The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

By Chris Mooney | December 28, 2010 7:26 am

What the heck is wrong with our minds, such that they prevent so many of us from copping to the evidence about global warming?

Well, I’ve just come across a pretty amazing report that points out many of the problems. The product of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), it’s called The Psychology of Climate Change Communication–and it covers mental models, confirmation biases, and many other known cognitive effects before going on to lay out a series of recommendations about what to do about them.

What to do? The advice includes knowing your audience, employing framing, using trusted messengers (often local voices), using the power of groupthink in your favor (rather than letting it turn against you), and much else. For more detail, read the report.

I was pretty impressed myself, and am glad this booklet is out there. The reason I came across it is that I’m digging deeper into the psychology of denial and the research on that topic, already explored in my recent Point of Inquiry podcast with Brendan Nyhan. It seems to me that after a very bad decade for science denial in the US (the 2000s), this body of study is vitally important and finally getting the attention it deserves.

For too long, and especially in the science blogosphere, it has been set up as a contradiction: Do you debunk anti-science nonsense, or do you try to understand its sources and sympathize with where they are coming from? My argument is that, at different times, we have to do both. But the problem is, the latter endeavor is in many ways, much much harder than the former.

So if we’re going to get there, works like the CRED guide will be vital.


Comments (25)

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  1. Friday Free for All for December 31st, 2010 | T.N. Tobias | December 31, 2010
  1. Terry

    Also, you could try not framing it in the context of having to completely or partially dismantle the economy (which is really the science of human desires) in order to combat it. The argument should be, ‘okay, what can we do now?’. And some people will still not be convinced because it doesn’t match their worldview (such as the Christian senator I just saw denying climate change because God promised not to end the world again).

    The only reason that convincing people about climate change is important is in order to achieve political results. You didn’t see a big push to convince people that relativity was the right answer and you don’t see a big push to convince people about black hole entropy. Of course, those aren’t relevant to individuals on planet earth. Although you do see a big push to convince people about evolution and the age of the earth, you only see it when creationists try to take over public education. Even then, the global effort by scientists to communicate climate change is much larger than the effort to communicate evolution.

    The science is polluted by political bias. That’s not to say the science is wrong; it isn’t as far as I can tell. Someone needs to focus on selling the science without selling the political bias that goes with it. Unfortunately, everyone that does gets labeled as a denier even when they aren’t denying anything except the extreme version of events sold by the more apocalyptic strains of climate change believers.

  2. Jon

    Terry: The only reason that convincing people about climate change is important is in order to achieve political results.

    But to achieve *what* “political results”? So given, some sort of policy will be required–just like policy was was required with tobacco. And indeed, from the tobacco industry’s perspective, the economy was “completely dismantled” (although from the rest of our perspectives, we don’t see as many people dying of lung cancer, emphysema, etc., which to us, is worth the cost of giving up on a libertarian utopia where our kids are free to emulate Joe the Camel).

    But which policy will the political system put in place? You can discuss the science without insisting on a particular policy. As far as I’m concerned, I want whatever addresses the problem. If Ron Paul comes up with a good solution and it works, more power to him.

  3. I’ve just started to look over this report, and it’s great to see all this work in one place. We’re not going to get anywhere useful on climate change without taking psychology into account.

  4. Thorn

    I would like to know how much denialism is related to pure irrationality. In my circle of influence, it is a very high percentage. How can you address this problem with reasoning? I suspect that even when the dramatic effects of climate change are staring them in the face, there will be a significant number disputing human involvement. Although I doubt the report address this situation, I do look forward to reading it.

  5. Along with your “Unscientific America” and perhaps the movie “Idiocracy”, a report like this is sorely needed. Greg Craven, author of “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate” puts forth a different framing in his “How it all ends video” — the beginning of about 7 hours of explanation by this Oregonian Chemistry teacher. That first video of his series is approaching 1,000,000 views (his original, with flawed arguments that were critiqued and made his framing even better, was seen over 7,000,000 times), makes many important points, but I find this part very telling (at 6m 20s):

    We’ll never have absolute certainty with any scientific issue. Some have suggested that it’s already too late (

    I would even suggest that in this La Nina year — when California is supposed to be exceptionally dry — the huge storms we’ve been having are the start of global climate destabilization. It’s not really “global warming” (let’s stop calling it that). With more energy in the system, the standard deviations for weather behavior will be making more wild swings. People see the blizzard in the East and ask, “How can global warming be true with all this snow?” and they fail to see the strength of the storm and the amount of precipitation has been due to greater evaporation around the globe.

    Thanks for pointing me towards this new reference!

  6. Well, I guess humans will always believe in what they fundamentally think is correct, even if it flies in the face of science. I guess this is just how we are.

