Climate Corner: How Can We Effectively Communicate About Climate Change?

My years as a science journalist taught me to value evidence. When I became a social scientist, I continued to assume that evidence had real power. Learning about a warming climate should prompt individuals to “buy” into the problem and do something about it.

Boy, was I wrong. Understanding a problem is an important first step, but facts often fail to inspire behavior change. I learned that when information collides with a person’s beliefs, that collision is more likely to strengthen those beliefs than to modify them. This led me to study ways to influence strong believers, and I offer a few suggestions here.

Beliefs become very hard to change when they become politicized. Unfortunately, the science of climate change has been trapped in our highly partisan politics, solidifying the positions of those who are unwilling to accept the science as part of their belief system. This has created a political standoff over whether the problem exists, despite the fact that scientists are in almost unanimous agreement that the planet is warming as a result of burning fossil fuels.

If simply educating people about a warming climate won’t change minds and behaviors, what will?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Listen and acknowledge the plausibility of other beliefs. While many climate change skeptics know little about the issue, a number know a great deal. Studies of knowledge about contentious topics routinely find the most knowledgeable folks sitting at the “for” and “against” ends of the belief continuum. So take time to listen to doubters and, importantly, to acknowledge the plausibility of the reasons they offer. Plausible reasons are not necessarily “true,” and you may then have a chance to make that point in a shared, deliberative conversation. For instance, the polar vortex that created a frigid Midwest a few years ago may be cited to prove the planet is not warming, but all other parts of the globe experienced a warmer-than-average winter when we didn’t. Despite our experience in Wisconsin, the data are irrefutable: temperatures on a global basis were significantly higher than average, and have been year after year.
  • Emphasize links between a warming climate and personal experiences. When it comes to risks, we are likely to act when we become worried about our own likelihood of coming to harm. Climate change is no different. Although many fail to see a link between climate change and their personal lives, such connections are plentiful and can serve as conversational starting points. Increasingly serious and frequent storms, heat waves, drought, increases in disease-transmitting pests such as ticks, all are associated with climate shifts. It is no mystery that the strongest advocates in the Republican Party for climate action are from Florida, where the ocean is rising due in part to glacial melt.
  • Model the beliefs and behaviors you would like to spread. We are social animals who continuously monitor the attitudes and behaviors of others to assess appropriate next steps. If those we observe accept the validity of climate change, express concern about its consequences, and act to limit their own impact, we may follow suit. This “social norms” approach takes an odd path, relying on first changing peoples’ behavior, which then can change their attitudes and beliefs. If I engage in a behavior often enough (say, following my neighbors’ lead by leaving my fall leaves piled on my lawn rather than raking them into the street where they can be carried into the storm sewer and harm our lake), there is a good chance that I eventually will come to believe that I am doing this because I care about the health of the watershed, not because I feel pressured by my neighbors.
  • Finally, don’t forget to commune with the converted. While most Americans believe that climate change is real, this fact does not lead them to believe it is a serious concern. In a Gallup poll earlier this spring, 68 percent of Americans indicated that they believe that “global warming is caused by human activities” while only 42 percent believe that “global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.” This means that even sympathetic neighbors may feel little need to change their behavior in the face of this distant, amorphous risk. The strategies for communicating with skeptics will work even more dramatically with those whose beliefs are already aligned with yours. Moving this large cohort of Americans to action may be one of the most important things we can do. We need to make the consequences of warming real for our neighbors, and in our own lives, we need to model behaviors that will reduce the carbon emissions that are driving our warming climate.

June Program of the Climate Change Coalition of Door County

“From the Ashes” A compelling documentary film from

National Geographic about the past and future of the coal industry

Date: Wednesday, June 21

Time: 7 pm

Place: Sevastopol Town Hall, 4528 WI-57, Town of Sevastopol (Sturgeon Bay)


Sharon Dunwoody is Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita of Journalism and Mass Communication at the UW Madison. She has worked with a variety of audiences, including scientists, to improve communication and engagement strategies. She is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science, the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research, and the Society for Risk Analysis and former president of both the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Recently retired, Sharon is a board member of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and co-chair of the Science Advisory Board of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected].

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