Climate Change Risk Communication: Apathy or Denial?

I came across this online publication by Peter M. Sandman, psychologist and communication specialist, which mildly raised my (apathetic) eyebrow after weeks of following an exasperatingly dull ‘communication campaign’ in the blogosphere on whether the climate change debate is dead in the aftermath of Copenhagen 2009 and this winter’s record low temperatures.

That the debate is dead is an extraordinary fanciful statement on the part of skeptics who, ironically, are the ones kindling it in the first place. What seems evident, however, is that both the skeptics and the activists in this field are in desperate need of reinventing their vocabulary.

In this light, Mr. Sandman’s article is well worth reading, even if I don’t buy his “denial” theory. His basic argument is that an effective communication campaign should distinguish between an apathetic audience and an audience that is said to be, in the parlance of psychology, in denial. Writes Sandman: “By ‘global warming denial’ I don’t mean the claims of people who aren’t upset about climate change and aggressively insist that it isn’t real or isn’t serious. I’m focusing on people so upset (or hopeless) about climate change they can’t bear to think about it: people “in denial,” not “deniers.” Who are these people, Mr. Sandman? A few concrete examples will suffice.

The gist of the argument is that advocacy, based on the precautionary principle is lost on the poor people in denial. They need a stronger and bitterer medicine, namely “crisis communication”: “Precaution advocacy is designed for audiences whose outrage is too low. But the outrage of people who are in or near denial isn’t too low; it’s so high they’re having trouble bearing it. The correct risk communication paradigm for them isn’t precaution advocacy; it is crisis communication”.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think (and smile) of Mencken’s aphorism that democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and they deserve to get it good and hard.

It’s not the arrogance of Mr. Sandman that bothers, rather his patronizingly prescriptive sales pitch. If only he could just be satisfied with offering a diagnosis!

All that said, if you can suffer through having your opinion about climate change psychoanalyzed, the article links to a host of resources on risk communication (in and outside the context of climate change) that could be of interest to both activists and skeptics. Depending on whether one is interested in an offensive or defensive (communication) strategy, it is a resource full of tips on how to encode the message as well as how to decode it, should one be of a more paranoid disposition. My personal approach is precautionary.


2 Responses

  1. I study and write about risk perception and risk communication, and have talked with Peter about his lengthy article. I disagree with his denialist “It’s so bad we can’t do anything about it so I won’t pay attention” perspective. Based on a deeper consideration of what we know about risk perception psychology, I have offered some thoughts on the challenge of communicating about climate change, at
    This was also the topic of a discussion on the Dot Earth blog of Andy Revkin and the New York Times, August 4 2008

    More broadly, the topic of our two blogs seems similar at least by title, though yours seems more wide ranging. I’m just beginning to look for blogs similar to mine to post on my site, and wonder if you could email me a bit about what you think the overall mission or goal of your blog is.


    David Ropeik

  2. The question you pose in your blog post is very pertinent, and it seems to me to be the root of the communication challenge: how to make an issue of a global scope relevant and meaningful at the local level. I don’t have an answer to this question but am nonetheless interested in the debate. I’m also interested in the topic from a purely linguistic (lexical and semantic) perspective.

    Re: the overall mission of my blog – I don’t have a mission. I started this blog as part of a training I did in intelligence analysis. I’m interested in security risk from a broad perspective, hence I write about whatever happens to cross my mind or my bookshelf that could be in any way threaded into the topic of risk. More recently, I’ve been involved in a professional-academic program on natural hazards management, which has evoked my interest in the climate debate.

    Best regards,
    Linda Popova

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