Giving and receiving bad news – how should we talk about climate change?

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

There is no doubt that climate change is bad news. But how should we talk about it?  Should we acknowledge that it is bad news, or look on the bright side? Should we tell the whole truth – or try to make it more palatable?

When people hear bad news there are a number of common first reactions:

  • shock and disbelief
  • the hope that it isn’t true, or doesn’t affect me
  • a desire to get rid of it (sometimes achieved by passing it on in all its dreadfulness to the first person who will listen)
  • an angry attack on the messenger

These first reactions then give way to one of two possibilities. The first is that the person absorbs the implications of the bad news, and goes through a painful period of distress followed by adjustment to the changed situation. The second is that the bad news is avoided. Its implications may be minimised. Its reality may be denied. All manner of defences may be drawn on to avoid the painful reality that (for example) you have failed your exams or your parents are about to divorce.

The bad news of climate change has some special features however. It’s more like hearing about distant wars and disasters than learning that you’ve messed up your ‘A’ levels or that your parents are separating. When people see something terrible on the TV news their first reaction is often – do I know anyone involved? Is this going to affect me directly? Once this urgent question has been answered in the negative, most people feel free to park the news. If they think about it, they only do so briefly. Climate change can produce similar reactions. Its effects are distant. It doesn’t feel urgent. It’s going to happen to other people, on the other side of the world, or in the future.

Beneath the surface however, it is a different story. Uncomfortable emotions have been stirred. We identify with the suffering of others. Concern, guilt and anxiety linger.  Often people feel uneasy if they are reminded of the truth. They develop increasingly sophisticated ways of convincing themselves that they don’t need to worry.

Does the way we explain the bad news of climate change have an effect on the likelihood of it being taken seriously? There are a number of common approaches to breaking bad news, some helpful and some dysfunctional.  The helpful ways usually centre on making sure that there is a safe space, with plenty of time and no distractions. The person is encouraged to talk through their reactions. Support and understanding is offered. Time is allowed for anger, grief, anxiety and all the other strong emotions that bad news evokes.

The dysfunctional ways usually involve avoiding talking about the bad news, minimising its importance, pretending that it isn’t so bad after all, looking for someone else to blame, relentlessly looking on the bright side and ultimately, denying that it is really true.

Those of us working on climate change could do well to think about these reactions and approaches. The more skilled we become at creating those safe spaces – in our public communications, our private conversations and our practical projects – the more likely people are to be able to bear the difficult truths we have to tell.

One of the problems with reality that has been rejected or avoided is that it always comes back to bite you. Sometimes this is  in the form of a symptom, but eventually it is in the form of an even more inconvenient truth.


§ One Response to Giving and receiving bad news – how should we talk about climate change?

  • Jon says:

    Hello Ro,

    I’ve just posted a two part article on my blog (also published on Energy Bulletin) drawing attention to the limitations of climate change communication a)as a single issue unrelated to other ecological and human threats and b) as the subject of population-scale campaigns intended to motivate sustainable behaviours.

    I have referred to the promising experience of Carbon Conversations and other psychologically informed small group approaches. I have also proposed a complementary interpersonal experiential-learning approach to outreaching sustainability beyond the ‘already converted’ to ‘harder-to-reach’ mainstream population groups.

    I know that you have given considerable thought to this. If and when you have time, I’d very much appreciate your comments, both on content and on developing and funding pilot programmes.

    The posts are here:

    Thanks, Jon Barrett

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