Communicating Climate Change: Part 1

The first part in our four-part series gets into the human psyche to help you better understand your audience

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With the Paris Climate talks now done and dusted and the spotlight fading once again on climate change it’s crucial that this topic iskept in people’s minds. Climate Change is a notoriously difficult topic to get the general public motivated about, but why is that?

This series of articles draws on a wealth ofsocial-scientific research conducted by the Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions in their report, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. We’ve combined findings from this research and suggestions from our digital experience on how we can work to craft digital campaigns that communicate this crucial issue more effectively.

“The ultimate solutions to climate change are workable, cost-effective technologies which permit society to improve living standardswhile limiting and adapting to changes in the climate. Yet scientific, engineering, and organisational solutions are not enough. Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes. For that, the public must be able to interpret and respond to often bewildering scientific, technological, and economic information.”

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University

Why don’t more people care about Climate Change?

Research shows that although most people are aware ofclimate change, they do not feel a personal connection with it. Despite the urgent calls to action from scientists it’s quite simply pretty low on most people’s priority list of concerns. How can this be considering the huge implications that we all know about?

Information on climate science is a real challenge to communicate – it is “complex, confusing, uncertain, sometimes overwhelming and often emotionally and politically loaded.”

Each part of this four part series focusses in on a key principle for effectively communicating climate science as follows:

1. Understand your audience
2. Get noticed
3. Tell stories
4. Make Change Easy

Part 1: Understand your audience

Here’s where we’re going to get inside the human psyche!

If we want audiences to absorb information we give them then we need to understand how their thought processes work and if they dismiss certain information then why is that?

Mental modal

A mental modal represents a person’s thought process for how something works in the real world. Mental modals are relevant here as they areresponsible for helping shape actions, behaviour, influence what people pay attention to and define how people approach and solve problems. They serve asthe framework into which people absorb new information.

The challenge for climate change communicators is that mental modals are often based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and intuitive perceptions rather than concrete evidence.

Mental modals effectively act as a filter, resulting inselective uptake of information, in-line with what they already believe aboutan issue. This means that people often avoid, dismiss or forget any informationthat requires them to change their mind and/or behaviour – a real challenge for climate change communicators!

Overcoming the mental modal hurdle

Luckily for us, there is a way to overcome these ‘mental modals’. People do update their ‘beliefs’ on an issue by correcting mis-information, and inserting new information as long as this information is made accessible to them. By this, I mean that the information is conveyed in such a way that it grasps the individual’s attention and sustains it enough for the information to be absorbed. To do this the information needs to be perceived as having relevance, authority and legitimacy.

Find out what misconceptions your audience has about climate change. By disconnecting this false information from their mental modal you can then work to insert new facts.

Single Action Bias

When faced with uncertain and risky situations, humans tend to simplify their decision making by focusing on one action. Often people take no further action as the first one succeeded in reducing their worry about the situation. This is called a single action bias.

A good example of single action bias is when somebody chooses to cycle to work to reduce their carbon footprint and in doing so feels like they are doing ‘their bit’ to protect the environment whereas cycling is just one in a whole host of actions people could take to combat climate change– switch to renewable energy, eat local produce, consume less meat, to name a few.

It is in our nature to fall victim to ‘single action bias’ and it can be tricky to avoid but here are some steps to help combat it:

– Make your audience aware of the phenomenon eg. ask your audience if they have swapped their light-bulbs for energy saving ones. Ask ifthey turn off their tv or computer at the mains overnight. Then ask if they do both of these. Many people will do one or the other but significantly less people will do both.

– Provide a checklist of actions – this helps serve as a reminder and encourage people take more than just the one action.

The EnvironmentalJustice Foundation’s Stick it to Climate Change campaign is a great example ofthis. They’ve created energy saving post-it notes with check-lists of actions that can be places around the home and office.


By understanding a little about the human psyche – how people process information and make decisions can really help campaigners intheir quest communicate the difficult subject of Climate Science in a way that will inspire action!

Here’s our summary checklist:

– Ensure you communicate with relevance, authority and legitimacy.

– Find out what misconceptions your audience has about climate change and work to give them the facts.

– Make your audience aware of ‘single-action bias’ and makeit easy to make more than one change.

Part2 in the Communicating Climate Change series will be focusses on thebig topic of ‘Getting Noticed’. Take a look here.