Last Thursday evening the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted its annual climate lecture on “Communicating climate change – why so difficult?”, delivered by Prof. Chris Rapley, climate scientist at University College London, who spoke for about an hour to a packed room.
The lecture was introduced by Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA, who explained the role of the EPA in supporting the national dialogue on climate action, creating awareness, engagement and motivation to act. She said that the aim of the annual public lecture is to “engage a wider public dialogue on the issue of climate change”, suggesting that “the gap between science and society can lead to a disconnect between evidence and action”.
Chris Rapley spent the early part of his lecture presenting basic climate science, explaining how “humans have upset the energy balance of the planet”, causing “a change in the metabolism of the planet”. He used this graphic to illustrate the change in the average temperature of the planet between 1850 and 2017. He also highlighted that the small overall change has a big impact on hot and cold extremes e.g. as reflected in the temperature of 53.7C recorded in Ahvaz in Iran earlier this year. Prof. Rapley also showed a satelite graphic of the polar ice caps, stressing that we need to realise that “this distant place is connected to you and me in ways that are very poorly understood”. He summarised the impact of climate change as a “cascade of consequences of upsetting the energy balance of the planet”, as summarised in the slide below.
Prof. Rapley also spoke of his belief in human ingenuity, citing green technology and the reducing cost of renewable energy, a technological optimism consistent with ecological modernisation theory. He also spoke of his work with Shell’s scenario planning team, taking us through the graph below. He suggested that rather than the crash abatement program represented by the red line, we need a much more ambitious plan now, represented by the blue line.
The later part of the lecture looked at issues around communicating climate change. He suggested that it is a very difficult problem for us to deal with as it induces fear and anxiety, and “evolution left us incapable of dealing with it”.
Prof. Rapley argued that what we feel when we hear about climate change causes cognitive dissonance, and scientists have not thought through this emotional aspect, so we find ways to deny it. He stated that “the issue is a threat to the neoliberal belief system because it requires collective action, regulation and government interference in your freedom, anathema to neoliberals”. He suggested that individuals of a “more communalist” view will see climate change as a threat, and stressed the need to recognise the emotional and ideological aspects of climate change.
Prof. Rapley went on to explore the psychology behind climate change denial, drawing on the work of Kahneman, as seen in the slide above. He explained that 90% of our brain activity is unconscious, and we make sense of the world around us through automatic perceptions and associations. We respond to the reptilian brain, to emotion, and “we are much less rational than we think”. He also stressed that “we cluster with people who have similar views and values to our own, and tend to see the other side as the enemy”. He stated that “human beings are very tribal”, and like to go into an echo chamber where they reinforce their views.
Prof. Rapley finished by offering some advice on how to communicate climate change in creative ways. He explained that scientists use ‘information deficit’ mode to communicate, offering facts and evidence and trying to remove passion and emotion, but that this doesn’t happen outside the world of academia. He argued that people make sense of the world through storytelling, and that this is “the compelling way we engage the rest of humanity in making sense of the complex issues in the world around us”. He characterised effective storytelling as:
Prof Rapley spoke of his experience in creating and performing in the play “2071“, which allowed him to deliver climate science in the informed expert mode, but in a different way. He suggested that this allowed the audience to engage in the emotional and ideological issues in a safe space. His parting message was that we must find a way of engaging people with the story of climate change but leaving them with hope. He believes that working with professionals in the arts community, and finding the fusion of skills in art and science can help us to deliver the message in a “hopeful but realistic way”.