New Video: How Not to Communicate Climate

October 16, 2017

Yale Climate Connections:

Wait. Stop reading right here. Don’t dare think of an elephant.

Didn’t work, did it. Just mentioning it implanted it in your mind, in your consciousness.

It’s an argument made by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, among others, and a key point in climate communicators’ lessons on how to – and how not to – talk about that dreaded “climate change” term.


In this month’s Yale Climate Connections “This Is Not Cool” video, by regular contributor and independent videographer Peter Sinclair, Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out that the “greatest advances” in understanding of climate change over the past decade have come not from the physical sciences, but from the social sciences.

A mere headline along the lines of “Myth XYZ” implants that myth, even if subsequently and thoroughly “debunked,” in the audience’s mind, says John Cook of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “After time, all the details fade,” says Cook, the founder of the Skeptical Sciencewebsite. “And all they can remember is the headline,” reinforcing the myth.

“In your brain, the neural circuits have to activate what you are negating in order to negate it, and that strengthens what you are negating,” Lakoff says. He points to then-President Richard Nixon’s famous ‘I am not a crook’ statement, “and people thought of him as a crook.”

Hayhoe, of Texas Tech, supports connecting with others “over a shared value …. then connect the line between what we care about and climate change.”

TV meteorologist Amber Sullins of ABC 15 in Phoenix says avoiding the words “global warming or climate change” is part of her strategy to avoid turning-off some of her  audience. “You remove those two words and just talk about how they’re going to be affected as things change,” she says, “and they’re much more open to listening.”

“You have to use emotion in the way you talk about things. People respond to emotion, they don’t respond to facts,” says climate scientist Sarah Myhre of the University of Washington, notwithstanding the importance of facts and evidence.

“You want to introduce people to the field of climate science?” Myhre asks rhetorically. “You got to say something like, yeah, this hurt, this is scary. You have to say, ‘Hey, I want to ski with my kid in the future. I want to eat salmon in the future … I have a stake in this, I am invested, I am not separate from this. And I do have emotions around this, and I share this with you.”


22 Responses to “New Video: How Not to Communicate Climate”

  1. Kevin Cowtan Says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for that – it’s going to be really useful, because it makes clear that climate change is an area where the physical science and the social sciences have to interact.

    As an interdisciplinarian I’m very interested in the potential for inter-faculty research projects. I’m going to try and use this video to see if I get some more people excited about it.


    • andrewfez Says:

      I’ve probably told this story to the Climate Crocks folks before but what drew me into the top of climate change was when I was watching a lecture on geoengineering, back in like 2006 or so, on how to cool an overheated planet back down. The professor was visibly upset and I picked up on his strong emotions and became curious. The second professor, obliged to explain the first’s bad mood, said there was a lot of fear happening behind closed doors in the climate science community at that moment.

      Most of you probably remember how bleak it was back then. Solar technology seemed like it wasn’t projected to meet grid parity until something like the 2020’s. The rise of the plug-ins hadn’t happened yet. Bush was indifferent, even antagonistic with regard to climate communication in the EPA. Etcetera, etcetera…

      So yeah, it wan’t really a fact based discussion that sparked my interest.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      awesome,thanks. Let me know if I can help.

      • Kevin Cowtan Says:

        I’ve had a positive response so far – I showed it to our head-of-faculty, which has led to a small group who are going to plan a larger incubator meeting.

        There’s some interesting work to be done around how the 70’s cooling myth took root in the UK – there are multiple causes and it’s not as simple as just misinformation + false memory. I don’t think it’s fundable but it could make for some very interesting student projects which will develop critical and interdisciplinary thinking.

  2. Ron Voisin Says:

    By all means…we can do a much better job of duping the useful idiots of the world into thinking the sky is falling.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Over the last 40 years, what’s happened to the American middle class economically has been CATASTROPHIC. And that was mostly due to bad policy and government capture. The sky has fallen already.

