Why We Need to Make Climate Change Relatable

October 31, 2019

Google climate change for me really quick. What do you see? I see websites like NASA and National Geographic and the UN in my search results. If you click on any of these links the tone will go one of two ways 

Option 1:

Explains climate change in terms we don’t understand. We end up spending more time googling words in the article then we spend actually understanding what the article is about. These are articles written by scientists that just can’t dumb it down enough for us plebians to grasp the severity of. 

Option 2:

Dumbs down climate change so much to a doomsday approach. Basically says we are past fixing things and we are f*cked. You finish the article kinda understanding the severity of what is going down but feeling so helpless and overwhelmed you don’t know what to do with this information so you just push it out of your brain and go and buy another ice coffee from Starbucks. 

Both of these communication option methods suck. I’m afraid that this is so often the root of the problem in terms of our lack of effort as a society. Don’t get me wrong, it is not on citizens to fix the problems dumped on us by governments and big business. However, the is some accountability in our mindset and consumer behavior that we need to shift in order for things to not go to complete shit. 

The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

And if I see one more polar bear on a melted ice cap as the poster child of climate change I’m going to look like that guy in Edvard Munch painting. This image is problematic because, for most of us, we will never see polar ice caps and the natural habitats of these polar bears. People smarter than I am explained why we actually can’t process climate change in a Time article. To summarize, “Your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.”   While we might see the effects of it, the problem with attributing polar bears to climate change is that they LIVE FAR AWAY from us and therefore we don’t connect climate change to something that is happening in our backyard. Polar bears represent a distant issue that’s impacted isn’t affecting us currently, and when parallels are made it’s in ways that we can’t seem to grasp a connection to. And it’s not just me that thinks this is problematic, check out this Guardian article that was recently released about their shift in how they talk about climate change. 

The Impact of Word Selection

Psychologists and communications experts say to focus more on the real images of people affected by climate change instead of the polar bear poster child image. However, my fear when featuring humans distraught, in their most vulnerable states is that this will become another instance of “poverty porn” as religious philanthropies have done for years. With the quantity of information we have, words and images as we have seen lose their meaning. Though it is one thing for us to become numb to a picture of nature or wildlife, it is irrevocable when we become numb to humanity. While I agree polar bears are not the solution, I think it is more important not to switch entirely to the part of the climate crisis featuring the faces of the least privileged and most impacted by the disaster that wasn’t of their own doing. Maybe then, when communicating about climate change we should shift our focus and tone more than just words and images. The root problem is that we are numb to reports of daily updates about how this disaster is wreaking havoc on the earth. Maybe what might hook people’s attention the most, and engage citizens in empathy and inspire is the reporting on the action. We don’t hear enough about the emerging leaders of the millennial generation creating solutions in science, technology, policy and more. I don’t think ignorance is the answer, but its obviously not engaging readers to act. News of hope and action and thus ways for us to act as citizens might instead create more change. 

At the same time, far too many of us live with a constant sense of guilt, conflict, and fear when thinking about climate change today. However, your lack of action isn’t entirely your fault. Only a few months ago, pollster Frank Luntz came forward saying that his intentional communications choice in 2001 for republican politicians to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” was wrong. Politico released a statement from Luntz who spoke to a climate panel and said, “I was wrong in 2001… I don’t want credit. I don’t want blame. Just stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago because it’s not accurate today.” Often times my naivety gets the best of me as it does to many consumers and citizens, but this article was so chilling because I realized the intent behind word selection in a new and more impactful way than ever before. The term “words matter” has never been more evident for me when I think of what a slight tweak of words impacted in the past 20 years. While it is great that Luntz addressed his mistake, it is important now to move forward and focus on the words and images we use to instill action and hope now more than ever. 

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