  7. Eric the Leaf

    Nate Hagens at TheOilDrum has been thinking and writing about related issues for several years. Here’s one example:

  8. Terry

    @Jon: I’m not sure. Personally, the knee-jerk reaction is to ban climate change. Funny as that sounds, that is what trying to curb greenhouse gasses amounts to. Making polluters responsible for pollution is just plain smart, but since the majority of polluters in the case of greenhouse gasses are the people driving around cars, it’s really hard to get the same people to agree to punishment.

    Everytime I start talking global warming, I frame it by saying something like, “The most rational political recourse is to put funding into trying to mitigate the results of global warming and try to advance energy sciences to the point where something is cheaper than oil or coal”. Even when I talk to the most doubting economic conservative with that argument, they perk up and listen to the science. As long as the science cuts into their bottom line, they won’t listen to the science.

  9. Bob

    > Do you debunk anti-science nonsense, or do you try to understand its sources and sympathize with where they are coming from?

    I find the religious fervor is strong in the believers who close their minds to the real science. They don’t understand that science is a process and not a destination.

    Sure the basic CO2/GHG pathways are somewhat known but believers don’t look beyond that.

    So we currently have a large list of hysterical predictions that haven’t come true. By the way, I hope the folks in the NE USA and Europe didn’t hurt their backs when shoveling all that global warming.

  10. If you look at the history of human literature, one of the great conflicts is “man vs. nature” (along with things like “man vs. man”, “man vs. society”, and “man vs. himself”). (And, perhaps, “human vs. patriarchal language?”) There is an idea out there now that nature is a delicate flower, easily destroyed and paved over by human activity. You can see that in “recent” (as in the last century) literature. It’s in a lot of Dr. Seuss, it’s in “Watership Down”, it’s all over the place. But that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout most of the history of human civilization, nature has been a dangerous force against which we have little recourse. Consider the scary imagery of “the woods” found in fairy tales, not to mention “The Hobbit”. Indeed, a lot of the metaphors we use today to describe power and domination come from nature. And, if you were living in the regions of the world hit by earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes in the last several years, you might be excused for still having that view of nature.

    I think that this view of nature as this dominating force is deeply buried in our subconscious. Whether any of that is genetic or whether it’s all cultural, we probably have to recognize that it’s there in order to overcome it and realize that, yes, while nature can still kill, human civilization has gotten to the point that nature no longer ignores the whims of humans.

  11. Nullius in Verba

    “Do you debunk anti-science nonsense, or do you try to understand its sources and sympathize with where they are coming from? My argument is that, at different times, we have to do both.”

    That you think the two are separate is part of the problem – you can’t possibly debunk the opposition’s arguments if you don’t actually know or understand them, and you can’t fully understand them without some element of sympathy and open-mindedness to them. Otherwise your own mental defences will shut out the parts of their arguments that threaten your own beliefs and on which their belief rests most strongly. Confirmation bias applies to everyone.

    You have to do both at the same time. Unless your aim is only to persuade yourselves that you’re doing something useful, and that if people don’t listen it’s because they’re all irrational.

    I’ve had a look at the report, and I can tell you already that it isn’t going to work. Climate communicators have already been doing all that – it misses the problem completely (in large part because it fails to take its own advice). But please feel free to try it – and when it doesn’t work, to try the same thing again only even harder. The end result will be much the same in the long run.

  12. Jon

    Personally, the knee-jerk reaction is to ban climate change. Funny as that sounds, that is what trying to curb greenhouse gasses amounts to.

    Um, proposing a price on external costs (so that the best energy sources are competitive) and “banning” aren’t anywhere near the same thing. That’s like saying a beverage tax and prohibition are the same. They’re obviously not.

  13. Marty

    I believe the problem arises from a growing segment of society that simply doesn’t trust authority, and “science” is viewed as an authority as much as “government” is. Science is not helped by its many failures. It is almost too easy to debunk climate change. We’ve spent billions on weather satelites, and we still can’t get accurate weather predictions (I mean, really, the forecasts for the PNW have been more wrong than right this fall). If, they might be asking, you can’t even tell what the weather will be this afternoon, why should we believe all this global warming stuff? The irrationality of the arguments against global warming arise from a population that is terrified that they are going to have to change their ways and that the consequence of these changes could destroy both their way of life and the economy. Running around saying, “the globe is warming,” is the same as running around saying, “the sky is falling.” Okay, so it is; so what are you going to do about it? And remember that whatever you come up with had better not mean I’ve got to give up my SUV (which I’m still paying for) or my job.

    Further, from the atomic bomb to the population bomb, the scientific community has not been helped by its past apocalyptic predictions that failed to materialize. While famine continues to be a problem in many parts of the globe, we are fatter than ever. While scientific publications, Discover amongst them, continue to scare us with the next deadly disease that could wipe out millions, they fail to materialize. Are we really running out of oil? I know we have been hearing that there is only a couple of decades left for over forty years. Is it, therefore, any more irrational to think that the whole thing is just a conspiracy by the oil companies in cahoots with a corrupt “gummint” to raise the price of gasoline?

