We welcome any recommendations on how to get the message out more effectively, perhaps especially when there is laughter involved:
HOW TO LAUGH AT CLIMATE CHANGEPOSTED BY MICHELLE NIJHUISIn the nineteen-thirties, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke proposed what he called the “comic frame”—the view, he wrote, of “human antics as a comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy.” Tragedy marches inexorably toward the end, but comedy keeps us guessing at our fate. Christina Foust, a communications professor at the University of Denver, points out that climate science, and climate news, is often presented as a tragic apocalypse: a fate foretold. (Earlier this week, the glaciologist Eric Rignot told reporters that a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had thinned past “the point of no return.”) While many climate disasters are undeniably nigh, Foust says that coverage of them could benefit from Burke’s comic framing.
Climate scientists are relative newcomers to the tragic apocalypse. The native tongue of science is generally passive and emotionless, and it’s often reflective of the uncertainty that’s an inherent part of the scientific process. This approach doesn’t translate easily to a general audience—hesitations and hedges are quickly exploited. But, as the data on climate change piles up, the projections are getting closer in time and in space, and, after years in the public arena, climate scientists have become much better at communicating the scary gravity of their findings. As I’ve reported on climate change in the past decade, I’ve heard more and more scientists cast aside superfluous caveats and switch to active verbs. I’ve even heard them talk about their feelings.
A few years ago, psychologists at Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions showed students one of two computer presentations about melting glaciers. The first presentation used statistics and graphs to explain the connection between climate change and ice melt. The second conveyed the same information with pictures and personal stories: testimony from a Tanzanian farmer about the effects of climate change and satellite footage of glacier retreat on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Students who saw the second presentation not only retained more information but also expressed more concern and demonstrated a greater willingness to take action. Climate scientists may still prefer graphs and stats, but they are learning to include an emotional appeal when they present information to the public.
Clarity and immediacy are welcome, but they may not be enough. A half century of psychological research on “fear appeals”— messages that attempt to scare listeners straight—has found that invocations of fear are very good at capturing our attention but not very good at keeping it…
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