Climate change has become a frequent cause of explosive debate in society. The number of articles on this topic is increasing. Social media is bombarding me with climate change posts, along with different opinions of people in the comments. Many people are called ecoterrorists. Society is confused and divided. Some people even avoid this topic and ignore the problem. There are also ones who deny climate change. Why is there such a drama around this topic?
The notion of “climate change” perceives each of us in a different way. For some, it is linked to a consumerist market system that has become out of control and the need for environmental protection at the expense of economic stability and development. For others it constitutes a questioning of faith in God, because we live by the grace of God and no human action can reverse this order. Someone else will associate this notion with freedom restrictions, free market economy regulations. In extreme cases, it can lead to ideas of totalitarianism or social engineering. There are many of us here so we should control the size of the population.
There is no doubt about the ongoing climate change.
The most important scientific document where scientists worldwide agree the conclusions of climate change research is Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This document shows that the global climate is changing and that people are a partial cause. There is no doubt about the ongoing climate change, only the predictions of the future differ, mainly due to the complexity of the problem and many factors causing it. If scientific knowledge speaks clearly, why does society not accept it as truth but instead create many different polarized opinions?
Cultural values are the navigation that maps the environment in which we live and how we should behave in it.
What matters to us are values and not scientific facts. Cultural values are the navigation that maps the environment in which we live and how we should behave in it. The problem is that our cultural values and beliefs are deeply rooted and difficult to change. Accepting scientific findings will take time because it requires a change of our beliefs and behavior.
The historical analogy of accepting scientific findings by society is the risk of cancer caused by smoking cigarettes. When the scientific findings about the harmfulness of smoking appeared, cigarette manufacturers launched a science-challenging campaign because the finding was a loss of profit for them. Moreover, this finding was not accepted by society either, as smoking at that time was a social trend supported by Hollywood movies and advertised by slogans convincing viewers of the health benefits of smoking. The whole situation was solved in court which confirmed that the scientific beliefs about the harmfulness of smoking are convincing and the advertising message is false. How cool smoking was back then can be observed in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where one cigarette after another is smoked.
Climate change requires not only the adoption of scientific findings, but also changing our moral values. A historical example of changing moral values is the abolition of slavery. In the 18th century, a significant portion of the population was in slavery which represented a primary source of energy and wealth back then. Abolition of slavery was seen as a possible cause of economic collapse. Today, our economy is dependent on fossil fuels. We have a huge oil-dependent infrastructure that cannot simply be replaced without collapsing. Just as few people have had a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people consider it a moral problem to burn fossil fuels in the present century. Will people in 100 years see us with the same resistance we feel about slavery today?
The acceptance by society is more important to us than scientific facts or moral values.
Each of us has a cultural identity that is essential for functioning in society. This identity causes us to accept the views held by members of the groups we identify with. In assessing the scientific conclusions, we take into account the attitude of our friends, colleagues at work, the credibility of the source of information, etc. We will lean towards attitudes that strengthen links with other members of our social group while confirming our definition of ourselves. We subconsciously strive to maintain the consistency of our internal beliefs and their compatibility with those of other people we trust. The facts are becoming less important.
The issue of climate change is not easy and requires considerable effort to understand it.
One would have to study the problem for a long time to understand the scientific models, the functioning of the feedback loops, the time delays, the accumulation and the non-linearity. Many people do not even know the difference between the terms “global warming” and “climate change”.
Climate change = changes in climatic conditions, deviations from the norm in the form of extreme weather (droughts, floods, tornadoes, ..), different levels of temperature, precipitation, air flow, etc. Global warming = increase in average global temperature. Changes in average global temperature causes unpredictable weather behavior.
If one has not checked the facts, why does he draw conclusions about something he doesn’t understand?
Man uses social filters where he has limited knowledge. We accept the opinions of the groups we trust and identify with, which limits our rationality. If we did not do that, our heads would explode because we would have to process a huge amount of information. Limited rationality makes life easier in this complex world. For example, I ride a tram and I have no idea how a tram works, but I believe it will safely take me where I need it to. The same case is with a car or plane. I don’t know how they work, but I believe they’re safe for me. I have faith in these systems and do not devote time and energy to understanding them.
