Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Monday, April 29, 2013

Communicating climate change: may the force be against you!

Yoda's three fingered force push - from Star Wars.

Don't you have the impression, sometimes, that the force is against you? Every time you try  to say something about the dangers of climate change, you see people literally being pushed away from you by an invisible force. It feels like being Star War's Yoda, pushing away enemies with "the force".

The problem is known, although not often referred to in these terms. Here is what Peter Sandman, specialist in the field of risk management, has to say on this issue:

When somebody says something that people don’t want to hear – and certainly don’t want to have to think about or acknowledge – they sometimes self-mockingly stick their fingers in their ears and sing, “La-la-la-la-la.” This is a very literal representation of the essence of denial.

Sandman also adds an example:

.....for many women in the developed world, the main problem is denial. Far from being apathetic about breast cancer, many women are terrified about it. In order to avoid intolerable fear, they must avoid thinking about breast cancer; in order to avoid thinking about breast cancer, they must avoid checking for lumps.

Sounds familiar, right? It is the essence of the problem we face with communicating climate change. People react with denial. Some of them simply don't want to hear about climate (it is the "Yoda push" effect) - others react becoming the "aggressive denier" characters who infest blog comments and discussion forums. But people in denial of climate change are not evil; they are not on the payroll of the fossil fuel lobby. They are showing a perfectly human reaction to a frightening situation.

How do we overcome this reaction? Not easy, but not impossible, either. Let me cite again from Peter Sandman:

In our 2003 column on “Fear of Fear,” Jody Lanard and I offered a list of strategies. Among the important ones:
  • Give people things to do.
  • Give people choices among things to do – that is, things to decide.
  • Encourage love, camaraderie, and community involvement. People can tolerate more fear when they’re protecting others they care about.
  • Encourage anger (where appropriate). People can tolerate more fear when they’re fighting back.
  • Be a role model – show that you are bearing your own fear.
Then we wrote:

Most importantly, treat other people’s fear as legitimate…. “It’s natural to be afraid, I’m afraid too” is a much more empathic response to public fear than “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” If we want people to bear their fear, we must assure them that their fear is appropriate.

So, we should not "sugar the pill" nor we should try to scare people. Truth is the way to go. The key point is to give people a way to fight back.

Of course, there is much more to say on this issue, but this post should give you some idea of how "risk management" of climate change can be approached in a professional way. Give a look to Sandman's paper, which is a mine of ideas and revelations. Then, your comments are welcome.


For a moment of relax, if you can understand Italian (actually, a peculiar version of Italian as spoken in towns along the Tuscan coast) you can see Yoda's force push in action in this clip.


  1. I wish I could read Italian!

    Thanks for making a start with the Sandman paper.
    Friends of the Carbon Cycle unite!
    Phil H

    1. Well, Phil, to appreciate that clip, you need to be fluent in Italian. If you are, your risk serious damage from uncontrolled LOL effects!