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Communicating About Climate Change: 'The Elephant We're All Inside Of'

Change Change Denial and Dissonance

How stakeholders communicate about climate change has long been framed by who’s doing the framing as much, or more so, than the information being communicated. So I am forever curious how various stakeholders – believers, skeptics and deniers alike – are talking about it and who, if anybody, is ‘moving the needle’ in either direction.

One of the most salient and recent inputs to the climate communications conundrum is Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall in Oxford, England.


Marshall’s work deserves to be spotlighted for how it illuminates why skeptics and deniers alike will not be moved to engage in thoughtful exchanges unless those communicating respect certain tenets of what academic and non-profit research are finding.

Marshall draws on the efforts of the Climate Information Network (COIN) he co-founded along with research by two leading university-based centers: the Project on Climate Change Communications at Yale University in Princeton, NJ and the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.

Marshall also taps into the works of authorities who’ve written and/or spoken extensively about climate change such as Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert, GOP pollster Frank Luntz, Princeton Psychology and Public Affairs Professor Daniel Kahneman, former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Oregon Kari Norgaard and ABC-TV network correspondent Bill Blakemore.

Perhaps it would behoove those preparing for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, aka COP21, in Paris November 30 – December 11, 2015 to heed much of what Marshall and other top-tier researchers are finding and sharing if they are serious about forging a legally binding and universal agreement on climate.

Here is my synthesis of the most illuminating take-a-ways from Marshall’s book. I offer it as a checklist with which to gauge climate communications efforts, regardless of which – if any – side of the issue you’re on.  Be sure to share your thoughts.

  • A compelling emotional story that speaks to peoples’ core values has more impact than rational scientific data such as hotter global temperatures and rising sea levels.
  • Perceptions are shaped by individual psychological coping mechanisms and the collective narratives that they shape with the people around them.
  • People’s social identity has an extraordinary hold over their behaviors and views.
  • Drawing too much attention to an undesirable norm (e.g. catastrophic weather) can seriously backfire.
  • In high-carbon societies, EVERYone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi. What might work better are narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests and a common humanity.
  • The real story is about our fear, denial and struggle to accept our own responsibility. “Climate change isn’t the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant we’re all inside of,” said ABC’s Bill Blakemore.
  • Our brains are UNsuited to deal with climate change unless the threats are personal, abrupt, immoral and immediate. A distant, abstract and disputed threat does not have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.
  • Without a clear deadline for action, we create our own timeline. We do so in ways that remove the compulsion to act. We make it just current enough to accept that something needs to be done but put it just too far into the future to require immediate action.

We’d all benefit the most from: what models for communicating about climate change are working, and which ones are not?

  • The messenger is more important than the message. The messenger can be the most important – but also the weakest link – between scientific information and personal conviction.  Building on that, to break the partisan “deadlock” and public disinterest starts, Marshall asserts educational efforts need to create the means for new messengers to be heard.
  • There may be lessons learned from the campaign by oil giant BP in the early 2000s offering person-on-the-street testimonials about the need to deal with climate change.  Full disclosure: While a Senior Vice President of Public Affairs with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide from 2001-2006, I helped develop and execute elements of BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign.  
  • Until the economy is back on a strong growth track, climate change advocates will struggle to earn attention in their home countries as long as bread-and-butter ‘pocketbook’ issues are more important to an overwhelming majority of citizens.


See George Marshall in action from this recent interview on TalkingStickTV via YouTube.

While we’re on the subject, I recommend reading  Connecting on Climate: A Guide To Effective Climate Change Communication completed in 2014 by ecoAmerica and Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. It includes 10 principles for effective climate change communication based on research from various social science fields.

Jim Pierobon's picture

Thank Jim for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 12, 2015

Jim, maybe forty years of activism in various social and scientific issues have left me somewhat jaded, but it seems the U.S. is on track toward what might be called a “crisis of inaction”.

From gridlock in Congress, to public opinion polls, to consideration of this/that special interest group’s feelings, to interminable review, to “framing” a message – the modern tendency to emphasize consensus over leadership is not permitting us, as a nation, to get very much done. In the last century we’ve become acutely aware there is a practical limit to how much democracy can be integrated into the policymaking process. The contradiction is that fairness and consideration are the Enlightenment ideals on which our country was founded.

George Marshall alludes to this in making the point that “the messenger is more important than the message”, but then implies that achieving personal conviction – consensus – is prerequisite to action. It will be impossible to achieve consensus on climate change, or even to know how close we are. At some point, we need capable leaders with the courage to act.

Five Lessons on Leadership from FDR

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 12, 2015

It has become offensive to many to be called uninformed, or deniers, or similar. I have tried to be a bridge between communities, having spent a lot of time in academics and a lot of time in a productive rural environment. I don’t fit in either community, but feel my limited impressions of both might be helpful.

First, the guy pictured at the microphone would be immediately dismissed advising livestock breeders, loggers, crop farmers, home builders, truck drivers, etc. He would be dismissed not because of his information or message, but because he first arrogantly dismisses the skills and contributions of his audience; like many on TEC.

Second, by talking to your audience like inferiors, you provide an empty message. The people who work to keep the system going would be delighted to find ways to make it work better. They fully understand that raising taxes, to pay for some energy sceme they doubt, run by some guy who insults them as stupid, means they work harder for less.