      And you think if food price rises, tax burden increases (we’re already looking at a trillion dollar Federal Flooding Ins. Program) from climate mitigation, and hitting another 2008 event from investors and ins. companies pulling out of Atlantic coast real estate, except without a chance of a recovery from this, are not going to cause more economically CATASTROPHIC destruction of the US then your extrapolation skills are out of wack.

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    Trump is a master at connecting with his flock at what I call the ‘reptile’ level (your reptile brain reacts on emotions and instincts, your mammal brain thinks and reaches logical conclusions). One interesting example of this is the effort to destroy ‘Obamacare’. Why? Simply put: the name. Obama didn’t give the ACA that name, rightwing media gave it that name, so their viewers could associate the ACA with someone they reviled. The ‘Affordable Care Act’ connects with your mammal brain.
    This isn’t useful, so ‘Obamacare’ was created to connect with your reactive, emotional, reptile center. Trump saw this, and campaigned on getting rid of Obamacare, and now he’s desperate to get rid of it, all because of the name. A name Obama didn’t even give it. If they could go back to calling it the ACA, they could keep it without egg on their faces, but they can’t, so we’re stuck.

    Your weather forecaster relayed a similar problem, but with the words ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Global Warming’. The names have been made synonymous with ‘globalists coming to take your freedoms’, or something similar, by rightwing media using fossil funding, so she has to simply talk about the consequences of a warming climate and avoid, at all cost, saying the ‘trigger words’ or the reactive reptile brain of her audience will be activated and they’ll shut out new information.

  4. pendantry Says:

    A perfect opportunity to drop in this link.

  5. J4Zonian Says:

    ”TV meteorologist Amber Sullins of ABC 15 in Phoenix says avoiding the words “global warming or climate change” is part of her strategy to avoid turning-off some of her  audience.”
    First of all, taking advice on psychology from a TV weatherperson?

    Sullins misuses Lakoff’s idea. Not stating the frame of climate catastrophe doesn’t help, it hurts. The frame is climate + catastrophe, climate + cataclysm, climate chaos (one good choice when talking to conservatives), climate Armageddon, or climate Götterdämmerung (a bridge to nowhere), and not stating it keeps us from, you know, stating it, which is the main way to move it into the minds of the population.

    The reality is that because of the extraordinary speed at which changes are happening (this year’s storms, fires, droughts, heat waves, ecological disruptions and other effects compared to last year’s or the year before, for example) the speed at which we have to act is extraordinary, too. Small, measured measures and incremental actions won’t be enough, and those are the only things we’re going to get if we refuse to talk about all of reality.

    The most convincing fact about climate catastrophe is the scientific consensus over the fact that global warming is happening, our fault, dangerous, and can be fixed–partly. But we can’t talk about that if we don’t mention climate catastrophe. There isn’t as convincing a scientific consensus that we should build clean safe renewable energy to replace 90% of fossil fuel use within the next 5-8 years. Not if we can’t mention climate catastrophe; that solution follows only from the correct diagnosis of the problem.

    We need to tell people the reality of climate catastrophe. Some will suffer from intractable delusions and the backfire effect, but as long as we keep telling the truth, that group will keep shrinking until it’s so tiny and marginalized it’s irrelevant. (except psychologically) Will that happen fast enough? We don’t know. We do know it’s the best thing we can do. Tell the truth.

    “Half a century of research has found that when we are exposed to a “weak form of misinformation,” this helps us build resistance so that we are not influenced by actual misinformation.

    Inoculating text requires two elements. First, it includes an explicit warning about the danger of being misled by misinformation. Second, you need to provide counterarguments explaining the flaws in that misinformation.

    …explaining the misinformation technique completely neutralized the misinformation’s influence, without even mentioning the misinformation specifically.
    Moreover, the misinformation was neutralized across the political spectrum. Whether you’re conservative or liberal, no one wants to be deceived by misleading techniques.”

    5 key messages to carry about climate change.
    1 It’s real
    2 It’s US
    3 Scientists agree
    4 It’s bad
    5 There’s hope”
    pollster Ed Maibach of George Mason University,

    When things aren’t going well, there’s a very strong tendency to blame whoever is doing things, and whatever is being done, regardless of whether there’s any evidence that they’re to blame. Lashing out at whatever and whoever is close is common but hardly useful.

