Why communication is critical to tackling the climate crisis

17 Feb 2021

Katharine Hayhoe. Image: Ashley Rodgers/Texas Tech University

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has spent years perfecting the art of science communication when it comes to talking about the climate emergency.

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Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor at Texas Tech University, where she is co-director of the Climate Science Center.

Her research focuses on understanding what the climate crisis means for people. Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, she said that while science was definitely in her blood, climate science is not where she was originally heading.

“My dad was a science teacher and he had six sisters, three daughters. The only other male in the house was the cat,” she said.

“My grandmother had a degree in science education so I grew up with the idea that science was coolest thing anybody can study, because who doesn’t want to understand the way the universe works? I was actually planning to be an astrophysicist because I just loved the idea that you can still discover brand new things.”

However, when she neared the end of her degree in physics and astronomy and needed to take an extra class, she decided on climate science. This is where she discovered that it’s so much more than an environmental issue.

“It’s an everything issue. It affects every aspect of human and non-human life on this planet. Not only that, but it disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people.”

Once embedded in the world of climate science, Hayhoe learned more about the serious problems surrounding global heating and decided that this was where she wanted to work. At the time, she thought: “Surely it’s so urgent that we’ll fix it soon and then I can go back to studying galaxies, and that was 25 years ago.”

Fighting disinformation and disinterest

Hayhoe discussed at length the challenges of communicating about the climate crisis. Not only is there the challenge of mobilising those who acknowledge the problem, but there is also the issue of misinformation and disinformation.

“Before I moved [to the US from Canada], I was really unaware of the fact that there were large numbers of people who didn’t think that this was real and, in fact, climate denial started off slowly and accelerated over that time period,” she said.

Hayhoe said that around the time of Climategate and the release of books such as Merchants of Doubt and Climate Cover-Up,  she started to realise that those who denied climate science were not merely misinformed individuals, but the product of orchestrated campaigns.

“Those two books really explained how it was no coincidence that people were saying these things and spreading this misinformation,” she said. “It was a very clever, very intelligent, well-funded campaign based on PR strategies that have been tested since the early 1900s.”

‘Someone can say they don’t believe in gravity … but if you step off the cliff, you’re still going down’

While Hayhoe knew that there were much bigger players involved in fighting against climate science, she also knew that ultimately it didn’t matter when it came to the end result.

“Someone can say they don’t believe in gravity, and they can even convince entire countries of people not to believe in gravity, but if you step off the cliff, you’re still going down. You can’t actually beat gravity.”

Climate science has been through a long battle when it comes to communication, and often it seems as though cold, hard facts aren’t enough to convince people about the urgent problems facing the planet. Armed with the scientific knowledge of the climate crisis, Hayhoe turned her attention to science communication.

“I really started to follow, to learn, to try to implement the social science on communication, on best practices, on framing, on messaging, on public opinion, on understanding issues like psychological distance and cognitive bias and things like that to try and get at the real issues that people had. Because I realised that more science was not enough,” she said.

While fighting against those who continue to deny the science behind the climate crisis can be tough, Hayhoe said these are not the people we need to focus on. There is a much bigger cohort of the population who acknowledge the climate crisis but don’t want to make necessary changes.

Data collected from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows the opinions of people in the US on climate issues. According to the 2020 Climate Opinion Maps, an estimated 72pc of adults in the US think global warming is happening. However, only 43pc think global warming will harm them personally.

“That’s a problem called psychological distance,” said Hayhoe. “So even if we care about it, we think it matters to future generations, to plants and animals, to people in developing countries. And then most people think it matters to other people in the same country, but nobody thinks it matters to them.”

While psychological distance may explain why people who believe in the climate crisis don’t necessarily demand climate action, Hayhoe said solution aversion is another factor at play.

“Solution aversion is the number-one reason why people deny the science, because they have been told and they believe that there is no solution to climate change that would be positive, that all solutions are negative, so it will destroy their quality of life,” she said.

She said that when people don’t want to admit that they are reluctant to enact these supposedly negative solutions, a defence mechanism may kick in to deny that the problem exists instead.

Correcting the communication problem

Hayhoe said that when she gives talks, one of the questions she gets asked repeatedly is about how someone can talk to the people in their life about the climate crisis.

She directed me back to the Yale Climate Opinion Map, where it estimates that only 35pc of adults in America discuss global warming at least occasionally.

She added that researcher Nathaniel Geiger has previously found that even environmental educators are silencing themselves when it comes to climate discussions.

“They’re self-silencing themselves because they don’t know how to talk about it without starting an argument or a fight, but he found that because they know about it, they’re actually suffering because of that,” said Hayhoe.

“I’ve learned that there is a formula to a constructive conversation with everyone, except for the very small percentage of the population who are dismissives.”

When talking about ‘dismissives’, Hayhoe is referring to a category in the Yale programme’s Six Americas of Global Warming. Its data suggests that 54pc of the US population are either alarmed or concerned about the climate crisis. While 38pc range from cautious to doubtful, only 7pc are considered to be dismissive of the climate crisis.

Hayhoe said instead of focusing on the most extreme 7pc, we should be focusing on the 38pc in the middle when it comes to changing opinions.

“Instead of starting with something we disagree on, we have to start with something we agree on. And if we don’t know what that is, we have to get to know the person or the people better first.”

She said finding out more about the person you’re talking to and what they care about is step one. “Step two, connect what they care about to climate change.” This could be anything from gardening and pets to their own small businesses. She said this may help them realise that “they already care, they just hadn’t realised it”.

Finally, step three is to talk about practical solutions that are already happening, particularly in the place the person lives or in the industry in which they work. This helps to address the issue of solution aversion.

Tipping the scale

Over the last year, Hayhoe has also been working on her own book, going even deeper into the world of climate communication to find out how to effect change.

She said that researching movements such as anti-slavery, civil rights, anti-smoking and suffragism shows how constant communication about the issue at hand can actually change social norms.

“[Social norms] build quietly under the water like a tsunami. When a tsunami passes out in the ocean, it just raises the level of the ocean by a tiny bit, you wouldn’t even notice it if you were out in a boat. But the social norms build up and then all of a sudden they just reach a critical point and the whole balance just shifts,” said Hayhoe.

“How do social norms change? They change by seeing people and by hearing about people doing things differently and so that’s why individual action matters. It isn’t that our personal reductions of our personal carbon footprint can really fix climate change, because they can’t.

“But what this theory of social change shows us is that when we normalise not only our individual actions, but our expectations for our schools, our universities, our places of work, our places of worship, our non-profit organisations, our cities, our counties, our states, our provinces, our countries, our elected representatives, when we normalise this behaviour, that’s when change happens,” she said.

“The most powerful thing you can do if you’re going to make a change in your personal life is talk about it and normalise it with your friends and family, and that can be incredibly powerful.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic