Human beings are quick to respond when a threat is visible, immediate and endangers something they value, be it their health, family, livelihood or community. Unfortunately, for most consumers, climate change just doesn’t fit this description.
Poll after poll shows that publics worldwide care about climate change and the environment. If the concern of millions of people translated into action – through widespread adoption of energy-efficient appliances, more frequent use of public transit – huge gains could be made to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.
The challenge is the way that people perceive and then respond to climate change.
News media muddies the message
First, climate change is a complex issue to fully understand. While there is a plethora of information available, wading through it calls for a level of time and attention that busy consumers simply don’t have to offer.
Most people rely on sound bites from the media but, as the World Bank points out, news coverage appears as a confusion of conflicting opinions instead of broad scientific consensus that human activity has caused climate change.
The result: a National Geographic international study found that while 56% of consumers are concerned about the environment, almost a third felt that scientists do not know enough about climate to justify society taking action now.
Demotivated by distant rewards
Our inaction also has to do with how we use this hazy understanding of climate change to make decisions. Consumers largely prefer to make only small changes to their entrenched behaviours. When they do make a change, notes Edward Maibach and colleagues in a report on communication and climate change, they like rewards now, not months or years in the future.
However, mitigating climate change calls for making significant changes to fundamentals like household energy usage and personal transportation – and the positive impact on the environment might not be felt for decades.
The multi-stakeholder nature of the climate change problem is another barrier. Individuals are much less likely to take personal responsibility for a problem that belongs to everyone, especially when their own contribution must be matched by millions of others to be effective.
Finding the right words
The upshot is that, to gain traction on pro-environmental behaviours, climate change needs must communicated in a way that is easily understood and inspires action.
Maibach and others argue for a “single, powerful, and encapsulating metaphor” – one that effectively conveys the urgency of climate change and primes the public for an appropriate response.
Our current descriptors lack punch. The greenhouse effect is associated with a means of growing plants – generally seen as a good thing. Global warming might sound appealing to those in chilly climates while climate change seems too gradual to be of immediate concern.
Instead of these options, researchers at The Social Capital Project advocate for language that paints a more disruptive picture of global warming, suggesting “rapid climate shift,” “climate shock” or “climate failure.”
The health of the planet depends, in part, on whether consumers worldwide adopt new attitudes towards the environment. While consumers don’t need to understand the intricacies of climate science to care about global warming, they do need to buy into the message of climate change if behavioural transformation is to take place.