    Climate reality is a painful truth, and our society has many lines of defense against truth, especially painful truth. The fact that we’re losing on this one issue is inescapably connected to the fact that we’re losing on that larger issue. Unless we at least start to address our inability to face truth we’ll never win on this truth–not in time. Events this summer have shown how little time we have to implement the solutions and build a viable global civilization before we’re overwhelmed with the costs of responding to emergencies and contending with an ever-increasing number and proximity of failed states. We have to start with the failed state we’re living in.

    Painful truth is best delivered in a supportive community of some kind, even if it’s only an ad hoc community, Discussion threads could be but aren’t that. We should change that.

    • mboli Says:

      My guess is that the TV meteorologist what she is talking about when she says that certain phrases cause much of her audience to stop listening. She is out there living it every day.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        I assume you meant to say “…knows what she’s talking about.” (Having no ability to edit, even if it’s just for a few minutes, is annoying here.)

        My experience is that TV meteorologists (a glorifying term for TV weather announcers) are, with notable exceptions, lying insane morons when it comes to climate. They pretend to be scientists but are among the peri-science groups with the highest percentage of denying delayalists. Whether this particular person knows what she’s talking about or not I have no idea. I only know that we can’t accept failure like that or we’re done, and most or all of life on Earth with us. That’s unacceptable to me. In the end, the only strategy that can work is to tell the truth, help people through the emotional reactions to it and help move them into being activists in whatever way they best can be.

  6. I hate weaseling around plain facts. Why not just fuck political correctness and ridicule and shame the deniers. Just like we would do with folks who believe in witches or a flat Earth? Why not just call bullshit what is bullshit? Very serious people don’t like looking stupid and ridiculous. So make them look stupid and ridiculous. Then “climate communication” would at least be a little fun.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Anyone who’s tried this as simply another commenter knows it doesn’t work. Internet trolls especially are shameless, and simply accuse people who call them on their nonsense of not knowing anything and therefore trying to distract with insults. A lot of what they do is like that–weaponized projection. Obviously, they’re not serious people. And anyone who descends into that abyss with them almost guarantees a slimy, disgusting mud fight at best. If you have some kind of power or website etc. you might make a small contribution in that way but even better is simply to not give them any forum. You might also appeal to others to do the same, that is, anyone who has such power, including mainstream media.

      • I wasn’t talking about internet trolls, but members of U.S. congress.
        Here’s a humble example of what I want to see:
        “I’m just a simple sailor, but it’s hard for me to see the pause on that chart.” — Navy admiral Titley

        • J4Zonian Says:

          And was Ted Cruz shamed? Did he stop denying and is he now insisting on rational action to avoid climate catastrophe–like a climate mobilization and nationalizing and shutting down the fossil fuel industry?

          Like stopping fossil fuel subsidies and increasing clean safe renewable energy subsidies and guaranteeing them for 10 years?

          Like even a carbon tax–insufficient action and maybe a distraction, but a start?

          Like strengthening and supporting the Compromise-with-Uncompromising-Radical-Right-Wingers Clean Power Plan?

          Has any climate denying delayalist been stopped by being called on their lies?

          None that I know of. They’re shameless and unrepentant. I was speaking of Congress, too.; it’s why I said “Internet trolls especially… And the administration. And those paid by the Koch-Exxon-ALEC campaign of denial, through all the astroturf foundations and law firms and PR firms masquerading as think tanks. You and I are on the same side and I agree with you pretty much, and after years of trying to have honest productive conversations about the problem and solutions, I spent years doing the same with ridicule and shaming of denying delayalists. It’s had no visible effect; there are too many of them, even on environmental sites, and they’re shameless and unrepentant. As long as they’re allowed a forum, they’ll continue to lie.

