Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Communication strategies on climate change according to Peter Sandman

by Max Iacono

In considering what to do and then deciding collectively to do it, the communication strategies identified in the Peter Sandman article found here: can be quite useful to take into account.

Sandman does a very good job of discussing “being in denial”  -something which he correctly indicates is different from what we commonly call climate change “denialism”-  He also discusses how to deal with the so called psychological dissonance which can end up reinforcing being in denial rather than alleviating it,  if the wrong communication and engagement strategies and methods are used.  Sandman is also careful to say the following in his concluding remarks:

Finally, a crucial reminder: Don’t get so preoccupied with denial that you forget about apathy. And, in fact, don’t imagine that apathy and denial are all there is. Some people are still unaware that global warming is an issue they should be thinking about; some have acquired misinformation that keeps them from getting involved; some are on our side already and need support to do even more than they’re doing now. Denial is one aspect of climate change risk communication. I believe it is important, growing, and neglected. But it’s not the whole ball game”.

So a good local strategy might eventually try to work “across the board” with respect to the preceding issues. That is, being in denial, trying to reduce internal dissonance, apathy, ignorance, being under the influence of climate change denialism, general inertia, feeling isolated or without support,  or more simply living under the dominating preoccupation with all sorts of matters of everyday life and the ongoing need for personal and family survival.

What I personally take away from reading the Sandman article is in fact fairly simple:  Engage with others respectfully, tell the truth, stay calm and clear and avoid one’s own inappropriate ego-voyages of various kinds.  In other words, simply treat others the way one generally likes to be treated oneself.  Decades of studies in cognitive psychology from Leon Festinger onwards would seem to have concluded what probably was known reasonably well in advance already.

I also think that much can be learned by various climate activists or “climate change believers” about how best to communicate with others by looking closely at the single case we all know best.  Which is ourselves.  

An honest introspection and self-appraisal of oneself as an individual case study can reveal precisely -or at least reasonably so-  why and how each of us who now “believes in climate change” or is an activist of one sort or another came to think and act the way we now do.  Did someone else empower us?  Were we converted by attending a single meeting?  How exactly did we come to think the way we now think or act?  What personality characteristics or other traits or attitudes or values or ideas or predispositions were involved or played a role?   What particular contexts and situations or specific events or “turning points” of our personal life trajectory made a difference? What motivates us now?  What de-motivates us?  Why?  Apart from the benefit in terms of how to best to figure out how to communicate with or influence others,  such an honest self-appraisal has all sorts of other personal benefits. 

And again, this has to do with things which have been known for a long time, namely “Know Thyself” as written by Plato about Socrates.  It is by honestly knowing oneself better that we also can come to better understand what makes others tick.  Naturally all sorts of psychological defense mechanisms (denial and dealing with dissonance being only one, and repression, rationalization, dissociation, splitting, projection, introjection,  and some others described by Freud and/or by others later on,  often come into play and typically prevent us from doing that properly or thoroughly.  An excellent reference on the interaction of various psychological defense mechanisms and of how personal experience between humans is often “negotiated” (or denied and etc.) can be found in R.D. Laing’s “The Politics of Experience” :   Generally speaking we are NOT particularly transparent to ourselves, rather the opposite if anything.  For instance we may deny what we project, repress what we deny, rationalize what we want to believe and several other fairly insidious interactions of the above basic defense mechanisms which can take place routinely in our minds.

But I do not think we all need to become expert clinical psychologists or psychiatrists to do climate change communication and awareness and action work.  All we have to do is be respectful of others -and of ourselves as well- and stick with the facts and the truth (the scientific as well as the social and the media and the political and perhaps also the psychological truth) and we will be more than halfway there.  Also remembering that often when one is telling the truth at the right moment one doesn’t need to shout it or hammer it in, since whispering it is typically more than sufficient.


  1. "Generally speaking we are NOT particularly transparent to ourselves, rather the opposite if anything."

    Hi Max,
    I agree.
    My wife's profession is "child and youth worker" - which means, essentially, that she spends a lot of her time working with some very troubled kids.
    Her experiences with these kids never cease to amaze me.
    Helping them rise up out of their own problems would be relatively easy if only they could see those problems for themselves the way others see them - but, more often than not, they just can't.

    1. Thanks for your comment Lucas. It is very interesting to hear that your wife's profession is "child and youth worker" and that her experiences with some of the very troubled kids "never cease to amaze you". (My ex-wife too was a child / developmental psychologist and we often shared views and experiences)

      The book by R.D. Laing which I mentioned in the article (The Politics of Experience) is several decades old now. But I think it remains one of the best books I have ever read and certainly on its topic. It is fairly short and an easy read and I definitely can recommend it. (you can get it through Amazon)

      R.D. Laing also wrote another lesser known book called "Knots" which also is excellent and also "The Divided Self". I think he was one of the most creative clinical psychologists ever and did some amazing work himself at the Tavistock Institute in London. (easy enough to google any of this if you are interested)

      Back in the 1960's as the so- called Vietnam war (the Vietnamese call it the American war on Vietnam) was raging he and Noam Chomsky held a joint conference -with an overflow audience- in Boston just off the Boston Commons. A truly memorable event with an amazing Q & A session.

      Other times and other days but many things both political and psychological have NOT changed.

      All the best and regards,

      Max Iacono

  2. To be respectful of others and of ourselves… seems to me always a good idea.Unfortunately we tend to forget it so easily.


    Thank you Max!

  3. I strongly disagree with characterizations of apathy. We have limits to our abilities—just like we can't fly, or swim like a dolphin, our capacity for change is limited. I write about it more at:

    1. Very interesting blog, yours, Ruben. Thanks for linking it here!