Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Talking about climate change in your town

This is a post that recently appeared on "Cassandra's legacy". it is re-posted here to illustrate a communication strategy based on highlighting local problems and emphasizing practical action. It seems to work reasonably well

Fiesole, a small town near Florence, Italy, is being affected by climate change just as every place on earth. Here, I report of an initiative to bring the problem to the citizens' attention and motivate them to act on it. In this occasion, I tried to use some strategies that I took mainly from a document on climate change by Peter Sandman, a professional risk management expert. Among these strategies, Sandman suggests that you should tell the truth about the situation, but you should not try to make people feel guilty or scare them. You should emphasize concrete measures and actions that bring results which, in the case of climate change, means to consider mitigation as something just as important as prevention (and perhaps more). It is a test but, so far, it seems to be working in Fiesole. Here is an elaboration of the talk I gave at the meeting.

Good morning, everybody. First of all, let me say that it is very nice to be here, all together speaking about climate change. I have to thank the administration of our town for having organized this meeting and also thank the citizens who found the way to spend a whole Friday morning on this subject.

It is something new: climate change is one of those things that you don't hear about so often, recently. It used to be mentioned much more in the past but, now, there seems to be some sort of conspiracy of silence on it. In TV, you hear about all sort of strange stuff, from the thing called "Spread" to debt, bonds, the stock market and all the rest. It is like if there were nothing of importance in the world but the financial system.

Yet, I think that all of us have been noticing that there is something else that's happening in the real world.  You see, I am not a specialist in climate science; although I have done my best to study the subject. But I also think that there is no need to be a specialist to notice what's happening. Let me just show you this image:

I am sure that you can recognize this building: it is what is left today of the "ghiacciaia" (ice storage building) of Monte Senario; not far from where we are today. You also surely know that, a century ago, people would discharge tons and tons of winter snow into the belly of that cavernous building in order to make ice. Then, they would sell the ice in Florence, during the summer.

Of course, that wouldn't not possible today. This winter, we barely saw snow in Fiesole. Even two years ago, when we had a big snowstorm, it lasted just 2-3 days and then the snow melted away. So, today, at best you would be able to collect enough ice in winter to make a few ice cream cones in summer - if you are lucky. Things have changed a lot, indeed!

Now, if all the problem was that we can't make ice any more; well, we could say that it doesn't matter: we have refrigerators! But climate change takes other forms and creates other effects. Let me show you this picture, taken last summer in Fiesole:

I have been picking figs from trees in summer for all my life. But I had never seen figs drying up on branches before ripening. This is something totally unusual and it matches with other changes in the vegetation around here. Many people have noticed how the Fiesole valleys are becoming yellow in summer. That's not usual: if you think about that you can surely remember that, up to a few years ago, Fiesole remained green all over the summer. Now, this is a big change: it may be related to temperatures, to the drought, or to pollution. But it is a change we can't ignore.

And that's not all. As you know, last year we had two major fires in the valley. Let me show you a picture of the fire that nearly destroyed the village of Monte Rinaldi.

I was coming home that day and, as I passed in front of the hill, I saw gigantic flames erupting. I can tell you: it was scary. So, I went home, I took my camera and I went back there to take pictures. Fortunately, by then the big flames were almost gone. But it took several hours and two helicopters to extinguish the fire. Apart from all other considerations, think how expensive it has been to keep those two helicopters flying for so long! And it is a cost that we all have to pay as citizens.

Of course, you can't attribute a single event, a fire in this case, to global warming. Yes, but I have been living in this valley for more than 40 years and I remember one fire large enough that it needed a helicopter to be put down. Maybe there were others I don't know about but, this year, as you know, we had two big fires near Fiesole in a single year. That should tell us something.

So, what's happening? Changes; big changes. And not just droughts and fires. Today we tend to use the term "climate change" rather than "global warming", as it was the use until not long ago. That is because the effects of global warming are much more complex than it seemed to us at the beginning. It is not just that temperatures are a bit warmer; it is the whole climate that changes in ways that are unpredictable. Last year we had a terrible drought, this year it has been raining for six months almost without interruption. Climate is becoming chaotic. The people who are specialists in this subject can tell us why, but we all see the consequences.

Among the consequences of climate change, we have floods and snowstorms. Let me show you a picture of the big snowstorm of two years ago in Fiesole.

Beautiful, sure. But we must remember that snow was so common in our town decades ago and people must have been used to it. Today, when we have two days of snow, it is disaster! Nobody knows any more what to do. Things do change!

It is the same for rain; it has always rained in Fiesole but, now, when it rains, it rains hard and it creates big problems. You remember what the Regional commissioner for agriculture was telling us just before my talk? He said that every year we have something like three billion Euros of damage per year due to weather phenomena. Not all that can be attributed to climate change, of course, but a good fraction, yes.

So, I think we don't need climate scientists to tell us that our climate is changing. We can see it with our eyes. And we don't need to enter into one of those nasty discussions on whether it is real, it is human caused, it is all a big hoax and all the rest. You may think as you like on this subject; maybe it is not so bad as some people say. Maybe someone is making money on it. Maybe it is not our fault or, at least, not completely. We could discuss about these possibilities until our jaws fall on the floor. But the point is that we are all seeing the change and we cannot ignore it.

