The science of persuasive climate communication

The science of persuasive climate communication
Nov 3, 2021

At COP26 in Glasgow, world leaders will have an opportunity to share what actions they are taking to address climate change. The EU and other European countries have made cutting carbon emissions and minimizing climate change's impacts key priorities.

Many European governments recognize how vital it is to engage the public as part of their strategies to address climate change. We are leading the implementation of the European Climate Pact, which is using social mobilization to bring together people, industry, civil society, and public agencies to trigger tangible climate actions.

We also partnered with the Communication and Organizing for Sustainability Transformations (COAST) Chair at Montpellier Business School to conduct in-depth communication science research that explores the new trends, barriers, and challenges in climate communication. Our recently released climate communication report offers guidance to European governments on how to have the greatest impact with stakeholder engagement campaigns around climate action.

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We sat down with Elena Linczenyiova, deputy director of the ICF Climate Center, to explore some of the most interesting findings from the report:

ICF: In the era of COVID-19, we’ve heard a lot about “social contagion” in terms of how a pandemic spreads. But in the context of climate communication, social contagion is a good thing. Can you explain what we mean by that term?

Elena Linczenyiova:Yes, isn’t it interesting how the language is very similar? In this case, we’re not talking about germs or a virus, but about spreading ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. This concept of social contagion is actually rooted in evolutionary psychology. Humans are social creatures so the idea of imitation and conformity is inherent in all of us.

Our research shows that the more people adopt a new behavior that is visible to others, the more likely additional changes will occur. Humans tend to imitate others’ behavior—adopting behaviors they see around them—as they seek to be socially accepted. When emulation of others’ behavior at the individual level spreads at a societal level, this becomes social contagion.

Governments should encourage citizens to become “role models of climate action” by making their activities more “behaviorally visible.” For example, a person riding a bicycle to work is also contributing to the spread of this action by modeling low carbon behavior, which can motivate others who observe them to do the same. This includes sharing climate change information, online or in person, or engaging in other visible behavior like installing solar panels.

ICF: In talking about climate change, the phrase “tipping point” usually refers to when global temperatures rise beyond the point of no return, leading to irreversible impacts. Why is the tipping point a positive goal in climate communication?  

Elena Linczenyiova: How does a norm become a norm? Because the actions of enough people reach a tipping point to make it accepted as such. As people increasingly engage in climate-friendly behaviors, we reach a social tipping point that makes climate action the new social norm. What’s really interesting is that our research suggests a pretty low threshold for reaching that social tipping point: it requires only somewhere between 15%–18% of the target population before we see an exponential increase in adoption.

It’s important to recognize that this is how social contagion empowers individuals to create large-scale societal change. Small actions that can be implemented in everyday routines are important. But it’s exponentially more powerful to encourage sharing of pro-environmental behaviors in order to reach social tipping points and create long-lasting behavioral change. Given the importance of behavioral visibility, governments should encourage people to engage in sharing their behavior and celebrating successes with others. 

“Changing people's behavior through social norms empowers people to behave in a very natural and socially acceptable way. It's very different from changing behaviors in a forced way through banning or prohibiting or making people feel guilty for certain behaviors. So from our perspective, this is the right way of doing things.”

ICF: Young people have grown up in a world where the internet has always existed, and social media has been around for much of their lives as well. As a result, sharing their climate actions online seems like second nature to them. What does the research tell us about this age group? 

Elena Linczenyiova: We know that those between 15-25 will experience the most consequences from climate change in their lifetime. This is why they show a very high level of concern about climate change, but paradoxically also a lack of deep understanding of the climate science and a relatively low level of action. And while research shows they are often the least likely to take individual actions, they’re more inclined to join in collective action—especially when it's led by their peers.

This is what we call the participatory approach: It can be applied to science communication as a dialogue-based model where young people take an active role in discovering and co-creating scientific knowledge. It can also be applied to creating pro-environmental engagement and moving this generation to participate. One of the most important aspects is to build confidence and credibility of the messenger. Young people are highly skeptical of greenwashing and about lack of concrete action on the side of governments, so communication should link all climate claims to science-based targets. It’s important to use trusted sources that also reflect the diversity of the intended audience.

Next, it’s crucial to talk in language that is relevant and clear. Climate terminology can be convoluted and confusing, so use simple terms and not jargon. And instead of focusing on doom and gloom, the framing of climate issues needs to have a positive slant (e.g., more green jobs, improved health and well-being). The concept of positive framing really applies to climate communication in general and to all audiences.

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Ultimately, governments and public institutions can do a lot to shape public behavior. It’s not about making people feel guilty; it’s about demonstrating that taking action makes a real difference.

For more on this topic, download our whitepaper: How to communicate effectively to foster climate action: The role of emotions, science education, social norms, and youth movements.

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