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Will talking change anyone's mind about climate change?

A new guide gives advice for talking with people who don't accept climate change, in hopes of getting them to change their minds.

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / November 6, 2009

At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, an exhibition on Climate Change: The Threat to Life and A New Energy Future. Will it change the mind of any skeptic of global warming?

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On Wednesday, Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions released a guide titled "The Psychology of Climate Change Communication."

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Freely available online [pdf], the manual endeavors to describe the various biases and barriers that lurk in the minds of the general public, and that, as the authors see it, confound an accurate comprehension of climate science and its ramifications.

In concept, at least, the manual's arrival is timely.

In case you missed it, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last month found that the number of people who think there's solid evidence of human-induced climate change has declined dramatically in the past few years.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents now believe it's happening, down from 77 percent in 2006.

The guide has eight chapters:
1.  Know Your Audience.
2.  Get your Audience's Reaction.
3.  Translate Scientific Data Into Concrete Experience.
4.  Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals.
5.  Address Scientific and Climate Uncertainties.
6.  Tap Into Social Identities and Affiliations.
7.  Encourage Group Participation.
8.  Make Behavior Changes Easier.

Following are a few tidbits that caught this reporter's eye.

Chapter 1
The authors explain "mental models" — "a person's thought process for how something works." Understanding the audience's mental model and its inherent biases is key to successfully imparting information.

There's an interesting example from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale's Project on Climate Change. He has observed that mental models of the ozone layer hole and climate change are often conflated, and that this conflation leads to inaccuracies.

Paradoxically, this conflation is due in part to scientists' and the media's success in communicating the gravity of the ozone problem in past decades. Legislation followed and CFCs are (almost) phased out. But now, as the public grapples with a different issue — climate change from "greenhouse gases" — some wonder why we can't just bring back CFCs to reopen the ozone hole and release the trapped heat.

The problem is with the "greenhouse" metaphor. The two descriptors — "ozone hole" and "greenhouse gases" — have together fostered a misconception of how the science behind human-induced climate change works.

Presumably, if a communicator knows about this faulty mental model in advance, he can account for it in his explanations and, it's to be hoped, even correct it.

Chapter 4
People don't have an infinite capacity to worry, note the authors. Researchers call that limited fretting capacity "a finite pool of worry." And there's competition for space in this pool. If a person begins worrying about one risk, he or she will likely begin worrying less about another. In this constant competition, short-term threats beat out long-term ones.

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