The Scream by Munch
Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’ captures how some might feel upon hearing about climate change risks. (Image credit: Wikimedia – cropped)

About 20 years ago, while presenting the science of climate change to a large public group, I stopped in the middle of my talk. Up until this time, my presentations had been filled with 50 minutes of scientific information. However, during my graduate work in psychology, I had become more attuned to the importance of affect in how we engage with our environment. By psychological “affect,” I’m talking here about how we as humans respond – how our feelings and emotions respond – to various stimuli, in this case learning about the risks we face in a warming climate.

So I decided to change how I was presenting the material. I asked the audience how they were feeling after listening to what I had just said. What followed dramatically changed the way I’ve since worked with communicating climate change. There was complete silence in the very large auditorium, and then a woman way in the back of the room slowly raised her hand and said, “I feel completely helpless!”

After she had stated her feelings, a large number of hands shot up in the air with people stating, “I feel hopeless,” “I feel angry,” “I feel guilty,” “I completely spaced out,” and “I feel motivated!”

”‘It Click To Tweet

I waited quietly for people to express how they were feeling in the moment. If people said just what they were “thinking,” I would encourage them to speak also about what they were feeling. We did not analyze their feelings, nor did we try to work with their feelings; I simply encouraged everyone to just sit with what was arising in the moment. It is also important to note that I invited people into a conversation, rather than lecturing them on the facts of climate change. The invitation to a conversation provides an opening for connection that pure lecturing does not.

We listened to one another for 20 minutes, and then I concluded with comments on ways to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

‘Textbook indicators of trauma’

I still use this approach in making public talks on climate change. Over the years, I have received overwhelmingly positive responses. People come up after presentations and say that they had never publicly shared their feelings about climate change. They are thankful for the opportunity. They say that although they haven’t solved the problem, they feel more motivated to do something about it.

Psychologically, asking people to share their feeling responses to climate change information allows them to more comprehensively work with very disturbing information. It is not just about the facts of climate change, but also how we feel about those facts. Make no mistake, climate change is a very disturbing reality for people to take in and hold. Not surprisingly, many of the feeling responses are textbook indicators of trauma. Physical and/or emotional trauma evokes feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger, fear, and dissociation, as in “I completely spaced out when you were talking about what is happening.”

These reactions are normal

Based on the trauma dimension of climate change, I now add one more piece to my presentations. After the sharing of feelings, I explain how normal their responses are, having just been presented very traumatic information. This normalizing process makes people aware they are not “odd,” which also helps them face climate change, rather than run away from it.

So how does this tie in to the question of working with polarization? Remember that those who are identified more with the “individualists” group are more concerned with safety and protecting those closest to them. So, they are more likely to be activated by the traumatic news of climate change, and their first response may well be to deny its existence.

When speaking to “individualists,” we need to account for this inherent tendency. The information we provide needs to account for their potential reactions. All of this involves how the message is “framed,” but I am by no means claiming that framing alone will solve all climate communication issues. But framing does need to be a part of our communication toolkit. We can modulate the affect response through messaging, so why not include it in our methods of communication?

Re-examine your preconceptions

Several years ago. I was contacted by a leader of a very large conservative lobby group. This individual wanted to speak to me about climate change, and we agreed to meet.

I wasn’t sure what our discussion would involve, and I was predisposed to think we would have little in common. What could I say, given the group as a whole didn’t believe in climate change?

A few weeks later, the group leader visited and immediately opened our conversation by stating she completely accepted the science of climate change. What she wanted to talk about was how she could get her constituency more involved with the issue of climate change. I sat with her quietly for a while and then spontaneously said, “Tell me, what is it that your constituents value the most?” She immediately answered, “Oh, we are all about family values!” What unfolded throughout the rest of the discussion was an exploration of climate change as a family values issue.

I want to first point out that my preconception of this visitor was completely wrong concerning her position on climate change. So, the first lesson is to look at your preconceptions about others before engaging with them. For example, if someone isn’t a part of your particular sub-group, for instance “egalitarians,” your preconceptions may get in the way of connecting with that person or group. So it is essential that we work with our preconceived notions or imaginings about others, and it’s really important that people spend time doing this before actually engaging with the “other.” There are practical, clinically based, ways to do this with individuals and groups, and those can be researched.

A second lesson I learned from this experience is how important it is to understand what people value in life. The point here involves not just abstract value systems, but what a person actually values in every-day life. Knowing this helps tremendously in working to counter polarization.

These lessons are best practiced with people who are curious enough to listen just a little bit to the “other.” Some people or groups can be so locked in to their belief system that they will be very difficult to reach. The good news from recent public opinion surveys is that a significant and increasing percentage of the population is interested enough to engage in a meaningful conversation around climate change.

Jeffrey Kiehl, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Department of Earth & Planetary Science, and an adjunct faculty member of Pacifica Graduate Institute,...