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Cautionary Advice for Climate Communicators

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 8, 2011 9:20 PM


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Earlier this week, an informal email group I belong to generated a burst of fascinating exchanges after I listed my post on the Yale Cultural Cognition paper. This group consists of journalists, climate scientists, and social science scholars, among others. At the end of the back-and-forth, David Ropeik, a former journalist turned risk expert, posed a provocative question that deserves greater airing. (That will follow in a minute.) I met Ropeik at a Society of Environmental Journalists conference some years ago, when he talked about how ill informed and sensationalistic his own TV reporting once was. I have since found his books and numerous articles particularly useful. Here's a recent piece--directed to journalists. On the issue of climate communication, I often find Ropeik's observations spot on. And during this latest email exchange, he asked a question that's been nagging at me since I attended a symposium in the Spring, part of an ongoing initiative called the Climate, Mind, Behavior project (which I wrote about here). Ropeik has given me permission to post this passage from his email:

What's the goal of risk communication about climate change? To get people to "˜believe'? To see the issue the way the communicator wants them to? To get people to do what the communicator wants them to do? Or is it just to impart information so people can make up their own minds...which, frankly, sounds wonderfully moral and democratic and all, but...let's be honest less than what the people concerned about climate change really want. A lot of this conversation is about finding ways to get people to believe in climate change, and care about it enough to help promote change and progress and solutions. To the extent THAT is the goal, there are two HUGE hurdles. First, as I've written, because of its affective/emotional characteristics, even among those who believe in climate change, the issue just doesn't worry people enough to get them to act. Second, risk communication that feels manipulative usually fails. People resist being manipulated. We are more willing to change than BE changed. So the risk communication challenge, even using Mental Models, is, to not only inform, but do so in a way that accounts for how the issue feels to folks, AND which doesn't make people feel like they are being encouraged/pushed/manipulated to reach a particular conclusion.

This strikes me as sound cautionary advice that climate communicators would be advised to heed.

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