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How can we best communicate the impacts of climate change?

by Sarah Hurtes | European Climate Foundation
Friday, 5 January 2018 13:21 GMT

A man walks through floods waters and onto the main road after surveying his property which was hit by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, U.S. August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can we talk about climate without sending people into a downward spiral of depression?

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of vulnerable people exposed to heat wave events has increased by approximately 125 million. This is set to get worse. Dengue fever has doubled every decade since 1990, reaching 50 to 100 million infections annually, in part because of climate change.

As I read the Lancet Countdown 2017 report sitting at my desk, with the task of having to help communicate its findings to the wider public, I can only think of one thing: basically, we're screwed. So how should I tackle my job as a so-called climate communicator, without sending those who care enough to read about this, into a downward spiral of depression?

It’s a problem many of us are struggling with. An article published in New York Magazine in the summer of 2017 entitled The Uninhabitable Earth, began: “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: what climate change could wreck - sooner than you think”. It became last year's most widely shared article on climate change, with over 800,000 shares on social media.

Some of my friends, who never once engaged on this topic, posted it on their Facebook channel, their post was infused with panicked comments echoing my initial reaction to the Lancet Countdown report. This makes us climate communicators ask: How effective is such a piece of text in communicating climate change? It makes the issue feel more important, but on its own, it paralyses, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, disempowered.

Additionally, each and every one of us have a limited amount of concern to go round. I for one can’t think of a birthday present for my dad. For some such concerns might extend to military threats, access to contraception, or other severe daily problems that take precedence in comparison to the distant humming buzz of climate change.

This is just human nature - but climate communicators have often exacerbated the problem by focusing on events that are going to happen a long way into the future and geographically far away. When looking at NASA´s forecasts, with warnings about the Arctic Ocean likely to become ice free in the summer before mid-century, I feel concerned, but not exactly worried.

I was particularly worried when I moved to Germany, which had recently been shaken by unusual storms and flooding. That storm in Berlin which nearly smashed my window with my own plant, or those floods in the nearby area where my family lives, are a clear reality check of what's to come as extreme weather becomes the norm.

Besides, I'm only just beginning to get the extent to which extreme weather has immediate health impacts: drowning, getting injured by hitting things, catching illnesses from contaminated water and food, or mess with my own mental well-being. Such information about the potential health impacts of climate change creates a powerful way in to talking about climate change.

Health professionals are increasingly being called upon to be champions in this area, encouraged to speak out to their own patients and local policymakers on the health dangers of climate change such as asthma, allergies and the spread of certain diseases.

Organisations such as the Global Climate and Health AllianceHealth and Environment Alliance or Health Care Without Harm are important bodies that already engage with the public around such issues.

An important part of their work, however, is also to show that many of the steps we take to combat climate change have immediate health benefits. The massive increase in wind and solar energy helped prevent the premature deaths of up to 12,700 people over a nine-year period in the United States.

Despite all the interesting research out there, tweaks to language can only do so much. Even when applying the above solutions to making climate change appear relevant and urgent, it might be that the person you’re talking to just doesn't care. This is why the social science of human behaviour and communication is just as important as the science of climate change and sustainability.

In a recent book, communication experts Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke argue that using the right language is about starting a productive dialogue, not winning an argument. Using messages and telling stories that speak to people’s values.

For example in the United States, research suggests the values of ingenuity, independence, prosperity and leadership matter a great deal, while in India, togetherness, respect for nature and self-reliance are more important. Research also shows that many people intrinsically care about the wellbeing of others and the environment.

As for people like Trump, perhaps our only chance is to show them a recent report that made me laugh out loud in a meeting - “Climate Change: Good for sex, bad for sperm” - about a working paper which shows that 80 degree Fahrenheit days correspond to lowered birth rates nine months later.