5 Things (Social) Science Tells Us to Do When Talking About Climate Change

by Marsha Rakestraw

Call it climate change, global warming, climate catastrophe, or the impending apocalypse, we’ve seen that it’s rampaging across our planet and affecting every being on earth.

A 2020 poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that nearly three quarters of Americans now believe global warming is happening, and 56% believe it is human-caused.

Yet people and politicians are reluctant to take the needed action to transform our systems into ones that are more resilient, sustainable, and healthy.

A recent survey of middle school students in North Carolina noted that their concern about climate change and interest in taking action hinged largely on two factors: their personal beliefs and how frequently they discussed climate change with friends and family.

Talking about climate change is essential to engaging public and political support for meaningful climate action. But how we talk about it matters.

Recent studies on climate change communication offer us as humane educators and changemakers some useful insights on talking with others about climate change.

1. Target people’s values.
A recent Duke University study notes that because climate change polarization often happens along party lines, many messages can backfire. So, it’s important to “take care to target their audience’s values and understand how polarization affects their evolving sensitivities and identities.”

2. Be aware of people’s political views.
A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, took on “the first meta-analytic examination of the demographic and psychological correlates of belief in climate change.” Their analysis included surveys, polls, and other data sources, and they discovered that political affiliation “correlated with belief in climate change twice as strongly as any other demographic variable the study examined.”

3. Use images that are shown to be effective.
Recent research, conducted by Climate Outreach and Global Call for Climate Action, offers evidence for the kinds of images we should use to inspire others to take positive action. Their report includes seven key findings to follow and a library of “evidence-based” images.

4. Use the “message triangle” to talk about climate change.
A report from Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, which has analyzed effective strategies for talking about climate change, introduces the “message triangle” as a guideline for discussion. The triangle includes the threat (severe weather, obligation to keep our children safe), the villain (oil companies’ stranglehold on democracy), and the solution (taking charge of our own energy).

5. Frame climate change as a collective responsibility.
A paper published in the journal Climatic Change notes that appeals to personal responsibility (with the accompanying guilt and fear) are largely ineffective. But, in three different tests, framing climate change action as a collective challenge increased donations to environmental groups.

The (social) science of how best to communicate with others about climate change issues continues to evolve, so it’s important that we pay attention to new recommendations and adjust our approach accordingly.

For additional insights into engaging in conversation with others about climate change issues, check out resources such as:

The Psychology of Climate Change Communications
From Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, this guide offers insights, strategies, and resources for communicating about climate change issues and encouraging positive action.

The Uncertainty Handbook
From Climate Outreach and the University of Bristol, the handbook offers “12 practical and easy-to-apply principles for smarter communication about climate change uncertainties.”

Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
This site offers research, news, and other resources for best practices for educating and mobilizing others to take positive climate action.

Find more resources about climate change in our Pinterest global issues guide.