September 23rd, 2015 .

Communicating the Climate Crisis: Fear, optimism or cognitive dissonance?

Pat Morden

Lately I’ve been busy saving the world.

Okay, maybe not “saving.” But certainly I’ve been thinking about what it will take to save the world from the impact of climate change. I’m in the process of adapting the Al Gore Powerpoint presentation I received during my training in Toronto to tailor it for local audiences. And that’s got me thinking about the ultimate communication challenge: how to create behavior change.

In the healthcare world, “behavior change communication” is a whole field. Wikipedia helpfully defines it as, “an interactive process of any intervention with individualscommunities and/or societies (as integrated with an overall program) to develop communication strategies to promote positive behaviors which are appropriate to their settings.”

BCC is based on the insight that simply telling people something is not generally enough to change their behavior.

Corporations spend a lot of time and money thinking about “change management,” which is essentially the same process for a different purpose. And of course, the federal election campaign is another form of behavior change communication (or in some cases, behavior maintenance communication).

Experts tell us that there are many factors influencing our behavior: knowledge, attitudes, habit and routine, self-efficacy (our belief in our own ability to change), emotions, deep-seated biases, social norms, and a host of environmental factors. At the end of the day, changing behavior through communication is complex and just plain hard.

The organization that Al Gore chairs, Climate Reality, focuses much of its communication on combatting denial. And no wonder – in the U.S. most Republicans are ideologically opposed to the idea of climate change and refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus. But here at home, the situation is different. Most people know there’s a problem, but there still doesn’t seem to be a collective will to do anything about it. Canada’s emission reduction target developed for the Paris conference represents a 6% increase over 1990 levels!

So I ask myself (and you, dear reader), is fear the best tool? Does it help to know that June 2015 was the hottest month on record? That many scientists believe that if we fail to control emissions, there’s a 10% chance that Earth will eventually be unable to support human life?

Or is the glass-half-full approach more motivating? Should we be emphasizing that the cost of wind and solar energy is coming down, the technology is improving, and around the world nations are setting tough emission control targets? That the UN conference in Paris in December looks like it might be a success?

Or how about making people aware of their cognitive dissonance—the contradictions in their beliefs, values and behaviors? As in: “Sure you’re worried about climate change, but you also own two SUVs – how does that work?”

Wish I knew, because the clock is ticking . . .



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