    The scientific community has a huge amount of general mistrust to overcome to convince people that the climate is changing. Being thoroughly convinced myself that you’re right, I hope you figure it out…soon!

  14. With scientific illiteracy, anything is possible.

    That said, it is hard to stand up in a room and tell people who are deliberately illiterate that they are deliberately illiterate.

    But you have to start somewhere.

  15. Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    I know climate changes are harming common man just like me.My question is what can common man do to stop climate changes?.I can do my best not to increase corbon dioxide in nature. but my effort are limited it is duty of rich countries to reduced to spread carbonates in nature. they have scientific equipment money why they are not coming forward to improve the position of nature?

  16. Sean McCorkle

    @15: “What can the common man do?” is a very good question that frustrates me a great deal. To achieve the biggest impact, whole infrastructures will have to change, for example, fuel supply and distribution for non-fossil-fuel autos, more public/mass transit etc. Its hard to imagine that happening without government(s) leading the way. The more people demand that change from the government, the more likely it will happen, so working and organizing at the grassroots level seems like a good thing to at least try.

    A writer of an article I read several years ago argued that community recycling programs succeeded, in part, because people didn’t want to be left out of the trend when they saw their neighbors putting out recycling cans on pickup days. There is a powerful trend setter/follower group dynamic in our psychology and it seems like we ought to be able to take advantage of that somehow.

    Its definitely an uphill battle. I live in the midst of a very car-centered area. By “very”, I mean “pathological obsession”. Cars are considered as necessary to life as food and water (perhaps even more necessary), and are public displays of social status to the extent that all other displays of social status fall by the wayside. In this area, people who commute to work by bicycle are seen as oddballs, social-misfits, granola-crunching hippies, geeks, etc. It would be nice to be able to somehow elevate the status of the bike-commuter from pariah to ultra-cool, to start a trend. I haven’t got a clue how to achieve that. I guess it boils down the question: why do some trends “take” and others not?

  17. Terry


    Um, proposing a price on external costs (so that the best energy sources are competitive) and “banning” aren’t anywhere near the same thing. That’s like saying a beverage tax and prohibition are the same. They’re obviously not.

    Once again, my whole point is that tying the science to a political objective is the problem, not what that political objective IS. If I was talking to my liberal aunt about the importance of vaccinations, I’d have to frame it by making clear that I’m not shilling for “Big Pharma”. As far as the BEST energy sources being competitive, the first step should be to eliminate unnecessary subsidy (of the oil industry) and unrealistic and unnecessary restrictions (of the nuclear power industry), not to slap restrictions on something that is still being subsidized.

    And, a beverage tax is usually leveraged to reduce consumption of the beverages. It isn’t the same thing as banning, but its on the same road. However, my comment on banning was hyperbole, not a literal interpretation. I should avoid the hyperbole. My whole point is that I am an economic conservative and free market advocate who also buys into the science of global warming because I don’t attach it to the political objective.

    Realistically, the effort to get off of petrochemicals is only going to succeed if we have a competing, clean technology. I’m fed up that advocates of global warming don’t lobby to increase funding toward ITER or to come up with realistic requirements for nuclear reactor cleanliness rather than lobbying to hurt the economy.

  18. Jon

    Terry: …my comment on banning was hyperbole, not a literal interpretation.

    But rhetoric and hyperbole is at the heart of the matter. Practically no one is in favor of “banning”. Practically no one proposing solutions is “anti-free market”. This kind of hyperventilation is a large part of why we’re not solving the problem.

    The reason why we *have* politics is to affect policy. And good policy and free markets don’t need to clash. Frankly, it looks to me like *any* policy to solve this problem would meet with rhetoric and hyperbole from certain parties (including, by the way, parties that pay people to troll internet blogs with pre-conceived talking points).

    On nuclear, a big reason why it’s not successful is that the only entity that can afford to finance it is government. It isn’t a coincidence that France is the leading user of nuclear power. It is expensive to build, operate, and decommission. Right now it’s just not competitive.

    –Not that I’m against nuclear power as a possible solution. I just think it’s weird and self-contradictory for free market ideologues to put their hopes on it (although I can see why certain interests might like all the big government money that would be available, which might be why it’s being pushed by certain political factions, despite the ideological contradictions involved).

  19. Nullius in Verba


    It’s easy enough to bamboozle the unwary with numbers so as to come to a desired conclusion, as I’m sure Joe Romm is well aware. That report is… shall we say… leaning in a particular direction.

