Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The climate debate: what we have been doing wrong and how to do better

The frog that jumped out blog went on line less than one year ago. With the new year, I thought a little rant of mine could be in order. I started it listing all what I thought we have been doing wrong in communication the climate problem but, as I went on, I found that there were also more positive things that I could say. So, the final result is a something that tries to suggest some positive strategy for communication on the basis of network theory and some other observations. Probably, this text wants to say too many things in too little space but, now that I wrote it, maybe you'll find a moment to give a look to it and tell me what you think of it.

Perhaps you had one of those nightmares where you are chased by a monster. You desperately try to run away, but you find that your feet are glued to the ground. With climate change, it is something like that. You almost feel the breath of the climate monster on the back of your neck, but you can't move. Nothing is moving. Whatever we do to try to convince people of the danger ahead is just like the proverbial water off the duck's back. It doesn't stick.

But why are we in this situation? After all, we have a strong case: look, we have data, we have models, we have the scientific community compact behind the idea of human caused climate change and about what's to be done to stop it. So, we stated our case, we tried to do our best to explain how things stand. Then, we expected someone to do something. But no. Nothing has happened, nothing happens.

We redoubled our efforts. We read the book titled "Don't be such a scientist." We set up blogs, we wrote on facebook and on twitter, we gave interviews. We tried to be clear, pleaising, entertaining, we tried to bring solutions, not problems. We followed the advice that says "more than all, never scare anyone!" But it didn't work and, by now, it is clear that it won't work. We are reduced to wait for the next environmental disaster that we hope will finally wake up people from their torpor. But we have had already enough environmental disasters and people are not taking notice. So, are we bound to to lose this battle? There follows some thoughts of mine on this matter.

1. So, what have we been doing wrong?

We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn. Matthew 11:17

This blog, "The frog that jumped out," has been useful for me to focus on the issue of communicating climate science. So, I think I have some ideas on what exactly we did wrong and the answer can probably be found in a mix of human psychology and the field of science called "Network Theory." It has to do with the human tendency of forming tribes, structures that in network theory are called "small worlds". You can see the structure of a small world network in the figure - it is structured as clusters of nodes strongly linked with each other within the cluster, but weakly linked on the outside (image from "researchtoaction")

That the web is structured in this way has been proven. That this is a property of not just the Web, it is clear for everyone to see. The social world around us is a network of small worlds/tribes - some are political, some are religious, some are cultural, some are dedicated to sports, some are just made of friends, and there are many more. It works this way; after all, we are a tribal species: everyone of us is embedded in at least one small world network. You may also belong to different ones on different "planes" of your cultural existence; say, one for your professional network, one for your political activity, one for your hobbies and more. Then, if society is built like a network of small worlds, it means that most of the ongoing communication occurs inside small worlds. Not that there are no contacts between small worlds, but they are less numerous and weaker.

The point is that the unit of information processing and dissemination in the social sphere is the tribe, not the individual. these small words/tribes are tremendously resilient. They are not formally exclusive, you don't need a badge and an ID to belong to your social network tribe. It is nevertheless clear whether you belong or you don't. If you belong, you have to know the background, the formally and informally accepted ideas, you have to know the jargon and use it properly. This set of commonly accepted ideas makes the group resistant to change.

This is an oversimplification, perhaps, but I have been interacting with some especially weird tribes, such as the "chemtrails" tribe; that is those who believe that the world's governments are engaged in an evil plot to poison us by spreading poisons in the sky and doing that in the form of white trails ("chemtrails") left by planes. Now, how can anyone possibly believe in that? And yet, the tribal identification of believers is so strong that they form a close knit community which react aggressively to every attempt to make the members reason on the absurdity of their beliefs (you don't believe me? Try yourself and then you'll tell me). You see that identification mechanism at work in the comments of the blogs promoting the chemtrails idea - it is a sort of "chorus." The whole as a primeval flavor; something that reminds the behavior of creatures running in packs and howling at the full moon.

The chemtrails example is extreme, but illustrates the mechanism. You see the same phenomenon, for instance, in the comments of the anti-science blog "What's Up with That?" kept by Anthony Watts. You see how members of Watt's tribe reinforce each other's beliefs by using similar language and themes. To be a member you have to repeat the commonly held memes ("there has been no warming during the past 15 years") and attack climate scientists ("Micheal Mann is an enemy of mankind"). The resistance of tribes to new information and is truly amazing.

