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.

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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:

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  • 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.

Point 1: Know your audience …

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Iceberg cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

… and expect them to have different mental models than scientists’. Newcomers to the climate issue might be sick of getting too much ice in their Dr. Pepper, so explain how sea ice is different.

Case study: Ozone is not a football term

Ozone cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

There’s a useful side study on how people frequently confuse the ozone problem (a big hole) and the greenhouse gas problem (a blanket):

Some Americans thus reason that this “hole” either allows more solar radiation into the biosphere—warming the planet—or, alternatively, allows heat to escape—cooling the planet.

Nope. These misconceptions need plainspoken correcting.

Point 2: All climate activism is local

New York water rise cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Consider the framing carefully, remembering that local appeals are powerful. CRED’s research suggest New Yorkers will care more about sea-level rise that floods their subway tunnels than sea-level rise that floods farmland in Bangladesh. Forget moral purity for a moment—this is about finding appeals that work.

Point 3: Make it real

Extreme warning cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Translate scientific data into concrete experience. Children don’t learn to keep their hands away from a hot stove through charts, or even through urgent warnings from parents. They learn best by touching one. One much-lamented problem with climate change is that by the time most of us experience it, it’ll be too late to do anything. Our minds have evolved to respond much more quickly to immediate threats (tiger! mouse!) than to long-range ones.

But we are still swayed by personal anecdotes and stories, which the guide calls an under-used tool in sharing the climate message.

“We’re not entirely doomed, because we respond to each other’s stories,” coauthor and CRED Associate Director Sabine Marx said in an interview last spring.

Case Study: Visually speaking

Recycling magazines ad.

Use vivid imagery. The guide highlights this New York City recycling ad as a good example translating an abstract number into a visual analogy.


Point 4: No screaming!

Pool cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Don’t overuse emotional appeals. They grab attention at first, but too much leads to emotional numbing because of what researchers call our “finite pool of worry.” In one study, farmers in Argentina rated how much they worried about political risks, weather and climate risks, and economic risk. They were then shown a climate forecast predicting a rain shortage the next spring. As their concern about climate increased, their concern about political instability diminished, even though the political situation had not changed.

This principle also helps explain why global warming concerns shrank as economic concerns rose after last fall’s financial crisis.


Case study: Channeling action

Lightbulb cartoon.Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Another key phenomenon: the “single action bias.” Researchers find that “individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option.”

CRED researchers found that Argentinian farmers who built extra storage space for grain where less likely to use irrigation or crop insurance, even though using all of the options would have provided the most protection from drought.

The guide even suggests evidence of a mass single action bias in the election of Barack Obama. Millions of voters did their One Thing to be politically engaged, then checked out, despite the fact that our political structure prevents the president from doing much on his own.

For a simple step on counteracting this effect, the guide suggests simply helping people become aware of it. Then, it says, offer them a checklist of good options.

Point 5: No exaggerating

Abandoning the planet cartoon.Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Address scientific and climate uncertainties. Don’t overstate things, but anticipate that there are crucial words that scientists use differently than the general public. (There’s a good list on page 27 of the guide.) When scientists say “uncertainty” for example, the public hears “not knowing.” CRED suggests “range” as a better word.

It quotes California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: “If 98 doctors say my son is ill and needs medication and two say ‘No, he doesn’t, he is fine,’ I will go with the 98. It’s common sense–the same with climate change. We go with the majority, the large majority.”

Point 6: We’re all in this together

Cow cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Tap into social identities and affiliations to remind people that they share common resources (the tragedy of the commons and all that). CRED highlights Knoxville, Tennessee’s campaign to “Make Downtown Green, Block by Block” which appealed to city identity to rally downtown businesses and residents to buy 400 blocks’ worth of renewable energy.

Point 7: Join hands, please

Group participation cartoon. Illustration courtesy Ian Webster/CRED

Encourage group participation. OK, so it sounds hokey. But research of farmers in Uganda and lobster fishermen in the Florida Keys found that people process complex information better in groups. They tend to accept both anecdotal and factual information in such settings.


Point 8: Go ahead and do the easy stuff

photocopy.Courtesy dirtyhamster via Flickr.Make behavior change easier. Switch the printer’s default option from one-sided to double-sided, as Rutgers University did, saving 7 million sheets of paper in one semester. Require employees to opt out of retirement savings programs, rather than opt in—the extra step means more of them will save. Another way of putting it: make the desired option the easiest option.

CRED’s offerings aren’t all original, and many of them are easier said than done. Still, my hunch is that the new guide could prove quite useful. Be glad to hear what others think of it.