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Climate change is a communication problem!


Scientists on climate change are doing their job adequately. However, science-based facts are far from being sufficient and transformative in terms of conveying the issue to large masses. Now is the time for communicators to step in.

If we say, communications is the ability to direct/transform consumer behaviors and create needs/motivation through the right insights, this skill needs to be put into action for the fight against climate change, especially for the transformation into eco-consumption practices. On the other hand, preventing the use of this power on the ‘dark’ side (greenwashing) is also important in terms of integrity and morality.

Fossil industry triggered environmental, social and economic problems

The fossil fuel industry, which started with the industrial revolution has grown stronger until today. And the consumption models it brings, have now triggered environmental, social and economic problems that threaten the future of humanity. Human-based production, consumption and life practices are at the center of the sustainability discussions that are shaped around the axis of climate change and global warming.

Today, our consumption practices are the main source of the climate change problem. Marketing has a very powerful effect on quickly aging a new product, immediately producing a new and better version, and creating a need for it in the consumer. 80% of our garbage consists of items that are used only once. Plastic is gushing everywhere. Every day in the world, millions of goods of all kinds take their place among thousands of tons of ‘waste’ that the world needs to sort out, before they can even be put on the shelf.

The main players of the fossil fuel industry (fuel companies, for example) use communication very effectively to maintain this consumption inertia. Even if they accept the issue of climate change, they do not hesitate to say that they will increase production. In the last three decades, the five major oil companies have invested $3.6 billion in communications to have a ‘green’ company image that does not match their overall impact to the world.

Climate change is an abstract but highly emotional issue

While 15 years ago, these concepts were defined only in terms of poor polar bears, melting glaciers, that is, environmental sensitivity. Today it has become clear that the issue is a vital situation that concerns everyone. Now, rather than the polar bear, the symbol of climate change leaves its mark as the extraordinary weather conditions that appear all over the world and affect millions, and the extreme situations (floods, drought, fires, storms, etc.) created by this. However, these typical images of climate change can cause people to be perceived as very distant threats, thus triggering defense mechanisms that actually prevent the issue from being assimilated.

A defense mechanism protects a person from unwanted or painful ideas or emotions. It is a way for your brain to protect you from emotions and thoughts that are difficult to deal with. However, if defense mechanisms distort reality and thus allow you to avoid emotions, this prevents you from confronting your emotions, including climate change.

Climate change is an abstract and science-based issue. It is complex and multi-layered. Therefore, it is very rational at first glance, it is a real situation that threatens humanity and the future. However, the human mind finds it difficult to accept this reality, which will cause anxiety. Science is perceived as rational and detached from emotions. It’s actually the opposite. Emotions are a much needed source of insight into the moral impact of climate change, such as good and right decision making. In this respect, it supports science.

The issue of climate change can create emotional paradoxes. On the one hand, it causes upset and worry about the disasters caused by extraordinary weather conditions, on the other hand, it may trigger a defense mechanism such as not knowing what to do about it or seeing the issue beyond its own dimension and completely denying responsibility. Therefore, just like a newly diagnosed cancer patient, the individual himself goes through different emotional states regarding these issues.

In her book ‘Communicating the Climate Crisis’, Julia B. Corbett defines this situation very solid as eco-mourning stages and exemplifies Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief:

  • Denial (Climate change is a lie.)
  • Anger (The reason is greedy states, oil companies, capitalist order.) 
  • Bargaining (Okay, I’ll live more eco-prudently. But, is it enough?) 
  • Depression (The subject is too big for me. There is nothing I can do.) 
  • Acceptance (Climate change is real. It will have consequences for me and my children.)

These stages are not necessarily linear, and a person may oscillate between them. Acceptance is acknowledging that climate change is an enduring reality in both personal and professional life.

Climate change is -now- a communication issue.

Communication is critical for the internalization of climate change. Communication experts can help create ways to articulate, name, process feelings about climate change and integrate them into everyday life. It can provide the collective awareness and consciousness needed for individual, social and political transformation and trigger action. It can present the frightening reality of science to people by packaging it with insight to bypass their defense mechanisms.

The power of communication should no longer be used for manipulation (greenwashing), but for truly transformative action. Of course, it would be effective not only on the masses, but also on policy makers via inviting, inclusive and embodying emotion, purpose and meaning both context and content-wise.

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