The problem is that there is almost no way to crack the belief system of a small tribe from outside. Targeting individuals doesn't work: that person will simply compare your statements to those of his/her tribe and conclude that yours have no weight. You may say, "but this is what science says" and the likely answer will be "so what?" If you insist, the reaction may be aggressive ("scientists have been cheating the public in order to get fat research grants"). Not even major climate linked disasters, from Katrina to Hayan, can budge the tribe from its beloved feelings.

Of course, the structure of the Web is nuanced and complex and only a minority of small worlds are actively hostile to science. Most are simply indifferent and won't, in themselves, generate a strong counter-reaction to the climate change meme. Repeating the basic climate concepts over and over would probably create a foothold in these neutral worlds. The problem is that the effort is countered by the equal and opposite activity of hostile tribes. They have been effective in positioning themselves as a legitimate opinion. They have done so by being highly active and visible on the Web. One of their weapons that of aggressively trolling in the comments of scientific sites. A few anti-science trolls can completely hijack any scientific discussion and transform it into a brawl. The big, big problem is that it has been found that the opinion of initially neutral people can be strongly influenced by negative anti-scientific comments.

It is here that we have been doing our crucial mistake as promoters of the idea that we should do something to stop climate change. We tend to deal with anti-science trolls as if they were people who honestly want to know about science. They may disguise themselves in that way, initially, but their purpose is a different one: they just want to hijack the debate and turn it into a fight. They know very well that this is a very effective tactic to affect the opinion of neutral people and we have been falling into the trap over and over - picking up useless fights that served only to give visibility to people who didn't deserve it. The final result is the stalemate we are observing. We are not succeeding in affecting the majority of people and, as a result, nothing is being done about climate. We piped unto you, and ye did not dance; we wailed, and ye did not mourn.

2. The way to do better. 

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. (Sun Tzu)

If we look at past debates, we see that there is a winning strategy for science. It is to isolate the anti-science tribes and make it clear that they are minority social areas whose opinions are held by people who have no scientific credentials. Think of the battle on the health effects of smoking, or of the battle about seat belts in cars or about drunk driving. These concepts had opponents, but the battles were won by isolating them and making clear that their non-mainstream opinions (e.g. that there is no danger with driving while drunk or without seat belts) are dangerous fringe opinions which have no scientific basis and should have no equal space in the debate about driving safety.  Only in this way, it was possible to obtain effective seat belt laws and to stop drunk driving. Many people were not especially happy about that, but they accepted the mainstream opinion. 

So, our objective in the climate debate is clear: we have to isolate the anti-science tribes and make it clear that their positions on climate, for instance that there is no danger from global warming, are fringe opinions with no scientific basis. Furthermore, these opinions are dangerous and should have no "equal space" in the debate about how to keep the Earth's climate safe for humans. If we can achieve that, then we can gradually penetrate the neutral small worlds and attain something. It is the strategy to get something done. 

Then, strategy needs tactics to be put into practice. And the basic tactics in communication is always the same: know your target. You must understand whom you are speaking to and tailor your message to them. Otherwise, it is lost time - actually it is worse than that: you achieve the opposite than what you want to achieve. So, we need to consider that, in the vast universe of the Web, we are talking to three kinds of people, each embedded in their small worlds: sympathetic, neutral, and hostile. The ways to deal with them are different.

- Speaking to people who are already sympathetic to science poses no problems. We are talking the same language - we understand each other. We are a small world, after all, although we are a scientific small world. 

- Speaking to neutral people is where you can use the advice that you can read, for instance, in books like "Don't be such a scientist." You have to be competent, you have to be clear, you have to be honest. If you do that, you don't have to follow particular rules in your job of informing people. For instance, you may have heard that you shouldn't scare people. It is true, but it doesn't mean you should sugar the pill so much that you turn yourself into a Ronald McDonald of climate. The best way, I think, is to be honest about what you are talking about and if you see serious danger ahead, you should say that. Most people, out there, are decent people who can appreciate honest talk. It takes time, you have to keep at that, but eventually it works.

