How neuroscience can help communicate the climate crisis

12 Dec 2023

Image: Kimberly Doell

Dr Kimberly Doell makes the case for neuroscience as a revolutionary tool in the fight against climate breakdown.

Neuroscientist Dr Kimberly Doell works in a new but increasingly relevant area of research – her work aims to understand the complexities of human behaviour and decision-making in relation to climate action.

Doell believes that neuroscientists can play an important role in fighting climate breakdown by investigating its negative impacts on the brain and identifying ways to adapt, understanding the effects of positive and negative climate actions and providing insights into communication strategies that can help people take positive climate actions.

With an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology from the University of Toronto and a master’s and a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Geneva, Doell now works in the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the University of Vienna.

In a world increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate inaction, Doell’s work is an acute and timely call to action to her colleagues and the wider scientific community.

Tell us about your current research.

As an undergraduate student, I was very interested in psychology and better understanding the human brain, but I was also interested in environmental science and sustainability. At that time, I did not see a way that these two lines of research could ever come together, so I decided to pursue my studies in neuroscience.

When I first finished my PhD, I wanted to contribute to research that stood to make the world better. I came across a job advertisement at the University of Geneva with Prof Tobias Brosch; he was looking for a postdoc who would use neuroscience to study aspects of sustainable decision-making. I quickly ran to his office (which was actually one floor below mine at the time) to ask him about the position; thus, a collaboration was born.

We were both somewhat surprised that neuroscience was not often utilised in the context of climate change and/or sustainability research. Neuroscience can provide insights into human behaviour and decision-making beyond simple behavioural experiments.

I was always hoping that someone would write a perspective or a review that outlined all the ways that neuroscience can be leveraged to contribute to this important topic. Eventually, we got tired of waiting. So, at the end of 2021, Tobias and I decided to put together a team of some really excellent researchers and try to do it ourselves.

After more than a year and many many revisions, we published a paper, Leveraging Neuroscience for Climate Change Research, in Nature Climate Change.

It outlines the reciprocal relationships between a changing environment and the human brain. We review the somewhat sparse research that has already been conducted in this space and we present a roadmap that researchers can use to conduct high-priority research in this domain.

Finally, and most importantly, we present a call to neuroscientists to join together with other fields of study and put their experiences and expertise towards helping to combat the climate crisis.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I hope that this article will convince other researchers, particularly neuroscientists, that they can and should study climate change. This is one of humanity’s largest, most complicated and potentially catastrophic issues.

Focusing even more research on this topic will have multiple benefits. We can advance basic research (which is what many of us are currently trying to do anyway), we can better understand how climate change is impacting the brain and wellbeing, evaluate and quantify the utility of many adaptation strategies that are currently being deployed, and make it clear to granting agencies and governmental bodies that this research is crucial. And there are so many more.

Excitingly, since this perspective has been released, it has been mentioned by 48 news outlets and has a very high attention score (it is sitting in the 99th percentile for articles published at the same time).

What inspired you to become a researcher?

One of my favourite memories was when I was a master’s student. I was not yet convinced that research was for me. We were analysing some neuroimaging data from one of our first participants and noticed some very strange brain activations. My advisor, Prof Sophie Schwartz, correctly inferred that the participant had started to use both hands to respond to our task (they were only supposed to use one). This was solely based on the location of the motor activation in the brain. It felt like we were in a sci-fi movie, where Sophie could tell what the participant was doing by using some very simple brain data. I remember thinking how cool and amazing that was, and I was hooked on neuroscience from that moment.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

A part of my research also aims to test different interventions/climate change communications in order to see how they impact different facets of climate change mitigation (eg belief in climate change, support for policies etc), I often get the question, ‘How do I frame climate change communications so that people will get on board?’.

While this is a very straightforward and valid question, it is not easy to respond to. Climate change is an incredibly complicated, multifaceted problem and unfortunately, there is no simple, easy solution that is going to work here.

Changing human behaviour is incredibly difficult to do, especially in this context. Solutions also need to be multifaceted and targeted to make any substantial contribution.

In one huge project that I am very proud to be leading, we tested 11 different climate change communications on almost 60,000 participants from 63 countries thanks to our 257 global collaborators. We tested how each intervention impacts different facets of climate change mitigation, including belief in climate change, support for climate policies and different types of climate actions.

One important finding is that no intervention worked equally well across all these facets! If one communication worked well at increasing climate beliefs or policy support, it backfired and reduced people’s efforts in climate action.

In addition, how well each communication worked was also impacted by how much participants actually believed in climate change in the first place.

This suggests that these communication strategies need to be carefully tailored depending on the type of person AND the facet of climate change mitigation that is being targeted!

Do you think public engagement with science and data has changed in recent years?

Throughout the pandemic, governments, scientists, health officials and others attempted to discuss research and explain to the public how and why Covid-19 was spreading. This quickly highlighted the fact that experts nearly speak a different language compared to the public. This makes it incredibly difficult to convey important information about complex issues in a way that is simple and easy to understand for those with and without a scientific background.

We see this problem in the climate domain as well. By combining our expertise with people who specifically study science communication, I think we can do a lot to help overcome these barriers.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

There are multiple ways that I try to encourage engagement with my work, depending on the audience.

Regarding fellow researchers/academics, and as much as I hate to admit it, I have recently started to take to social media to talk about my work. I have never really been a huge supporter of social media platforms in general, but I have come to realise they can be a powerful tool for helping to highlight your work.

I would also love to be able to work more closely with journalists to help develop different types of climate change communication strategies. Very often, journalists are the ones that are responsible for communicating to the public about societal issues, especially climate change.

Alongside interdisciplinary researchers from the Environment and Climate Research Hub at the University of Vienna, we were recently awarded a small grant for a project dedicated to testing how climate change visualisations relate to different facets of climate change mitigation (like belief in climate change, support for climate policies etc). My hope is to work alongside journalists who specialise in writing about climate change and to get their feedback on these visualisations. Later, once we have determined which visualisations are most effective, I would like to provide them to said journalists to help make it easier to discuss climate change with the public.

Finally, I want to draw more attention to the Climate Intervention Webapp. Here, anyone can log in and look at the communications (aka ‘interventions’) that we have tested internationally. For example, you can break up the results based on the country the data was collected in, the gender or age of participants, or even political orientations. This tool can be used to better understand what types of communications are most effective for the people you are trying to target. I think this is a great resource for policymakers, journalists and others to see what types of communications impact different audiences!

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