level of
deep frames) to other assets of the same value (a hotel chain, perhaps). This
is a very different frame to one that attempts to achieve the same
conservation goals through the ascription of intrinsic value to such species –
as something that should be protected in its own right. Embedding particular
deep frames requires concerted effort (Lakoff, 2009), but is the beginning of a
process that can build a broad, coherent cross-departmental response to
climate change from government.

7. Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited
pace of government action
Private-sphere behavioural change is not enough, and may even at times
become a diversion from the more important process of bringing political
pressure to bear on policy-makers. The importance of public demonstrations
of frustration at both the lack of political progress on climate change and the
barriers presented by vested interests is widely recognised – including by
government itself. Climate change communications, including government
communication campaigns, should work to normalise public displays of
frustration with the slow pace of political change. Ockwell et al (2009) argued
that communications can play a role in fostering demand for - as well as
acceptance of - policy change. Climate change communication could (and
should) be used to encourage people to demonstrate (for example through
public demonstrations) about how they would like structural barriers to
behavioural/societal change to be removed.

Endnotes
1 For example, Ed Miliband, previous UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, is
quoted as saying: “There will be some people saying ‘we can't go ahead with an agreement on
climate change, it's not the biggest priority’. And, therefore, what you need is countervailing
forces. Some of those countervailing forces come from popular mobilisation.” (The Guardian,
8 December 2008).
2 We use the word ‘denial’ here in the sense that it is used in psychotherapy and analysis, to
describe a specific mode of psychological defence which consists in a refusal to recognise the
reality of a traumatic event or perception.

References
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Human Identity, WWF-UK: Godalming. (Available at: www.wwf.org.uk/change).
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Darnton for the Government Social Research Unit, July 2008.
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Climate Change Communication Advisory Group

This report was prepared by the Climate Change Communication Advisory
Group (CCCAG). The aim of CCCAG is to use current academic research and
practitioner-based expertise to best inform government and nongovernmental
climate change communications and engagement. We
represent a diverse range of individuals from academia and the third sector,
with expertise in climate change communication and engagement:

Dr Adam Corner
School of Psychology,
Cardiff University

Dr Tom Crompton
Change Strategist, WWF-UK

Scott Davidson
Programme Manager,
Global Action Plan

Richard Hawkins
Senior Researcher,
Public Interest Research Centre

Professor Tim Kasser
Psychology department, Knox College,
Galesburg, Illinois, USA.

Dr Renee Lertzman
Center for Sustainable Processes &
Practices, Portland State University,
US.

Peter Lipman
Policy Director, Sustrans.

Dr Irene Lorenzoni
Centre for Environmental Risk,
University of East Anglia.

George Marshall
Founding Director, Climate Outreach
Information Network

Dr Ciaran Mundy
Director, Transition Bristol

Dr Saffron O’Neil
Department of Resource Management
and Geography, University of
Melbourne, Australia.

Professor Nick Pidgeon
Director, Understanding Risk
Research Group, School of
Psychology, Cardiff University.

Dr Anna Rabinovich
School of Psychology,
University of Exeter

Rosemary Randall
Founder and director of
Cambridge Carbon Footprint

Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh
School of Psychology, Cardiff
University & Visiting Fellow at the
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change
Research.

Please address all correspondence to:
Dr Adam Corner
School of Psychology
70 Park Place
Cardiff University
CF10 3AT
Tel: 02920 870837
Email: corneraj@cardiff.ac.uk