- Speaking to people who belong to hostile tribes, well, it is simple: you don't! Our objective is to isolate them, denying them visibility, and we are learning how to do that. For instance Gavin Schmidt - climate scientists - recently refused to have a TV debate with a hostile opponent saying "Television is performance art, not scientific debate. We shouldn't confuse the two." Well said! That, of course, generated loud accusations against him of being a "coward". Sure, sure.... they can howl at the moon as much as they like - but they know very well that they were beaten. Schmidt perfectly understood that it would have been a mistake to give to his opponent the chance of appearing as if he were on an equal scientific footing and to have a wide exposure with that. And, recently, the Reddit's science forum banned climate deniers. You see? We are learning to know our enemy! And if we know our enemy (and ourselves) we can win this battle.

3. Conclusion

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Paul, Corinthians 13:2

The battle on climate is turning out to be the ultimate battle for humankind - if we lose it, we lose everything. You don't have to be a scientist or an expert to fight it, but if you have the right frame of mind it is your duty to fight. It is a tremendously difficult battle, but not an unwinnable one. But don't forget also another thing: science is not everything. The reason you fight is not just because you know that you are scientifically correct. A medical doctor is a good doctor not just because she knows the science of medicine, she is a good doctor because she cares about her patients. The same is for you. You are fighting the climate battle not just because you know the science of climate. It is because you care about the life of your friends, your family, your children, all of humankind and everything which is alive on this planet. This is the only way to win. 

This said, sorry for this rather long rant of mine. But, if you arrived all the way to here, I hope you might have found some useful suggestions in it.


  1. Hugo - your persistence is highly laudable, but I'm unable to accept the relevance of the basis of your analysis of what's been done wrong, and what should be done instead.

    Between 1970 and the time of Obama's election several millions of bright young people had dedicated their lives to the study of the Earth Sciences, on the understanding that once we got the necessary information to the decision makers, we'd see global policy change towards a sustainable way of life. In 2009 it became clear that the info is outweighed by other priorities.

    That was the year that a Democrat US president adopted the prior Republican policy of a "Brinkmanship of Inaction" on climate. It was a bipartisan national policy, that was not only at odds with the science, but also with most of the rest of the world - EU, Africa, India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and many others.

    A major effort was launched to promote denialism at that point, but there was already ample public support for action within the US, let alone elsewhere. The main function of that denialism has been to promote the idea that it is responsible for preventing US action - which is patently nonsense. Moreover, a further part of the propaganda has been that it is the fossil lobby that funds denialism - for its corrupt self-interest. Dr Robert Brulle's recent paper directly refutes that meme: as was discussed in the Guardian article:

    Rather than assuming that the effort to erode public support for action is what ties the politicians hands, I suggest looking at prior motives for specifically US politicians' inaction, and at the utility of the denialism in providing cover for that inaction. Brulle's study provides a further plank of evidence supporting this suggestion, which I outlined to him in an open letter near the start of the artictle's comments - that I hope you may find of interest.

    A secondary function of the denialsit's effort has been in diverting protest from Washington's policy into an attritive and essentially futile debate. To start to make a difference, I suggest that we need not to argue better but to recognize where the obstruction lies and what is its goal, and then not merely to protest but to demand the reform of US policy specifically to the acceptance of "Contraction & Convergence" as the basis of a commensurate climate treaty.

    To continue with the PAU (protest as usual) against the fossil lobby looks to me like accepting being contained in a cul-de-sac while a superpower plays poker with stakes of billions of lives.

    With my regards and best wishes for the new year,

    Lewis Cleverdon

  2. Carefulness, love and science all togheter?!
    Yeah,sounds good!

  3. PS - To save hunting it, herewith the letter to Brulle for anyone interested, in 2 parts to fit the text limit.

    Dear Dr Brulle,
    it was a great pleasure to see a report of your paper on the 'Climate Change Counter-Movement' [CCCM] in the Guardian this evening. Given the readership online in the US, Australia and Canada, it will reach a very wide audience, but I'd hope that it may be possible to put the paper itself online some day as few people will pay the commercial fee for reading it.

    The aspect that struck me as most intriguing was the finding that the great majority of funding for denialism is now from individuals, and not, as the dubious 'received wisdom' would tell us, from fossil energy corporations.

