finite pool of worryIllustration courtesy Ian Webster/CREDFor the climate-change message to finally sink in, for the 64 percent of Americans who don’t believe in the problem (according to a recent Pew poll) to start changing their minds, the place to begin might be the local high-school gym.

Have a respected teacher—maybe from the science department—lead a public presentation. She should mention some compelling data, but also tell about her summer trip to Australia’s drought-stricken Southeast and the dust that coated her morning tea.

She would say something like, “We can’t know every detail of what pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse pollution will do. It’s like driving your car off a cliff—you can’t predict which parts will break, but you know enough to know the results won’t be good.”

There would be plenty of time for questions and planning a group response. Finally, it would help to flood the gym so attendees could sit up to their ankles in water, to really feel what flooding is like.

Such a plan incorporates leading research on how our minds respond to the threat of climate change, which is neatly synthesized in a new guide, “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” The 43-page booklet was released Wednesday by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, which conducts fascinating laboratory and field research at the intersection of psychology, anthropology, and behavioral economics (The New York Times Magazine profiled it last spring).

Aimed at scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and “the interested public,” the guide begins with the blunt admission that climate communicators are failing. Global warming slipped to the bottom of a list of Americans’ concerns in a January Pew poll. CRED offers reasons why and suggests how to do better.

For example, people work harder to avoid losses than to seek gains, so “save money” might not be the best pitch for convincing people to buy efficient home appliances. A message like “avoid losing money on higher energy bills in the future” does better at appealing to this loss-aversion instinct.

To be clear, CRED’s researchers don’t suggest flooding the gym—that’s my scenario, based on their principles. Those include using:

  • data plus narrative storytelling (the dusty vacation)
  • analogy and metaphor (the car and the cliff)
  • a trusted local messenger
  • a group setting
  • an experiential scenario (the water)

Happily, the guide has cartoons. CRED graciously allowed us to reprint them. Click through the following pages (see navigation at the bottom of each page) for an overview of the guide’s eight chapters, based on the illustrations by Ian Webster.