13 June 2013

Emotional responses may open up common ground between people with different views on climate change, communication consultant says

Posted by Michael McFadden

By Mary Catherine Adams

The evidence for climate change and its immediate and future impacts can make people feel threatened and emotional. But arousing emotion also offers an opportunity for connection, communications consultant Karen Raucher told scientists and others at a conference this week devoted to climate science communication.

“When you are threatened,” said Raucher, of Stratus Consulting, Inc., an environmental research and consulting group based in Boulder, Colo., “it moves the discussion from the frontal lobe to the back of the brain, which is more primal.” People respond with stress and emotion and the brain is crowded with “mental noise,” she said.

Climate-change evidence may feel threatening, arousing emotional reactions a little like a hostile hippo might stir up, a communications consultant said. Photo Credit: Flickr user @Doug88888

Imagine being chased by a hippopotamus, Raucher added. You, as a human, are designed to run, not to stop and think about the statistics of hippopotamus attacks. The climate change discussion can be much the same.

Effective climate science communicators must anticipate and practice facing those emotional exchanges to overcome the noise both in their heads and in the heads of their audiences. But, it’s in those emotional moments, in particular, when communicators need to listen for issues that both they and their audience care about – for instance, a safe and abundant water supply.

When you find an issue that you can connect over, don’t hesitate to show your own feelings, Raucher advised. Let your audience know that you care about the issue too, stating with conviction why you think climate change bears on that issue and what the actual and  potential impacts are. And, provide documentation to support your statements –- preferably, at least three different resources –- coming from sources that are authoritative for the audience you’re addressing.

“Choose your resources so that they resonate with your audience,” Raucher said.

If speaking with a church group, for example, scientists can point their audience to the World Council of Churches or the Catholic Climate Covenant, both of which have statements on climate change.

“You want to replace that emotional reaction both in yourself and in the person you’re communicating with and go back to that reasoned discourse,” Raucher said.

“The most important thing you will ever do as a communicator is understand your audience,” she added. Get to know them. Listen. Have a genuine interest in what they say.

She ended by reminding climate scientists to be prepared, anticipating the difficult conversations and practicing using emotional responses to create connections.

Raucher spoke Monday at the AGU Chapman Conference on ‘Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future’ in Granby, Colo.

— Mary Catherine Adams is a public information specialist at AGU. She blogged from the Chapman Conference in Granby, Colorado.