And the point is that it all fits with what the specialists had been telling us. Look at this picture:

Look at the red line. It is the average temperature of our earth according to the most recent study. It starts going up rapidly more or less when we started burning coal, about two centuries ago. And, as you see, the temperature at the time when the big ice building in Monte Senario was in operation was about half a degree (centigrade) smaller than it is today. So, just one half of a degree is enough to bring big, big changes. So, think of what could happen for two-three degrees of increase, as scientists say it is likely to happen if we continue burning fossil fuels - as we seem to be bent on doing.

Now, look at this image:

It is the world as it could be in 2030-2039 according to a study by "UCAR". The red areas of the map indicate drought. Be careful about this point: it is a "drought index"; It doesn't just mean that it rains less. It means also that rain comes in the wrong moment and it causes more damage than help. Look at the Mediterranean region: it is not just red, it is violet. So, the droughts we had been seeing around us make sense - it is something that was expected and that's expected to increase in the coming decades. We are possibly in the worst place in the world in terms of future droughts.

So, you see what we are facing. It may not be politically correct to say what I am saying, but we are all adults. We don't like it when we discover that people are "sugaring the pill" for us. I think we have to tell things as they are. We have to face a future, in the coming decades, when we'll have more droughts, more fires, more heat waves and more sudden floods and, possibly, heavy snowstorms. This is what we'll be seeing no matter what we do as citizens of Fiesole and no matter what will be done at the level of governments and international treaties. Climate change is with us to stay; at least for a few decades. We are seeing it; we will see more of it in the future.

So, when we think of our town, we think of something like this; green and beautiful:

But here is the same place, seen from a different angle, after the fire of last year. For how long will we have a green Fiesole?

You see that we have a problem. A big problem. So, what do we do? Well, the first step in order to solve a problem is to recognize that it exists and the fact that we are all here, today, means that we recognize that climate change exists and that we need to do something about it. This is a big step forward. 

You see, I think that the climate problem is solvable. But we need to get together and do something about it. Much can be done at the international level, by means of treaties to reduce emissions and move to cleaner forms of energy. But, in order to have these treaties we need to build up a consensus that these treaties are needed. And consensus starts locally - it starts with people, and we are people! So, our first task, I think, is to start building this consensus here, in Fiesole. Think about that: we are doing it right now! I see that you are nodding. You see? It is not so difficult to start acting on the climate problem!

I was looking at your faces when I was showing you those projections of future droughts and fires. I know, it is scary to look at the future and the temptation is to turn away your eyes or to scream something like "it is not true, it is a hoax, a scam, a trick,  whatever". But now that you know that are acting, that you are doing something, you feel better, don't you?

This is a little trick that I learned from a Swedish psychologist named Lennart Parknas. He wrote a beautiful book on how to motivate people into action. He says that action is fundamental: you cannot do anything to solve a problem unless you are convinced that you can do something to solve it. It is what Parknas defines as being "empowered." Climate change is a big problem, but the methods for solving big problems are the same as those for solving small ones. You need to know that you can solve them in order to solve them.

Of course, there is a lot more that we can do in addition to get together in a room and nodding at what someone else says. Let me tell you that I have been discussing this point with our administrators and there are plenty of things that we can do together. One is to protect our territory from fires: we don't want more fires like those of last summer. We need surveillance but, more than all, we need preparation. You probably know that the fire of Monte Rinaldi was started by a guy who thought it was a good idea to burn dry leaves in his garden in a hot day of August. He wasn't prepared, but nobody told him, apparently, that it wasn't such a good idea. You see? We are not prepared, not just that guy. We need to work on that!

Fire prevention is an example of what's called "mitigation" of the effects of climate change. Of course, mitigation doesn't solve the climate problem at its roots (that's called "prevention"). But mitigation has this big advantage that it gives us something real and practical to do. And if we prevent fires, we have a win-win situation. We do something good in itself, but we also create awareness of the climate problem around. We create consensus, which is what we need.

That doesn't mean we cannot do climate change prevention, here in Fiesole - we can, of course. We have to go in parallel with such things as renewable energy, better efficiency in many areas, from home heating to transportation. But the most important thing is to work at attaining consensus that the climate problem exists and in order to attain consensus we need to be all empowered. We need to act and we are doing it.

So, the fact that you are all here tells me that we have a chance to do something good and even give the example to other towns and cities! We are a small town, of course but, after all, all things big started small!

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.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Welcome to the boiling frog blog

This is a blog dedicated to communication in climate change. 

We are a group of concerned people who believe that the science of climate may not be completely settled, but that the risks involved with climate change are clear enough. It is time to act.

Acting on climate is no trivial matter: humankind is facing a tremendous barrier made of apathy, ignorance and fear that, so far, has blocked or slowed down action. So, our first objective as human beings is of communicating the urgency of the situation. Only after we have reached a global consensus that climate change is a priority issue, it will be possible to act on it effectively.

So, far, the task of communicating the climate problem has not been successful because most concerned people are not trained in the art and the science of communication. That has resulted in an incredible number of mistakes which often have backfired. We need to do way better.

This is what we want to discuss in this blog. We need to learn how to communicate. It means to learn how to tell the truth on climate in a way that doesn't scare people  but, on the contrary, stimulates them to action. It is possible, but we need to do it right.

We chose the image of the boiling frog as a reminder of the human situation on planet Earth. We hope it is to be intended as meaning that we are (or should be) more intelligent than frogs. We can still jump out!