          They know they’re lying. (to themselves or everyone else). We know they’re lying. They know we know they’re lying. We know they know we know. They keep doing it. They know they’re still fooling–or at least giving mutual cover for–enough of their Neanderthal supporters that they can keep giving money and cover to the fossil fuel magnates who own them. They know the media will keep helping provide cover for them by normalizing (aka ignoring) their insanity just as it has been for decades. How do we shame the media? How do we shame the Democratic leadership into being progressives (a lost cause), or shame regular Democrats into abandoning the party in tens of millions?

          Better question?
          What do we do right now to advance the massive peaceful revolution we need, to remove the oligarchy from power so we can create a society that will survive the hard times starting now, without destroying every living creature around it?

          • andrewfez Says:

            Vote for the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress candidates. And vote Bernie Sanders in the primary next time; he’s the most popular politician in the US right now.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            I worked on his campaign. He’ll be old enough next time that even fewer people will vote for him, and the right wing in both parties will do everything will do everything they can, dirty and not, to play that up. The Democrats did everything they could to stop him last time and will be even more prepared to do the same again. Too late for him; maybe Warren or Barbara Lee, and whether it’s worse to run as a Democrat or other is a toss up. Both are almost impossible with the multiple layers of defense the oligopoly has to protect itself. I’m afraid nothing short of a massive peaceful revolution will be enough, the fear of it may compel some people to allow electoral change to happen, hoping that they can still head off any significant change. Sort of like the fear of communist revolution in the 30s made some people accede to the New Deal, and the threat of violence in India made Gandhi seem like a reasonable alternative.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      “Why not just fuck political correctness and ridicule and shame the deniers.” I don’t want to dissuade you, but, the logical truth is a fragile, ephemeral thing in the ‘debate space’ you are referring to. The sad fact is that ‘ridicule and shame’ are things easily BOUGHT, and therefore fall to whomever has the most money. Case in point: you point out how a CENTURY of global warming is borne out in the atmosphere, the cryosphere, the ocean temperature, and in sea level rise ALL YOUR OPPONENT needs to say is that the last 18 years doesn’t look like ‘warming’ for the atmosphere above 15,000 feet (which, btw, WHAT atmosphere?), and they WIN, by virtue of being able to buy more space on the internet of ‘ridicule and shame’. You may be right on the atmospheric facts. But as long as they are right on the fact you didn’t put your tie on correctly this morning, they win. Your error is trying to describe correctly the atmosphere they are living in. The ‘atmosphere’ they are living in doesn’t even need oxygen. It’s run on white privilege and rage confronted by a global financial sector that is sharpening its knives on them, as it has everywhere else for the last half-century.

      • “ALL YOUR OPPONENT needs to say is that the last 18 years doesn’t look like ‘warming’ for the atmosphere above 15,000 feet (which, btw, WHAT atmosphere?), and they WIN, by virtue of being able to buy more space on the internet of ‘ridicule and shame’.”

        If you let them win. This ridicu-lousy bunk is PROOF of their ridicu-lousiness: 1) Stratospheric cooling is evidence of the greenhouse effect (less heat escaping to space)
        2) The “pause” has always been ridiculous: just take the graph and draw the trend line. Meanwhile we got a few new record years.
        Murray Gell-Mann: “Is it really that hard to introduce the public to the notion of a graph?!”

        • andrewfez Says:

          Last I looked we we back in the realm of statistically significant warming; at least at ground level, ha,ha!

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Yes, it’s the power of the Gish gallop. It’s used because it works. Too many people are ignorant and disinformed because they’re psychologically vulnerable to the lies being told (and vice versa).

  7. Kevin Cowtan Says:

    A quick update: In part inspired by this video, I’ve now got a cross-faculty group meeting every 6 months, with contributions spanning physical sciences, law and management, policy, ethics, media and even history of art. We’re holding our second meeting in a few weeks, with a focus on international issues. Next year we want to open the meeting to student speakers and look at sustainability.

    It’s too early to know if it will lead to new research projects (although I do have a linguistics project ready to run with someone from the media department, if we can find a student), but it is certainly helping us think outside our academic boxes.

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