What we Have is the Failure to Communicate

We have a problem. Despite broad and sustained scientific consensus about the growing incapacity of the planet to sustain us and the threat posed by climate change, our elected decision makers and key corporate players seem incapable of doing enough of what is required, to avert the coming crisis.

This has caused despair among many of the climate scientists who convened earlier this year in Copenhagen. Nine out of 10 of those polled by The Guardian newspaper said they had lost faith in the ability of decision makers to take the action necessary to restrict global temperature.

The failure was variously blamed on political constraints, social inertia and the psychological inability of human society to manage the complexity, uncertainty and enormity of the issue. “I thought that we could convince people,” said one. “But I fear that society is not up to the challenge of a crisis like this.”

Some Australian scientists are similarly despondent. Having witnessed the failure of empirical data and reason to persuade, academics such as Graeme Pearman are now trying to unearth the elements of human nature that make it, in his words, “so difficult for us to respond”.

But while such an approach is understandable and may have merit, I worry about the conceptualisation of the inaction problem as one of understanding (because everyone knows that when reasonable people understand something, they act on it). Also concerning is the tendency to define the problem as one caused solely by others, rather than by advocates themselves.

This is particularly seen in the absence of critical reflection on the communication strategies climate scientists and activists have employed to date to provoke action on climate change.

There is good evidence that the Australian public is concerned about climate change and wants decision makers to act.

Newspaper polls show readers nominating the problem as that posing the greatest risk to their quality of life. A 2007 international poll found 92 per cent of Australians favoured measures to combat global warming, putting them first among the 12 nations surveyed.

Yet, as social psychologists and marketers know, there is no straight line, and often only a tenuous relationship, between what we know and what we do. Staggeringly, few of the efforts designed to mobilise action on climate change appear to be underpinned by proper national research on public motivation and, subsequent to this, communications framing. This is the case even where significant money has been poured into public information campaigns (the UK), and where a government report on climate change communications strategy cannot be accessed (Australia). This is particularly concerning given that poorly crafted communications efforts can have the opposite of the intended effect.

Recent analysis of the apocalyptic headlines and catastrophic images that constitute the mainstay of much climate communications shows that, in the majority, they provoke feelings of powerlessness rather than a desire to act. Fear, guilt, anger, defiance, a desire to blame others and feelings of exhaustion or irritation are also among the responses the climate change message can provoke when poorly framed.

A more self-critical examination of what might be going wrong with efforts to persuade might also consider the uncomfortable yet potent observations made by philosopher Sarah Bachelard.

Bachelard, herself an activist, says that the sanctimoniousness of some of her peers can impede successful communication and action for change: “There can be a tone of self-righteousness, a kind of shrill moral indignation, in the speech of those of us who protest and campaign … We know that we are on the side of the angels, and in our own way we can fail to do justice to the complex reality of most human action and motivation. We get something out of ‘being right’ … (and) satisfaction from making those who do not agree with us wrong.”

Finally, any effective campaign for change must recognise that reason has as little hold on key decision makers as it does on the average punter.

In a study that revolutionised the field of international relations, political scientist Graham Allison demonstrated that government decisions are not the result of considered choices made by rational actors but the result of consensus building by leaders trying to satisfy a range of political, personal and ideological agendas.

This implies that whatever the facts or rectitude of the case for change, government action on the climate issue will be characterised by incrementalism and compromise.

The sooner this is recognised, and strategy and tactics are geared to account for it – something that does not appear to have been done by some environmental groups, nor by the Australian Greens senators, with respect to the emissions trading scheme – the more likely advocates will be able to capitalise on the opportunities for change that do exist.

A failure of communication and tactics, not of understanding may be the cause of inaction on climate change. Until these problems are acknowledged and tackled, climate advocates, however well-meaning, may be part of the problem, not the solution.

Publication history

What We Have is the Failure to Communicate  The Age