We are all aware of environmental and economic challenges. Try start there.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on January 12, 2015


So who do think are sufficiently capable of energizing leadership for climate change action? How about cllimate resiliency, which seems to be getting traction in many quarters around the world.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on January 12, 2015


I totally agree. If anyone talks ‘down’ to their audiences, no matter their stance, they instantly lose credibility. That’s a challenge many climate activists share.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 12, 2015

Jim, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

One aspect of the Energiewende I have to admire is Angela Merkel’s determination. Although the shift will prove a valuable experiment, I believe ultimately it will be unsuccessful. In another light perhaps it was even a necessary experiment, after Chernobyl, to establish energy priorities.

One of the five elements of FDR’s leadership was his ability to change course in mid-stream when things aren’t working out. We have yet to see a full demonstration of Merkel’s ability in that category.

I read a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, by way of Elon Musk: “When the going gets tough, keep going.” (I believe Musk has the requisite intelligence and leadership skills; unfortunately he has no interest in public service).

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 12, 2015

Bob. you and I have similar goals, but different perspectives.

First, I think the expression was, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” There’s more.

Second, FDR did not fail, ever. He was elected to a nation starving, and bankrupt. In 10 years he was able to combat the world’s 2 military superpowers, separately, in the most distant regions of the planet, from a wheelchair. And his wife continued, building the indispensable UN.

When I went through modern genetics, biophysical chemistry, solid state physics, computer science, in a department headed by the guy who invented digital electronics, none of those mossy old “scientists” could even read the thesis. Looking at the world today, every one of those technologies has changed the world for the better. I am truly amazed at the scientific progress we have seen. Where have you been?

There is scientific progress and there is science fiction. All we need is leadership that knows the difference. FDR certainly did.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 12, 2015

Rick, I think I was confusing two different quotes. Yours, which is equally apropos, and Churchill’s: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

I don’t disagree that there’s been amazing scientific progress in the last fifty years. What’s regressed is the capability to turn it into action.

For example: Oak Ridge conceived and built a functioning molten-salt reactor in five years, 1960-1965. In 2015, somehow it’s going to take us eight years to build another prototype, with the foundation of knowledge we already have. Inaction, resulting from a failure of leadership.

In less time and using technology primitive by comparison, we conceived, designed, and built the Hoover Dam – at the time, the largest concrete structure in the world.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 12, 2015

Bob, I admit complete ignorance of nuclear technology, history, and policy. Perhaps like many others of our time I assumed the big players were on top of it. Given my experiences however, I don’t think I have ever questioned your claims (for what that is worth).

My outdated area of experience benefitted by being small and simple, so private business competition was a great alternative to large institutional research groups. Unfortunately, nuclear technology is the biggest technology of them all. You and others have made those like me aware that there ARE alternatives and opportunities. But I still don’t have a clue how to advocate sophisticated, confidential, likely classified nuclear technology. You didn’t exactly reach for the “low hanging fruit,” while others sometimes hear “sour grapes.” (My apologies.)

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 13, 2015

Maybe it was the title of his book; “Don’t even think about it- Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change.”

My undergrad was neurophysiology, but I would never talk to the farmers out here like that. Instead I would explain how the nervous system is a terrific model of accumulative electrochemical potential energy. And translate that into how farmers can make money creating secure, reliable, distributed power, selling it to city dudes that fret about climate change.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 13, 2015

Rick, no apologies necessary. People much more actively involved (and connected) than I admit they’re groping in the dark for reasons why seemingly-viable new nuclear technologies are not on the front burner.

The annual Thorium Energy Alliance Conference (this year June 3-4 in Palo Alto) is a window on the current state of molten-salt development. Attendees run the gamut, from those with tens of $millions in venture capital invested, to wacko conspiracy theorists, to semi-credible conspiracy theorists, to physicists from around the world, to energy hobbyists like me.

Highly recommended.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 13, 2015

John, I try to talk about modeling neurophysiology for distributed electic power generation from reduced biofuels and I’m handed insults in return from a guy who says he doesn’t talk down to people and is not offensive.

I took my undergrad neurophysiology and worked pretty hard doing high pressure hydrogen exchange kinetics (fuel cells). And came up with a theory that water is a semiconductor. With that theory we see babies are full of water, old people dried out. People are prewired with a need for love and security, and develop from there. The dynamically addressable internet was a complete rejection of the “prewired” neural model.

You confirm my concerns. I have never heard such talk from people I choose as friends and neighbors.


Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on January 30, 2015

On behalf of George Marshall, who has offered this comment:

Hi Rick,

George here. I entirely agree, it is essential that we understand and respect the values of the people we are speaking to- indeed, this is very much at the heart of my approach.  I think your comments would be very fair if I was speaking to livestock breeders or loggers-remember though, this was an interview conducted in Yale University, so I was speaking to their values.

I’m also strongly of the view that I am not the best person to do the communication- so, much of my work is focused on encouraging and enabling people to speak to their peers. That means that it is livestock breeders talking to livestock breeders. It sounds self-evident, but this requires a very different approach for environmental communicators. Rather than being the communicator, they are the facilitator of a discussion, and they are using their skills and expertise to support others.

thank you


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on January 30, 2015

George and Jim,

A couple of days ago I was at the lumber yard looking for wood to finish a set of speakers I started building in 1970 before “life” happened. The rural yard owners have pictures on the wall of their history being actual loggers a hundred years ago.

They wondered why I put so much effort into speakers, and I asked if they had ever heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. They said, “Who?” I replied, “Ludvig von Beethoven.” It still didn’t click, so I mentioned Johann Sebastian Bach wrote many of their hymns. And it clicked.

It takes time and effort to reach out. Believe me, neither you nor I nor those Yale academics could do what those loggers did 100 years ago. And I think that lumber guy will make a point of remembering Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The problem is, you never really fit in either community you’re trying to bridge.

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