• Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. Know Your Audience
  • 2. Get Your Audience's Attention
  • 3. Translate Scientific Data Into Concrete Experience
  • 4. Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals
  • 5. Address Scientific and Climate Uncertainties
  • 6. Tap Into Social Identities and Affiliations
  • 7. Encourage Group Participation
  • 8. Make Behavior Change Easier
  • Conclusion
  • The Principles of Climate Change Communication In Brief
  • Download the Guide as a PDF
  • Request a Paper Copy
Explore More: Section 3

Coming soon.

3. Translate Scientific Data
Into Concrete Experience

The famous “Keeling curve” graph, below, which shows the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere from 1958 to 2006, set off alarms in the scientific community that continue to ring loudly today. Yet somehow, this same graph does not communicate the immediacy of the climate change problem to lay audiences. Instead, it may actually convey the message that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has been taking place over a long period, thereby erroneously implying that climate change is not an urgent issue.


Similarly, many people have difficulty grasping the importance of projections of higher carbon dioxide concentrations and surface temperatures several decades from now. Part of the problem may be the tendency to discount future events, as described in Section 2. But another part of the problem may be that a global average surface temperature increase of a few degrees does not seem like much to the general public, given the variability in temperature that most people experience on a regular basis.

But a few degrees do matter. As the 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found, numerous effects of climate change are already observable throughout the earth system, and these impacts are likely to grow in coming years.28 Yet polls taken during the past several years continue to show Americans ranking climate change near the bottom of their list of concerns or policy priorities.29 Clearly attempts to convey the immediacy of the climate challenge have fallen short of translating climate change into a near-term (as well as a long-term) danger on par with other imminent societal and personal threats.

Why the “Keeling Curve” Alone
Doesn’t Motivate Behavior Change

Many of the highly publicized graphs and charts showing global climate change data pose a problem for communicators because they fail to inspire a sense of urgency in many audiences. They do not help convey the deep concern scientists have that efforts to abate and adapt to climate change are a near-term necessity if humanity is to avert the worst effects. Despite making this point with increasing frequency and stronger data, the general public shows little concern.

present vs. future danger
Ian Webster

Even when people understand the Keeling Curve, it does not always motivate them to take action. The reason for this disconnect may lie in how the brain works, which climate change communicators need to understand to create truly powerful messages that will inspire action.

How the Brain Processes Information

The human mind is not designed to immediately react to threats that seem to manifest themselves in the distant future, such as climate change. Distant risks do not set off the same alarms that immediate risks do. Human brains struggle to balance long-range worries with the demands of more immediate concerns.30

More specifically, the human brain has two different processing systems: the experiential processing system, which controls survival behavior and is the source of emotions and instincts (e.g., feeding, fighting, fleeing); and the analytical processing system, which controls analysis of scientific information. Table 2 highlights the key differences between these two systems.

Speak to the Two Parts of the Brain:
How to Make Analytic Data Memorable and Impactful

Traditional statistical presentations of climate change data rarely instill the sense that it is an immediate challenge as well as a future one; that there is a narrow window of opportunity within which effective action can avert potentially devastating future consequences. Many audiences leave such analytically focused presentations with a higher awareness that climate change is happening, but without the matching higher motivation to do anything about it.

blackboard vs window
Ian Webster

Despite evidence from the social sciences that the experiential processing system is the stronger motivator for action, most climate change communication remains geared toward the analytical processing system. Personal or anecdotal accounts of negative climate change experiences, which could easily outweigh statistical evidence, are rarely put into play, despite evidence that even a stranger’s past experiences can evoke strong feelings in people, making such communications memorable and therefore dominant in processing.32

Yet not all communication about climate change should be emotional, as there are downsides to bypassing analytical reasoning to make an appeal only to the experiential system (Section 4 will address these climate change communication pitfalls).

The most effective communication targets both processing systems of the human brain. Communicators should make use of the following experiential tools in addition to the more common analytical ones when creating presentations on climate change:

• Vivid imagery, in the form of film footage, metaphors, personal accounts, real-world analogies, and concrete comparisons;

• Messages designed to create, recall, and highlight relevant personal experience and to elicit an emotional response.

Analytic products (such as trend analyses, forecast probabilities, and ranges of uncertainty) help people absorb facts and can be valuable tools when people need to make big decisions, but they alone will not compel people to take effective steps to address the climate change challenge, as the example above illustrates.

The example below shows how information balanced with both analytic and experiential materials may be more likely to have an effect on attitudes and behavior, creating a desire in people to act on their new knowledge.

Use Understandable Language

Another possible reason for the public’s lack of responsiveness to climate change messages may be caused by low comprehension of or interest in communications laden with scientific language. When talking to the general public, research shows that communicators should, whenever possible, avoid using jargon, complicated scientific terms, and acronyms. Instead, use words that will make sense to the audience.

Table 3 below contains words or phrases that are commonly used when discussing climate change and alternative words that get the same idea across more simply.

Sometimes only a scientific term is sufficient for getting a point across. In that case, it is important to thoroughly define the term for the audience. Communicators should remember, however, that stringing together too many scientific terms and acronyms may cause the audience to spend their time and mental energy deciphering vocabulary instead of absorbing the overall point.

28 Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report: Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Core Writing Team. Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (Eds.) IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland.

29 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2009. [Can be found here.]

30 Chaiken, S., Trope, Y. (1999). Dual Process Theories in Social Psychology. New York: Guilford Publications.

Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist, 49, 709–724.

Marx, S.M. et al. (2007) Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information. Global Environmental Change, 17(1), 47-58. [Can be found here.]

Sloman, S.A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 1 (119), 3–22.

Weber, E. U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77(1-2), 103-120. [Can be found here.]

31 Chaiken, S., Trope, Y. (1999). Dual Process Theories in Social Psychology. New York: Guilford Publications.

Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist, 49, 709–724.

Marx, S.M. et al. (2007) Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information. Global Environmental Change, 17(1), 47-58. [Can be found here.]

Sloman, S.A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 1 (119), 3–22.

32 Loewenstein, G., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K. (2001). Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin, 127 (2), 267–286.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., et al. (2002). The affect heuristic. In: Gilovich, D.G.T., Kahneman, D. (Eds.), Intuitive Judgment: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press, New York.

33 Marx, S., Shome D., Weber, E.U. (2006). Analytic vs. Experiential Processing Exemplified through Glacial Retreat Education Module. Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. [The Glacial Retreat Education Module can be found here.]