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Shooting the Messenger

How to Talk About Climate Change so Everyone Wants to Listen
By Beth Hartman - Senior Research Associate

Although the science on climate change leaves little room for debate, social consensus on the topic is still surprisingly varied. This disparity, and how to bring the scientific and the social consensus closer together, was the main theme at the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference that I attended in Sacramento last week. With the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy still top of mind, now is an especially good opportunity to think carefully about how we can have a more effective climate‑change conversation.

Rather than placing the blame for a lack of social consensus on the many different cultural worldviews that people use to understand reality—dismissing someone’s opinion just because they’re “too conservative” or “too liberal”—we all need to learn how to adapt the climate-change message so that it makes sense within any social context. I titled this blog post “Shooting the Messenger” because if you’re not getting through to the people you’re talking to, it’s probably your fault.

Some of my favorite sessions at the conference helped me to think outside of my own social context, showing me concrete ideas for how the topic of climate change can be framed for a variety of worldviews. For example, the panel discussion Conservative Thinking on Energy and Climate explored how many Republicans would support a carbon tax if the proposal was framed as a measure that would create clean-energy jobs, reduce the deficit, and eliminate the need for a variety of environmental regulations.

Alex Bozmoski of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative was a particularly compelling speaker on this panel, introducing himself by describing how the last time he was so outnumbered was at a Phish concert where he wore a shirt that said “Viva la Reagan Revolución” and most people just thought he was being ironic. He then went on to clearly describe the conservative mindset with simple, self-deprecating statements such as “I find contradicting others stimulating,” “It makes me angry when someone is held up as a model for me to follow,” and “When something is forbidden, it makes me think that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Discussing climate-change messaging that liberals often focus on, he pointed out that any statement implying that environmentalists think humanity should revert to a Neolithic caveman existence won’t usually play very well with conservatives, who find such ideas counterproductive and condescending. Next, he talked about how, in addition to the message, the messengers themselves also matter. For example, Al Gore and the Hollywood elite are messengers that conservatives are likely to ignore. He concluded with a powerful argument in favor of a carbon tax, stating that “nobody should be allowed to privatize profits and socialize costs.” The liberals in the audience cheered.

I also enjoyed many other panels that explored different audiences and messaging channels for the climate-change and energy-efficiency conversation, including faith-based organizations, films, and games. Overall, I left the conference more motivated than ever to discuss climate change with everyone I meet, hopefully in a more productive and enjoyable way so that rather than shooting the messenger, we can all become more interested in listening to the important message.

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Comments

Cheering against privatized profits and socialized cost is fine, but what about socializing the cost of others' risky behavior via health insurance - smoking, lack of exercise, overweight, yadda yadda. Should we tax calories?
Thanks for your comment! There are a lot of different opinions on how taxing undesirable behavior could help to make the true costs more transparent to everyone - for example cigarettes are heavily taxed (and many smokers pay more for health insurance), and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new ban on large sodas in New York City has created plenty of discussion! I'm just hoping that our discussion on tough topics like this can become more productive through a better understanding of why people have different perspectives.
The simple statements that describe the conservative mindset such as “I find contradicting others stimulating,” “It makes me angry when someone is held up as a model for me to follow,” and “When something is forbidden, it makes me think that’s exactly what I’m going to do” all appear to center on enjoying being a rebel. Perhaps a message of "The fossil companies would like you to increase usage of fossil fuels." would give rebels something to rebel against.
Interesting idea! I like the concept of working with the rebel attitude to encourage interest in energy efficiency - kind of a reverse psychology tactic! A lot of brands have successfully leveraged the rebel concept to market products like Harley Davidson, motorcycles which are often purchased by older more affluent men who may be feeling nostalgic for their more carefree youthful days.

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