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Use of Language and Perspective in Teaching Climate Change

Research shows that the impact of apocalyptic messages and dire warnings may not lead to the responses we might expect or that the messages are intended to create. Fear, for example, may influence people to stop doing something (stop smoking, for example), but if used without appropriate care, can be less effective than hoped at persuading people to take action. [See Tali Sharot’s 2011 book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, which explores the influence of positive versus negative emotions in outlook and decision-making.] Consistently bad news over time may lead people to lose hope, which can have the effect of causing people to give up, deciding their actions are likely to be ineffectual.

Thus, while not sugarcoating the reality, it’s important to celebrate successes where they occur. For example, alternative energy use has been growing exponentially, and the rate of growth of CO₂ emissions has been declining, so people should recognize that positive actions are making a difference.

But balancing fear and optimism is complicated terrain. Too much fear can be paralyzing. Too much optimism can also sap motivation by giving the impression that the situation is coming under control [Hornsey & Fielding, 2016]. Honesty is paramount.

Moreover, while apocalyptic approaches may motivate some to act to reduce global warming’s impacts [R. Globus Veldman, 2012], they may reduce acceptance of global warming in audiences already skeptical. [A proposed explanation for why apocalyptic predictions diminish willingness to act on climate change is that such stories are perceived to be at odds with a world that is "...just, orderly and stable." See Feinberg and Willer, 2011.] These latter audiences may see doom and gloom scenarios, with associated pictures of smoke stacks and industrial pollution, as propaganda rather than scientific information. Such audiences may respond better to consideration of personally relevant impacts on the economy and local communities, and to attention to saving money through conserving energy and the lowering costs of renewable energy relative to traditional energy sources. These approaches seek common ground and work toward goals at least in part outside a narrative of environmental alarm.

There is also a difference in how new information is integrated into pre-existing beliefs between those who accept or deny climate change. Those who are skeptical of global warming are more likely to change their beliefs in response to unexpected good news (for example, if temperature rise is less than predicted) and less likely to change their beliefs given unexpected bad news (if temperature rise is larger than expected). The converse is true for people who think that human-induced climate change is occurring [Sunstein et al., 2016].

Thoughtful use of such rhetoric can be effective. You are more likely to use apocalyptic rhetoric well is you understand its roots, its components, and its nature. Prophesies are often part of these stories. Are predictions from climate science prophesies? Biblical prophecies are predictions, but they are more than just predictions. Prophesies also call on wrongdoers to repent. Repentance is not simply forgiveness, but also carries with it an expectation to change one's evil ways.

What are the implications of portraying climate scientists as modern-day prophets? They do make predictions, and those predictions have clear connections to guidance on changing one's ways. I have talked about these connections in a few church basements to seemingly good effect. However, I have yet to talk about them in a deeply conservative church, and I am unsure how it would land there.

There are at least five reasons for exploring our use of apocalyptic rhetoric:

  1. The kind of story is very commonly used, though often without recognition of biblical and mythological roots. By paying attention to structures, origins, and implications, we’re more likely to use them more appropriately.
  2. Such approaches may have substantially different outcomes for different people within the same audience. Using a doom-and-gloom framework for environmental problems will:
    • motivate some to work to reduce potential impacts,
    • some may simply tune out the messaging and,
    • some may be motivated to work in ways opposing the storyteller’s goals.
  3. For educators, there are good opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, particular to English language arts and the social sciences.
  4. Attending to these issues is a vehicle for building understanding and appreciation of complexity.
  5. Understanding the use of mythological rhetoric can help identify problematic claims. If an argument is:
    • grounded in a paradise past narrative, or,
    • promises a simple cure for multiple problems, or,
    • if the rationale is grounded in a narrative of good and evil...

      ...be suspicious.

In sum, the lesson you teach or the materials you create will have different effects on different people. Know your audience as best as you can. It’s common for education about climate change to be effective for one audience and not merely ineffective for another, but anti-effective for other audiences. One class or program may include multiple audiences in the same crowd. How do we craft our instruction so that it maximizes the desired understandings, while both being true to the science and minimizing the pushback brought by what some might consider to be like false prophecies?