    The tacit support for CCCM is itself intriguing. With the fossil industry raising around 8% of US GDP, much of the remainder is from corporations with no inherent loyalty to fossil fuels and clear massive threats to their future profits from burgeoning climate impacts both in the US and abroad. And yet they remain unheard in the climate debate, when any comparable threat would have them demanding commensurate action-this-day.

    Even their influence over the commercial media via advertizing is, if anything, supporting CCCM, when this could be a cost-free means of countering a lobby directly harmful to their interests. In this I'd take it as read that accurate info on the climate threat is widely available and accepted by all but a bigoted fraction of corporate CEOs, given that the fossil lobby's "Global Climate Coalition" were fully informed by their own commissioned scientists' report back in '96.

    Obama's conduct is similarly odd, and as you're no doubt better informed than I on his failings, I'd mention as examples only his crushing of the Copenhagen negotiations,
    his sabotage of the climate bill in the senate, his censorship of the classic wedge-issue of climate from the re-election campaign, his blocking of the EPA meeting its legal duties re CO2, and his serial put-downs such as:
    "We know young people get passionate about issues like climate change."

    While those are not the actions of a president interested in addressing the issue, the one major outcome of the public denier efforts has been to establish the public perception is that he is held back by opposition, when the reality is that he has always had ample public support for advancing the issue, but has chosen to obstruct that advance at almost every opportunity, with a few token efforts to maintain the fiction.

    Cont below.

  4. Brulle letter continued.

    "Both Obama's conduct and that of the US corporations contrasts sharply with that of their EU counterparts, who are not noticeably more intelligent, more informed or more moral, nor any more insulated from European billionaires' influence. Yet as late as 2007 the UK parliament passed the govt-sponsored Climate Bill (with just 3 MPs opposed out of ~650) that commits us to steady CO2 cuts to reach 80% by 2050 as a binding legal commitment. Similarly various EU corporations have made world-class interventions in the climate debate - such as Munich Re, Price-waterhouse Cooper, KPMG, etc, and a large group put together an open letter to the CoP at Doha practically demanding an effective price on carbon forthwith.
    This contrast in my view shows clearly that the CCCM aspiration has an underpinning of economic nationalism, and has little to do with maintaining the fossil lobby's profits. The idea that billionaires would be unable or unwilling to switch their investments out of an outdated industry into emerging industries is surely a fiction that is open to being challenged.

    I hope we may perhaps agree that the relevant distinction between US and EU stances on climate is that the former has, since WW2, had the maintenance of its global economic dominance as its paramount bipartisan policy priority, and that the Obama administration is an assiduous advocate of that policy. In this context the inevitable effect of the de facto "Brinkmanship of Inaction" on climate that Cheyney launched against China in 2000 and that Obama adopted in March 2009, is the gradual increase of the climatic destabilization of China's govt, with the prospect of serial crop failures generating food shortages and civil unrest, leading to regime change perhaps within a decade.

    The stark contrast of US policy towards its previous Russian rival for global dominance with Cheney’s policy preferences towards China at a time when the US was supremely powerful, is itself an indicator that the Brinkmanship of Inaction was chosen as the primary means to maintain US economic dominance, on which the profits of most US corporations are largely dependent. That the corporations have largely withdrawn from their role of funding the denialism that gives Obama political cover on the issue is hardly surprising, given the scale of forthcoming climate damages in the US and the potential injury to their brands, over which private billionaires need have few concerns.

    In conclusion I'd suggest that to achieve actual change in US climate policy where it matters at the UN, the myth of how "denialism is holding back the president's action on climate " need to be exposed as a veil over the actual policy of using climate change as the preferred means to break the most serious challenge yet to US global economic dominance. Your exposure of the transfer of the funding of denialism from corporations to private billionaires, who patently have no inherent loyalty to fossil fuels, is in my view a significant step forward."



    1. The Brulle paper is available at

  5. Thanks Ugo.
    I found your thoughts very useful.
    Phil H

  6. agree with this +++ - we need community conversations with neighbours, work, sporting other networks etc 1:1 or small group and not with those who actively deny MMCC but with the remaining majority confused by contradictory stuff in the media -
    How to reduce our impact as individuals/ as a group/ as a community and to lobby politically - what ever people feel able to do.