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Can We Break the Spiral of Silence on Climate Change?

There's only one way to find out: Talk about it.

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

What can ordinary people do to combat the extraordinary problem of climate change? Talk, and keep on talking. Yet, that’s a step some of us are reluctant to take.

According to a report by the Yale Program on Climate Change, 69 percent of respondents in the United States believe global warming is happening, and 56 percent are worried about it. But fewer than a third of those ever talk about it to family or friends. Why not? Often because nobody else is talking about it.

The Spiral of Silence

Researchers call this the spiral of silence, a term coined by researcher Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann to explain why Germans did not talk about the rise of Hitler and his related atrocities before and during World War II. They echoed the silence around them. Meanwhile, those in support of the Third Reich spoke loud and clear. In so doing, they controlled the discussion, no matter how many people might have disagreed with their opinions. Because the pro-Hitler voices were heard most, they were accepted as public opinion. Early in Hitler's rise to power, when talking could have done the most to change history, those who broke the silence were faced with social isolation. Later, of course, breaking the silence could be deadly.

This has clear application in our current political climate, although fortunately the risks of speaking out don't include concentration camps. Those who talk loudest now deny climate change, or at least the human involvement in it, calling it a natural progression of eon’s old environmental change. This makes it appear that climate change denial is a more popular sentiment than climate change acceptance. It is not. According to the Yale program, only 34 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. deny the role of humans in global warming. Yet, those who have both the science and public opinion on their side remain astonishingly quiet.

We generally avoid the discussion out of discomfort, especially if we know we’re talking to somebody with different political views. Plus, science can be daunting and we’re unsure of our mastery it. Also, we’re too well-behaved for our own goods—we don't want to be the boring know-it-all nor do we want to ruin another family dinner.

So how do we break this spiral? Simply put: Talk. Here's how.

Finding the Right Frame

Rose Hendricks, writing for The Climate Reality Project, suggests framing the topic according to issues we all care about: hiking, farming, the quiet and beauty of nature. Show what we’re seeking to preserve. Climate change sounds scientific and political. Loving nature does not.

She also recommends using metaphors. Interestingly, talking about a war against climate change resonated with participants in one study, while calling it a race against climate change did not. Why? She writes:

[W]hen we encounter war metaphors, we are reminded (though not always consciously) of other war-related concepts like death, destruction, opposition and struggle. These concepts affect our emotions and remind us of the negative feelings and consequences of defeat. With those war-related thoughts in mind, we may be motivated to avoid losing. If we have these war thoughts swimming around in our minds when we think about global warming, we’re more likely to believe it’s important to defeat the opponent, which, in this case, is global warming.

Tailor Your Message

In addition, Hendricks writes, conservatives are most convinced if we talk about the past, while liberals are motivated by both past- and future-based messages. Show conservatives images of disappearing lakes or forests, and you might convince them. Talk about threats to the future, and you’ll likely get nowhere.

People respond to emotional messages in unique ways based on their personal experience and knowledge, write Daniel Chapman, Brian Lickel, and Ezra Markowitz, psychological and environmental researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in Nature Climate Change: "Emotions should be viewed as one element of a broader, authentic communication strategy rather than as a magic bullet designed to trigger one response or another."

Different messages resonate with different audiences, so know your audience and what it wants and needs. Your nephew the farmer may be swayed by arguments based on crop yields whereas your urban sister-in-law wants her hiking trails protected.

Emotions Versus Facts

Other researchers say to forget emotions and focus on scientific fact. Because people want to adhere to social norms, the best way to reach them is to explain that the scientific norm supports human-caused climate change, says Sander van der Linden, a University of Cambridge psychologist,

Van der Linden and his colleagues tried this out on two different groups. Half were given a message with a descriptive norm, such as, “97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening.” The others received emotional appeals. The group with the factual message showed the greatest change. Facts convinced them. Explaining their research in Nature Human Behavior, they write that "both liberals and conservatives updated their beliefs in line with the scientific norm," although conservatives changed their attitudes more than liberals, perhaps because they had more to change.

Research at Yale reinforces this: 70 percent of respondents say they trust scientists about global warming.

Talk, Repeat, Talk

Journalist David Roberts is skeptical that we know much of anything about how to communicate climate change. But, he says, saying it repeatedly is essential. “Any effective response will fade without reinforcement,” he writes. “It is not cleverness that matters most in communication, but repetition.”

Emotional experiences and messages need to be repeated over and over again before they stick. Which is, pretty much what we are not doing. The International Collective on the Environment, Culture and Politics tracks the coverage of climate change by newspapers in the United States. In August 2017, when much of the American West was burning, a scant 5 percent of all articles in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today were on climate change or global warming. In February 2018, coverage actually dropped from the same month a year ago.

Media Matters reports that in 2016, evening news shows on the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News Sunday) reduced their climate change coverage by 66 percent from the previous year. This was a campaign year, yet an issue that should have been an essential part of the discussion was ignored.

And climate change was virtually ignored in the presidential debates of 2016, with only five minutes and 27 seconds, or 2 percent of the total time, given to the topic. Not one climate-related question was asked by the moderators.

That leaves ordinary citizens to break the silence and maintain the discussion, Roberts says.

Will any of it resonate? Will it, in part or collectively, inspire any democratic action? Hell if I know. Hell if you know. It’s a big story, though, and we need lots more people telling it.


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