Climate change is much more complex than the operation of an aircraft. Its complexity is characterized by being global, taking place over several generations over a long period of time, having many influencing factors, affecting our essence of being, contrary to our lifestyle, being abstract, no one is responsible for it, incomprehensible, the cost of the solutions are high and the outcome of the measures taken is uncertain and will only be felt in the future, and moreover, the cooperation of all countries, companies and people is needed. The fact that from our country we do not see pollution in Asia does not mean that it does not affect us, yet many people believe it.
The more extreme the opinion and its recitation, the more extreme the response of the opposite opinion is.
On one side of the spectrum, the view is that climate change is not happening and that human activity has no effect on the climate. On the other hand, there is a belief that climate change is an imminent crisis, human activity explains the whole climate change and destroys life on earth as we know it. Extreme views are difficult to accept because they are very different from “normal”. Moreover, due to the large differences they do not provide much room for compromise and hence for an acceptable solution.
In addition to the extreme of opinion, public rhetoric wars on environmental issues also pose a great threat. Their purpose is not to find a solution to the problem but to throw dirt at the opponent and to reassure themselves in their opinion. This causes even more confusion for society and does not solve the problem. Society is divided into “we and they” and the boundaries between cultural communities are deepening. People are called eco-terrorists, activists, eco-fanatics, alarmists or deniers. As a result, people are afraid to talk about the problem and immediately reject someone with the opposite view, and the problem becomes insoluble.
The media play a key role in how society will perceive climate change.
The media have a great influence on shaping the social climate. The way they present information enhance or weaken the perception of risk and concern associated with the problem. Climate change is misinterpreted because the media want readership, so instead of scientific reports explaining the problem, they prefer to post rhetoric wars and scandals. Readers feed on contradictory articles that focus on throwing dirt on the opposition rather than solving the problem.
Social media is also a big risk for several reasons. Information from these media can be misused. How the companies can use social media to manipulate the behavior of entire nations is shown in the movie The Great Hack, where facebook data has influenced the results of the US presidential election or the results of Brexit in Britain. Another reason is that there is no restriction or control over the quality of the information, so that any foolish person can release a conspiracy babble. Thanks to the Internet we are not more informed, but more confident about our opinion, because it allows life in a social bubble. Social media makes it possible to find information that will support any of our attitudes and a community of people who will share that attitude.
Principles of communicating climate change:
- Overcoming the attitude of “we versus them”. We’re all on the same planet.
- Bring the complexity of the problem to the listener so that it is understood. Scientists use a language that ordinary society doesn’t understand.
- To concretize abstract risks on examples to avoid the idea that it is something distant and incomprehensible.
- Focus on the solution and not the problem. Presenting solutions for a generally desirable future. Overcome the feeling that it is too much of a problem to be taken up by individuals.
- Define social groups and assign a communication strategy (language, channel) for the message to be authentic and accepted. To reach those values that are important to the group, because we are opposed to information that challenges our cultural values, and we open ourselves to information that confirms our values.
- Gaining the trust of listeners by the person presenting the opinion. Rather, we accept our opinion from someone we trust as a representative of our values.
- Avoid catastrophic scenarios as they evoke a negative reaction and take people’s hopes of finding a solution. They raise thoughts about death and mortality and are the cause of depression.
- Motivate and inspire by the notion of a desirable future for some action instead of intimidation.
- Show the profits and benefits that the solution will bring and the losses that the inactivity will bring. For companies, climate change is a business risk in the form of loss of resources (water, agricultural products), disruption of supply chains (extreme weather fluctuations), etc. Conversely, tackling climate change is a business opportunity.
- Abandon the ideology of the political right and left and strike a balance between the need for regulation and trust in the free market. Do not use a language that polarizes, condemns and overstates one or the other.
Other principles of proper communication of social problems are in the e-Book on Human Rights Communication. The information in the article is based on the book How Culture Shapes the Discussion on Climate Change (Hoffman).