Navigating climate change communication between advocacy and denialism

By Jieling Liu

When I came back from Asia after a 4-month trip to Lisbon at the beginning of March this year, a friend came to pick me up. Driving into the city, I noticed how green every corner had turned and the sun was gently shining golden light into the car – “How nice! I came back to the peaceful, green and sunny Lisbon!” As I spoke out loud my happiness, my friend kindly informed me that it had been raining for three weeks in a row, and that the sun “only came out to greet my return”. I was surprised, as much of my memories of Lisbon have been associated with sunny summer on the beach. “Yes, my mother said it was not at all common fifty years ago to have so much rain at this time of the year,” with a look in my eyes, my friend added: “it’s climate change, yeah?”

If I was to respond instinctively based on my scientific knowledge of climate change, I would say: “it probably is a result of climate change”, which was what I responded. We know that climate change is not merely about the excessive amount of CO2 in the atmosphere resulting in warmer temperature and “the warmest year on record…in a row”, nor just about penguins and polar bears, it is also about warmer oceans, more vibrant storms and more destructive wind speed – Harvey, Irma, Patricia… record damaging storms and superstorms on earth, sea level rise, increasing heatwave mortality, and a range of uncertainty related to extreme events, causing great costs of life and the economy. But it was obvious that the word “probably” did the opposite of facilitating the communication and clarifying the issue of climate change, on the contrary, it turned off the conversation which had an excellent context “three weeks of unusual rain”, in delicate awkwardness. The next thing we knew was that the rainy season continued for another few weeks.

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Figure 1. This graph shows about 1200 different scenarios for how the climate can evolve! Illustration: Global Carbon Project

This type of discussion is typical among people who try to communicate climate change and it indicates three things: 1) distance (temporal, social, and geographical) to climate change events which could lead to decreased psychological proximity, reducing interests in communicating the topic; 2) “probability” is a translation of perceived uncertainty; and 3) the subconscious perception of climate change issue – tremendous complexity, is above a cognitively manageable degree for most non-scientists. Comprehending uncertain and complex information could be discomforting and thus result in disabling conversations. However, these psychological or cognitive interpretations can be easily confronted with the rather different reactions in the 60s and 70s when we for the first time came to a collective awareness of the human-induced damages to our ecological environment. Back then, public debates and demonstrations were echoed, legislation work was promoted, TVs and radios were voicing actively to push governments for actions, a series of environmental agenda, policy tools and institutional bodies were created.

So why are we now so incapable of communicating the biggest environmental crisis of our time – climate change? The fact is, in between active climate advocates and prominent deniers, there is a majority of people who are mildly sceptical, hesitate to discuss climate change full-frontally or simply insensitive about the issue. The scenes of climate change problems being politicised and active advocates fighting against total deniers cannot represent the majority. Mistaking these scenes as major problems in climate change communication could jeopardise the possibility of raising more awareness among the majority. In fact, the phenomenon reflects our subconscious anxiety and fear towards the uncertainty and complexity of climate change. Besides the public attitudes of “don’t care”, “too late anyway”, “selfish,” “only looking at economic benefits of the current established system” and “prioritising other agendas”, avoiding the discussion of climate change is also a survival instinct, in which cognitive reaffirmation process prefers the information that could keep us in the “comfort zone” rather than the upsetting ones.

1. Come Hell or High Water by Michael Pinsky
Figure 2. Come Hell or High Water, by Michael Pinsky. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Therefore, stop politicising climate change and categorising or forcing people to take sides would be the first step to “unfreeze” the situation. Even when it was “not common at all to have an excessive amount of rain and in the wrong season” half a century ago, we were already warned by the Meadows to face the scenario of exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. As long as we still live in our biological form, we are intrinsically linked to the nature around us and our lifestyle choices have a major impact on the ecological environment. Acknowledging that we depend on the common good resources on planet Earth and that they are limited would then be the first stage to restore the stage for climate change knowledge enquiry. As we admire Al Gore’s courage to speak truth to power and long-term advocacy for actions on climate change, we need to take small steps each time we communicate but view it as a long-term task as if we were to teach a baby how to walk. Furthermore, to avoid that “delicately awkward” moments of silence, we need to make one step further than just looking at each other and lamenting “Ahh…climate change!” or “Ahh… Donald Trump!” This one step further can mean an attempt to continue the original debate, change to another perspective or to tell another personal story. Finally, taking people out of their comfort zone and have them face the inconvenient truth would not work if people are left without being guided to imagine a positive alternative to move into, this means, we need to narrate a positive sustainable future which people can relate to personally and project hope when we debate and tell climate change stories.


Jieling Liu is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa), in the programme Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies. jielingliu@campus.ul.pt

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