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!


  1. It is difficult to know what practical measures should be implemented (by local stakeholders themselves) at the community or local levels in the millions of communities and localities which exist throughout the world. And they will of course vary from place to place.
    An obvious effect of climate change is that the weather is getting wilder. So there are (and there will be) more droughts, more fires, more heavy rainfall, more floods, more hurricanes, and seasons ever more out of kilter (e.g. longer or shorter summers or winters) thereby affecting agriculture (in various and differing ways), plants, animals, insects, pollinators, vector-borne diseases and etc.
    It seems to me that the first thing any community or locality needs to do is to understand: a) how exactly it is being affected already in some of the ways above or in other ways over any single year; and b) how it is most likely going to be affected in let's say another five years based on current trends in the worsening of climate change. (which is the most probable scenario since parts per million of CO2 continue to increase by about 3 per year and increasing quantities of methane also are being released and more ice melt also is occurring)
    Once this is done it will be easier for local stakeholders to discuss sensibly what might be done and what can be planned and done by the local community.
    The other thing which I think any local stakeholders need to understand is the differences between various kinds of actions and measures that are possible and namely those which belong in four categories: i) prevention ii) mitigation iii) adaptation and iv) reversal. Measures implemented in one category may have effects in some of the other categories too but generally speaking there are different measures for different objectives.
    If people (meaning local stakeholders) are confused about what they can do and achieve, and what others need to do (for instance national governments, international agreements, and multinational fossil fuel enterprises) they may not know why they are trying to do what they are doing or may think their work is failing to achieve the objectives they would like it to achieve. Generally speaking local stakeholders can mitigate or adapt (locally and to a partial extent) but to prevent or reverse climate change their role is more likely to be one of advocacy (together with others) vis-a-vis policy makers and those who determine and control the national and regional energy systems which are in use in the present or in the future.
    For instance although Fiesole may wish to focus on preparing better for any fires which may occur, nothing prevents its residents from also being aware of what is involved in the Keystone pipeline decision in the U.S. (which will affect prevention probably more than any other single development at this time) And although I wouldn’t necessarily advocate it because I think it would be ineffective, they also could write a letter about it to president Obama so that he at least might know that people all over the world are watching what he does or fails to do. Doing something about preparing for fires locally (mitigation) while writing such a letter (prevention) would help to synergize and activate the concern and action for climate change. (CONTINUES BELOW)

  2. Secondly, although there will be big differences from locality to locality throughout the world regarding the specific measures needed in any given locality to a) prevent b) mitigate c) adapt to and d) reverse climate change it could be useful to prepare a "laundry list" of the typical things which could be done in each area across a range of localities or communities. It is easier to relate to examples and illustrations of what others are doing than it is to relate to abstractions or generalities. Some good basic research could I am sure come up with many examples of what is being done, some of which are certain also to be inspiring. It would also help local stakeholders to realize better and more tangibly that they are in the same boat with a whole lot of other people elsewhere.
    After the above is done it would be good to zero in on two or three priority actions which the local community can do and wants to focus on. Once the priority areas are identified it also would be good to set specific and realistically achievable objectives and then proceed with the activities needed to achieve them. (rather than leaving things vague or general) So that rather than “preparing better for fires”, saying what specific things will be done to achieve that.
    It sounds like in Fiesole (a locality I don’t know at all and only visited twice in my life briefly) the risk of fire is significant so it would be good to determine and then implement how to protect from fires and how to be more prepared in case fires occur anyway. What have other communities throughout the world done to deal with the same problem? Are there any examples of best practice or lessons of experience? Researching this aspect also could bring people out of their mainly local cultural reality in other ways.
    But of course there also are other things that could be done either to serve as a good example to others or to make a very small contribution to prevention. In this general area one can think of installing more photovoltaic panels on homes or other such.
    This then raises the question of whether there is one item which Fiesole (or any other local community) could do in each of the four main areas, i.e. again prevention, mitigation, adaptation and reversal?
    In considering what to do and deciding to do it, the strategies identified in the Sandman article can be quite useful. Sandman does a good job of discussing "being in denial" (which he correctly indicates is different from what we commonly call climate change "denialism") and 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" (CONTINUES BELOW)

  3. So a good local strategy might eventually try to work "across the board" with respect to the preceding issues. (i.e. being in denial, apathy, ignorance, climate change denialism, and others)
    What I personally take away from reading his article is in fact fairly simple: Engage respectfully, tell the truth, stay calm 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 on down would seem to have concluded what was known in advance already.
    I also think that much can be learned by various climate activists or "climate change believers" by looking 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 why and how each of us who now "believes in climate change" came to think and act the way we now do. Did someone else empower us? Where we converted by attending a single meeting? How exactly did we come to think the way we now think? What personality characteristics or other traits or attitudes or values were involved? 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 better understand what makes others tick. Naturally all sorts of psychological defense mechanisms (denial being only one) (and repression, reification, projection, introjection, and some others described by Freud and several others later) come into play which typically prevent us from doing that properly. (Generally speaking we are NOT transparent to ourselves, rather the opposite if anything)
    I do not think that we all need to become clinical psychologists or psychiatrists to do climate change 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 media and political 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, whispering it is more than sufficient.