As the IEU’s communications intern, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to best disseminate the IEU’s high-quality findings from its evaluations of the Green Climate Fund.
Counter-intuitively, evidence is not enough to drive people to action. Stoknes (2014) shows us why: There are a myriad of psychological biases that stop us from acting on climate change, and in some cases from recognizing it as reality altogether. These cognitive biases help us to “think fast” most of the time, but the consequence is that our thinking is consistently faulty in specific ways (Kahneman, 2011). This prevents us from responding rationally to certain issues. Climate change, an unfathomable prospect that requires us to make sacrifices now for uncertain gains in the future, represents a combination of factors that are exceedingly difficult for our brain to respond to.
It is the task of communicators to minimize these barriers. Unfortunately, this is not yet well understood by communication practitioners. Some communications strategies do the exact opposite of inspiring action, by making people feel further removed from climate change or helpless against it, or by focusing on the sacrifices mitigation requires of us instead of what we might gain from it. For example, most people would feel powerless reading the headline “millions of people on the other side of the world will die from climate change, and the cost of preventing it is insurmountable.” And maybe not just powerless, but worse, disinterested due to hearing too much news about climate change. My IEU colleague, Archi Rastogi, recently argued that climate strikes that do not articulate specific demands are unlikely to lead to meaningful change. The same is true for any messaging meant to inspire action.
Instead, communicators need to be smart about how to present information. Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) have created a fantastic resource. It gives science-based, practical suggestions for climate change communicators. Below are a few key takeaways from CRED about what (not) to do when communicating evidence:
- Do evoke both experiential and analytical processing centres of the brain. You can do this through videos, vivid images, or engaging graphics.
- Do supplement tables and graphs with human impact stories whenever possible. Whereas charts need to be analyzed deliberately, we instantly relate to the experiences of other people.
- Do make your content relatable by connecting it to what matters to your audience (Greco, EESI)
- Do gather intel on what your audience currently thinks of the issue. Audiences often share misunderstandings that can only be corrected if communicators know about them.
- Do translate jargon into terms that are easy to understand for laypeople. CRED has even created a list of the best words to use. For example, the terms upward trend and positive trend mean the same, but the public is likely to misunderstand the latter as a good trend. Similarly, rather than “anthropogenic”, terms like “man-made” or “human-induced” allows the text to be understood by more people without losing meaning.
- If a specific action by people is required, do break it down into small, easily-followed steps.
- Don’t present numerous issues in an urgent manner. People have a finite pool of worry. Increasing the wealth of information about evidence is counterproductive to spurring people to action (Stoknes, 2014). Instead, improve the quality of information and present it well.
- Don’t send politically polarizing messages that align the issue of climate change with a particular social group.
- Don’t frame the issue in a context that creates negative associations – Rather than focusing on the hardship of responding to climate change, focus on its benefits. (CRED).
What is the IEU doing?
The IEU is not just in the business of producing evidence – we are also very much in the business of communicating it.
As communicators, rather than simply relaying the evidence, we need to deliver information in ways that are engaging and relevant while remembering people are limited in the time they can spend on our knowledge products.
We don’t just produce 100+ page evaluation reports laden with scientific language. We also write summaries and briefs and deliver presentations about our reports. Examples include 2-page GEvalNotes and 4-page GEvalbriefs that give readers an approachable, quick overview of our findings and evidence. At global events, the IEU regularly holds seminars and workshops where people can learn more about the IEU’s work. We also create evidence trees – graphical representations that trace how evaluations methodically progress from questions to findings to recommendations.
For our Country Ownership Evaluation, we tried something new: We created a video where the authors of the evaluation share their key takeaways and a few anecdotes on what the process was like.
There is always a risk of making mistakes when communicating evidence. However, there are also plenty of research findings that can help us avoid them. We now know, for example, that people get emotionally numbed by having too much urgent information thrown at them. We can respond by selecting just a few issues to communicate about at a time. We also know that balancing emotional and analytical appeals leaves a more memorable impression.
We know that research and investments are not enough to solve problems like climate change, and we know that behaviour change through nudging is one path worth exploring. For this reason, the IEU hosts a Behavior and Design Lab (BaDLab), whose most recent award-winning paper used Green Climate Fund projects to showcase how behavioral insights can contribute to climate action on the ground. It is up to communicators to listen to research like theirs because it has the potential to benefit our work immensely.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog. Drop us a note via Twitter at @GCF_Eval using the hashtag #IEUinthenews or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post first appeared in the May 7th edition of the Korea Times.
Greco, CJ: “What’s Wrong with the Way We Communicate Climate Change?” EESI, 2019. https://www.eesi.org/articles/view/whats-wrong-with-the-way-we-communicate-climate-change
Kahneman, Daniel: “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 2011.
Stoknes, Per Espen: “Rethinking climate communications and the “psychological climate paradox.” Energy Research & Social Science, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2014.03.007
“The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” Columbia University.