Why Conversations about Climate are Stuck

Posted by Dan Keeney
Creative (Climate) Communications

As an alumnus of the University of Colorado, I do my best to keep track of the interesting work being done by faculty and students in Boulder and other satellite campuses. In the past few days an article in Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine caught my attention. Titled, “Ditching the doomsaying for better climate discourse,” it tells the story of associate professor Max Boykoff’s work that led to the publication of his latest book, “Creative (Climate) Communications: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society.”

Disclaimer: I have not read the book! I don’t know as much about climate science as I suspect I should. To be as blunt as possible, I have no doubt that the rise of humans — and especially the use of fossil fuels by developed economies — has stressed the ability of ecosystems to adapt.

All of that is to say that while I am no expert in climate science, I do have special expertise in helping smart people package their information in ways that are understandable, memorable and actionable. I’ve worked with various teams at NASA for the better part of two decades, for instance, helping everyone from flight surgeons, mission control and the teams studying the effects of space on the human body tell their stories. I work with medical device startups through Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute to make complex ideas relatable.

That’s why Max Boykoff’s new book struck me as interesting. It isn’t designed to advocate for a particular point-of-view related to climate change; it is designed for the the scientists, NPOs, politicians and other stakeholders who are attempting to capture the public’s attention, tell stories related to climate science and inspire action.

The Colorado Arts and Sciences article outlined Boycoff’s five “rules of the road” and five “guideposts” that he believes can serve as the framework for creative and effective climate science communications. My view is that these are applicable across the board for just about any communications.

Rules of the road (along with brief descriptions from Boykoff):

  • Be authentic – “Don’t fake it.”
  • Be aware – “Know your audience.”
  • Be accurate – “Know what you’re talking about.”
  • Be imaginative – “Step out of the well-worn paths of science.”
  • Be bold – “Commit yourself to experimenting.”


  • Find common ground – “Rather than telling people how they are supposed to be thinking and acting.”
  • Emphasize here and now – “We need to overcome the perception that this is a distant threat that impacts other people and animals in distant places we never visit.”
  • Focus on the benefits of engagement – “Give people agency, focus on ways they can get involved and feel like, ‘OK, this is what I can do today.’”
  • Creatively empower people – Rather than lecture or speak in traditional academic modes, Boykoff points to alternative avenues of communication, such as comedy, art, video and dance.
  • Smarten up – “Listening, discussing and adapting, as opposed to just trying to win an argument.”

We often talk about small steps that lead to big changes. For instance, getting people to use reusable bags and straws is a tiny thing, but it gets individuals into a different frame of mind. They are getting involved. Once they are engaged, they are more likely to be open to additional lifestyle changes, such as abandoning single use plastic bottles choosing sustainable energy sources from their electric company.

As noted in her review of the book published on Medium’s Public Understanding of Science Blog, Brigitte Nerlich, Emeritus Professor of Science, Language and Society at the University of Nottingham noted that Boykoff does not discuss the use of language, which seems like a big miss. Language is a huge part of the puzzle. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the common label was “Global Warming,” which skeptics of climate change continue to use scornfully. How can you have a book about creative communication and not discuss the importance of language choices?

Well, wouldn’t you know it, Brigitte has done some work on this issue, publishing, “Theory and language of climate change communication,” although it probably needs to be dusted off, since it was published a decade ago. There is also the book, “The Role of Language in the Climate Change Debate,” by Kjersti Flottum of the University of Bergen if you are seeking further information on these matters.

Bottom line: congrats to Max Boykoff on the new book! I will be sure to look for it as part of my 2020 effort to ramp up my personal understanding of climate science. I’ve just completed, “The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis, which touches on the dangers that revolve around the intersection of science (including climate science) and political agendas. Interestingly, Lewis examined the perplexing disconnect between scientific warnings about extreme weather and how individuals respond. Optimism bias causes people to believe that they are less likely to be effected than others, even when there is no rational reason for it. Normalcy bias makes it unlikely that people will plan for something that’s never happened before.

How can communicators break through these biases, grab people by the shoulders (not literally) and get them to pay attention? That’s the challenge Boykoff attempts to answer.

As an afterword I’ll note that I can’t agree with Boykoff’s contention that it can be destructive to focus on personal responsibility and sacrifice. Just as I would counsel a CEO to walk the talk, I would counsel anyone who is pushing for treaties or regulations related to climate change to carefully consider how their actions are perceived. They will be examined and evaluated.

I respond to people who ask why my wife and I never had kids by saying that we’re environmentalists. That’s not really the reason (we didn’t want kids), but I think it’s a good thing, albeit uncomfortable, for people to consider the impact of the choices they make. That’s not to say anyone should be shamed — I think Max has that right. But they shouldn’t be on auto-pilot as they live their lives. The BBC recently published a story on this, “The couples rethinking kids because of climate change.” The New York Times reported that a third of Americans of traditional ‘childbearing’ age cited climate change as a factor in their decision to have fewer children.

I think it was good when Coldplay announced they had reconsidered touring due to the carbon footprint it would have. I think it’s okay for public officials who believe strongly that change is needed to be thoughtful about their choices, too. Here in Oregon, we have a governor who will be supporting a cap-and-trade bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions, but she regularly flies around the Pacific Northwest in a private plane. It’s not about public shaming so much as about being logical and consistent.

I’ve worked from home for going on 17 years. I’ve reduced travel by using video conferencing. We live in a walkable neighborhood and got rid of our second car. We added solar. We’ve jumped on the reusable straws and grocery bags bandwagon, etc. Small steps lead to new norms and then larger lifestyle changes. This isn’t going to take a decade or even a century, in my opinion. We need to be able to look beyond our lifetimes and beyond the lifetimes of your children and their children, and celebrate the small steps along the way.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 16th, 2020 at 12:52 pm and is filed under Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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