    Essentially what it does is to assume you take out a loan to pay the capital costs and repay at the minimum rate possible. The capital cost is assumed to be $10,553/kW over 40 years, which on its own works out at 10,553/(40*365*24) = $0.03/kWh, but to this are added interest payments which make up a further $0.19/kWh. About 86% of the quoted capital cost is interest, or in other words, it is the difference in return between buying a nuclear power plant and loaning the money out on the market. (Try working out how much you really paid for your house, at 14.5% APR.) Nuclear power still wins, but only by a small margin.

    That’s not the only pessimistically “conservative” choice made in the study, but it is the biggest and most obvious.

    There are a variety of other independent assessments out there, most of which find that nuclear power comes out comparable to or a little more expensive than coal and gas, and much cheaper than wind and solar, but it depends a lot on the individual circumstances. Many of the extra costs nuclear faces – especially in Western countries – are due to the additional regulatory hoops they have to jump through. If you think nuclear is “not successful” when it is increasing almost as fast as it’s fossil competitors, then what is one to make of wind/solar, that have yet to make any noticeable impact? Apart from the ‘impact’ of spinning turbine blades on all the wildlife, that is, which seems a bit weird and self-contradictory for so-called “Environmentalists”, (although I can see why certain interests might like all the big government money that would be available, which might be why it’s being pushed by certain political factions, despite the ideological contradictions).

    It depends on your point of view, and I don’t expect you to agree. But if you wanted to know why free market ideologues supported nuclear, why consult with someone like Joe Romm to try to find out, instead of simply asking them? This is very similar to the problems with the above report on climate change. Instead of finding out why sceptics are sceptical by actually, you know, asking them, it instead guesses or assumes their reasons based on a trawl of supposed “debunkings” by ideologically-opposed alarmist sites and churns out some vapid advertising consultancy clichés to try to “sell” the same old product better – instead of producing and selling a better product. Sad.

  20. Jon

    Whatever. As I said if nuclear can do the work, and if the capital costs work out, then fine. For instance, if this technology works out, it could be a lot of the solution:

    I’m not married to the idea of nuclear not working, at all, I just think it’s strange that the GOP is hot for France’s #1, capital-intensive, state-subsidized source of energy. That’s all. And personally, I don’t get sentimental about a few birds caught in spinning rotors. I think you’re working your stereotypes a little too hard. But when culture war is all you got, that’s what you’ll go with.

  21. Nullius in Verba


    That’s fine. I’m agnostic about nuclear-vs-fossil anyway. All I’d say about it is that if you really insist on cutting CO2 right now, then nuclear is a more reasonable option. But that the matter should be decided by (undistorted) economics, not politics.

    Not getting sentimental about birds chopped up in spinning rotors is fair enough, so long as you apply the same principle to birds drenched in oil. Personally, I do take both matters quite seriously on moral grounds, although it’s a cost I’d be prepared to accept for all the considerable benefits of cheap energy for reducing suffering elsewhere. But what I was really commenting on here was the inconsistency of the Environmentalist position in pushing an energy source that, apart from the questionable matter of CO2 emissions, seems to epitomise everything they’re normally against. It is a bit weird.

  22. It’s hopeless to communicate with climate change deniers–I know cause many of them are family members. Any evidence you offer will be dismissed. The temperature isnt rising, if it is the sun is responsible, we thought it was cooling in 1973, it’s cold in NY right now, etc… I just listened to a Podcast from a science writer named Jay Ingram and he basically said it’s the confirmation bias at work here.

    As the political writer James Burnham once said: an argument with an ideologue is a waste of time, unless you happen to share their ideology. What is there to discuss? His own ideology is proof against any evidence you might present.

  23. Jon

    Nullius: But what I was really commenting on here was the inconsistency of the Environmentalist position in pushing an energy source that, apart from the questionable matter of CO2 emissions, seems to epitomise everything they’re normally against.

    The source of your confusion here is the word “they.” Who is “they”? You’re confusedly lumping together everybody from nerdy empirical scientists to granola crunching greenpeace folks, as if they’re all in the same camp. It’s like the habit at the Weekly Standard of saying “the Left”–capitalizing it, treating the word like some sort of totem. When it comes to things you find inconvenient, nothing can be seen outside the context of some sort of assumed ideology (it kind of has the feel of old communist intellectual broadsides, which isn’t be surprising considering a number of people on the right have roots in Marxism). If scientists have a problem with emissions, it must be that they’re part of “the Left”, or they’re “environmentalists.” You evoke and lump people into a stereotype, and then you’re confused when the people don’t live up to it–even though your stereotype was manufactured by ideologues on your own side.

    You’re only confused because you’ve been reading your own press.

  24. sHx

    Quite frankly, Chris Mooney, you or any other CAGW cultist would be among the last people to listen to when it comes to Psychology, Climate Change, or Communication, with all the ‘denialist’ bashing you engaged in at your blog and the MSM.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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