The famous “Keeling Curve” graph, which shows the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere from 1958 to 2006, had set off alarm bells in the scientific community that continues to ring loudly even today. Yet somehow, this same graph does not communicate the immediacy of the climate change problem to lay audiences
Instead, it may actually convey the message that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has been taking place over a long period, thereby, erroneously implying that climate change is not an urgent issue. Similarly, many people have difficulty grasping the importance of projections of higher carbon dioxide concentrations and surface temperatures several decades from now. Part of the problem may be the tendency to discount future events. But another part of the problem may be that a global average surface temperature increase of a few degrees does not seem like much to the general public, given the variability in temperature that most people experience on a regular basis.
But a few degrees do matter. As the 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found, numerous effects of climate change are already observable throughout the earth’s system, and these impacts are likely to grow over the coming years. Yet, polls taken during the past several years continue to show Americans ranking climate change near the bottom of their list of concerns or policy priorities. Clearly attempts to convey the immediacy of the climate challenge have fallen short of translating climate change into a near-term (as well as a long-term) danger on par with other imminent societal and personal threats.
Even when people understand the Keeling Curve, it does not always motivate them to take action. The reason for this disconnect may lie in how the brain works, which climate change communicators need to understand to create truly powerful messages that will inspire action. The human mind is not designed to immediately react to threats that seem to manifest themselves in the distant future, such as climate change. Distant risks do not set off the same alarms that immediate risks do. Human brains struggle to balance long-range worries with the demands of more immediate concerns. More specifically, the human brain has two different processing systems: The experiential processing system, which controls survival behaviour and is the source of emotions and instincts (such as feeding, fighting and fleeing); and the analytical processing system, which controls analysis of scientific information (such as logical, deliberative and analytic).
Despite evidence from the social sciences that the experiential processing system is the stronger motivator for action, most climate change communication (including the Keeling Curve) remains geared toward the analytical processing system. Personal or anecdotal accounts of negative climate change experiences, which could easily outweigh statistical evidence, are rarely put into play, despite evidence that even a stranger’s past experiences can evoke strong feelings in people, making such communications memorable and, therefore, dominant in processing. Yet not all communication about climate change should be emotional because there are downsides to bypassing analytical reasoning to make an appeal only to the experiential system. The most effective communication targets both processing systems of the human brain.
Communicators could make use a number of experiential tools in addition to the more common analytical ones when creating presentations on climate change. For example, vivid imagery, in the form of film footage, metaphors, personal accounts, real-world analogies, and concrete comparisons might help. Also, messages that are designed to create, recall, and highlight relevant personal experiences and elicit emotional responses are likely to help.
Analytic products (such as trend analyses, forecast probabilities and ranges of uncertainty) help people absorb facts and can be valuable tools when people need to make big decisions, but they alone will not compel people to take effective steps to address the climate change challenge. Information that is balanced with both analytic and experiential materials may be more likely to have an effect on attitudes and behaviour, creating a desire in people to act on their new knowledge.
For example, in 2008, the city of New York and partners launched an advertising campaign to promote recycling awareness in the city. The campaign used metaphors, analogies, vivid imagery and comparison to communicate facts such as: “New York city residents discard 800 million pounds of recyclable paper annually.” The ads powerfully illuminated how the huge amount of recyclable paper thrown away in New York city annually is enough to fill the entire Empire State Building by creating a picture of the iconic skyscraper composed entirely of discarded magazines and catalogs.
However, another possible reason for the public’s lack of responsiveness to climate change messages may be caused by low comprehension of or interest in communications laden with scientific language. When talking to the general public, research shows that communicators should, whenever possible, avoid using jargon, complicated scientific terms and acronyms. Instead, words that will make sense to the audience must be used.