Climate change is 'largest science communication failure in history'

Some climate change experts hope painting a grim picture of the future will get people to change their behaviour. But for many of us, it may actually do the opposite.

Experts hope painting grim picture of future will get people to change behaviour but it may do the opposite

University of California student Nicky Parish has a new metro rail card to ride public transit, a small change in daily life that is the kind of action that could be effective in the larger efforts to combat climate change. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

This story is part of CBC News special coverage of climate change issues in connection with the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

Most climate change scientists have been trying to convince people with actual science: evidence of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, endangered polar bears.

Experts hope painting a grim picture of the future will get people to change their behaviour. But for many of us, it may actually do the opposite.

"The underlying story of climate communications has been the story of catastrophe and apocalypse," Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes says on a visit to California.

His book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming addresses the psychology behind the inaction on global warming.

He calls it "probably the largest science communication failure in history" because climate change has come up against an equally powerful force: human nature. 

"The trouble with mainstream conventional climate communication is that it rubs up against the psychology of our brain," Stoknes says.

Most scientists have been trying to convince people with actual science. But Stoknes says evidence of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and endangered wildlife evoke doomsday scenarios that are just too big for people to handle. 

Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stocknes says the only way to convince people to act is to forgo much of the doom and gloom around climate change and paint a more positive picture of a green future. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Typically it creates a feeling of distance," Stoknes says. "So unless we see it as an attractive story giving meaning, we oppose the rational solution. So that's where the psychology come in."

He says the only way to convince people to act is to forgo much of the doom and gloom and paint a more positive picture of a green future. 

"We can tell a story of we're on our way to a much smarter society, where we get better quality of life with less resource use."

Per Espen Stocknes signs a book at the University of Southern California campus. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agrees: the climate change script needs a rewrite.

"If you don't communicate well, you can have the best product in the world, but you have nothing then," Schwarzenegger says.

For starters: forget about rising sea levels and dying polar bears.

"You can mention it but it shouldn't be the headline," Schwarzenegger says. "This is not something people can relate to." 

To convince skeptics and fellow Republicans in California, he says he focused on pocketbook and personal issues like jobs or health, noting the 200,000 Americans who die early every year due to pollution, according to the MIT's Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment.

"Well, is anyone talking about that? Hello! It's very important because that hits home," Schwarzenegger says.

"And also how the environment and going green is actually the future, it can create many jobs. We've seen it in California that the green sector is producing many times the amount of jobs than any other sector in our economy."

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks the climate change script needs a rewrite. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

And, Stoknes says, fighting climate change can't be an inconvenient chore. It has to be easy and fun.

"We must make it a lot simpler for people to act climate-friendly, and we need to tell better stories that create a longing and a vision for where we want to go for a low-carbon society: it's fun, it's smart, it's more conducive to human interactions," Stocknes says.

"And finally, we need signals so we know that we're actually bending the curve, so we know that we're doing something personally relevant."

That's what the University of California is doing across its 10 campuses. In addition to the university's pledge to go carbon neutral by 2025, more than 15,000 students, faculty and staff have signed up for an online challenge to reduce their own carbon footprints.

Per Espen Stoknes's book outlines the psychological reasons behind inaction on climate change, as well as how to galvanize people

UCLA student Nikki Parrish proudly displays her first metro card for riding public transit. Caitlyn Brown is logging her efforts to turn off appliances and unplug chargers.

"They call them power vampires because they're always sucking energy even when you're not using them and you think they're dead," Brown says.

UCLA employee Michelle Sityar has vowed to do web conferencing instead of travelling to conferences and to walk instead of drive to meetings.

"Learning more about what we could do and all the impact that all these little actions could have made it more fun," Sityar says. "And I've definitely incorporated more practices into my daily routine."

The participants track their carbon-reducing measures, the results are tallied and the totals from each of the 10 campuses are compared to determine the winner.

"That makes me try instead of giving up," says UCLA employee Cia Ford, who says doomsday predictions make her want to give up. "Doing one little thing is a positive thing." 

Research suggests campaigns to get people to do small, easy things can lead to lasting change.

UCLA's Jon Christenson edited the suggestions of 50 climate change scientists being presented at the conference in Paris (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Jon Christensen edited the report authored by 50 University of California scientists entitled Bending the Curve, which is being presented to UN officials in Paris. "We recommend that it's really important to lower the barriers for people to take action and to feel that they can contribute." 

Christensen says experts learned lessons about the "stickiness" of behaviour change during California's drought.

"When there's a lot of messaging about conserving water, when there are incentives to conserve water, people do conserve water, they use less water," Christensen says.

"And when the drought is over there's some rebound, but those conservation measures do tend to stick at the municipal level and at the household level. You learn new patterns and then those patterns can stick."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.