Climate Risk Communication: TreeHugging Amidst The Outrage Industries

We shouldn't do anything about climate change until we can stop those nasty crocs from eating people. Or, seemingly tackle all the other high "relative risks" first if we listen to the Generation II climate risk deniers.

So fun to see Lloyd's post of yesterday where Bjorn 'The Bear' Lomborg compared the risk of climate change to the risk of malaria and inferred we needed to conquer malaria first. Not only did he wither under the relentless wit of Steven Colbert; he seems to have missed out on the basic principles of risk communication. Risk communication was heavily researched starting in the 1980's, and a few basics are paraphrased below in a tongue-in-cheek manner - not that we can lay a tooth on the inimitable Colbert.

Here's a decent overview site with reference links on risk communication. For environmental issues, climate in particular, we strongly recommend this site where Dr. Peter Sandman discusses Precaution Advocacy (High Hazard, Low Outrage). Sandman is the person who famously coined the equation: Risk = Hazard X Outrage. For anyone interested in how to communicate climate risk for political advocacy purposes, his work is essential.Aren't these the main climate risk communication frustrations we all share?

= false balance in reporting on climate science (giving professional skeptics equal time to actual peer reviewed scientists);

= politicians who claim that preventing climate catastrophe will cause economic collapse (like US Senator, Kit Bond did earlier this week);

= purity trolls for whom no positive step is ever enough;

= corporate greenwashing;

= nations of the world finger pointing over who should shoulder the main responsibility to get started with mandatory carbon emission reductions

.

If you agree -- and these are all communication issues of course-- we suggest you stop here for a moment and scan the Sandman essay "The Outrage Industries: The Role of Journalists and Activists in Risk Controversies." It may change your outlook on how to overcome these frustrations.

Here are a few of the most basic of risk communication "Rules" we mentioned before.

The "Abstractions Rule":comparing a computer model-described abstraction like climate to malaria (which no longer occurs in the US) doesn't grab attention and certainly won't make a lasting impression. This favorite Lomborg comparison. climate vs malaria, is particularly confusing because while malaria requires a strong streak of altruism to get focused on, something that seemingly few individuals cultivate in America, climate change will affect everyone, yet is principally a future concern. Putting these two together makes it especially hard for people remember and act on a coherent message. While Lomborg's contrast may be impressive to a public health official at the UN, for example, we doubt he picked the right comparison for a guy on his couch laughing at Colbert's antics.

The "Whodunnit Rule": People view and react to involuntary risk (danger imposed by others) entirely differently than they do voluntary risks (danger from personal hobbies or stupid behaviors). See the Darwin Awards for iconic and possibly mythological examples of what happens to those who are blindly accepting of voluntary risk.

Because of the Whodunnit Rule, the involuntary risks created by carbon emissions of China or transnational corporations are far less acceptable to an individual than the emissions from driving one's own SUV, or from living in a MegaMansion and regularly flying in a charter jet.

Whodunnit Corollary: 'carbon offsetting is acceptable for me, but not for hardly anyone else outside my circle of friends, and especially not for celebrities. Because they might do something wrong. But I don't because I understand it fully.'

Whodonnit is why we as individuals can laugh at those "other people" given a "Darwin", while we ignore our collective descent into an evolutionary graveyard of climate catastrophe.

Everyman holds forth: 'Because I am clever and skillful, driving without a seatbelt is only dangerous to those other people who are less clever and skillful than me. I can even leave my chain saw running while climbing the tree.' Or go swimming in a croc infested river. Or buy a Hummer.

The "List Rule": comparing the dangers of involuntary and voluntary risks by putting them in the same list, often with impact ranked by severity or frequency, is a turn off. Sure to lose the audience.

Read Sandman if you want some techniques on how to get people to build up some outrage where it's needed and become willing change agents. He's covered that territory as well. The importance of these techniques can not be understated. Lloyd hit on some of them in is recent post on Small Steps. Grist people...we'd like you to meet Dr. Sandman.

Image credit::Never Yet Melted, Hand In Crock

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