I just read Newell and Pitman’s article The Psychology of Global WarmingRead it twice actually. Had to. It was that hard to find the chewable bits.

Newell and Pitman, psychologists at UNSW, have done a good job of restating “confirmation bias” theory – that people focus on facts and memories that confirm their worldviews (a.k.a. denial) as well as “sampling bias” and a few other effects that distort people’s reception of information. But what to do about these biases? Their most useful advice is to ensure communications are concrete, visualised, pay attention to loss aversion and avoid creating despair or emotional numbing.

But I think they’ve missed a vital point. It’s not the data that matters. It’s the interpretation.

Here’s some data:

“Sea level rises of 0.37 to 0.75 metres are probable by 2090 with the likelihood of increased flooding and erosion from high tides and storm surges.” Source: CSIRO

That’s a typical scientific statement, emotionally cold, heavily qualified and expressing scientific uncertainty. But what does it mean in terms of action? What decisions, if any, should a reasonable person take on the basis of it?

The problem is that action comes with risk. People risk their reputations, time and money by acting. So, when the data is expressed in terms of uncertainty it’s perfectly reasonable for people to seek assurance about their own risks of action.

If the risks seem too high, then people will stick with business-as-usual and adopt justifications for inaction (that’s that “denial” means).

Where to seek that assurance from? Early adopters seek it from their own knowledge and contacts. Early adopters also tend to be more confident with a particular risk – that’s what makes them early adopters.

But the remaining 80% lack the knowledge to assess risk themselves. They rely on others for that assurance. What others? Certainly not scientists. Scientists aren’t taking the same risks they are. Inevitably, they will want to hear from people similar to themselves who are taking similar risks.

Similarity is the key. Without similarity they have no way of removing the uncertainty from potentially risky personal, political or business decisions. And until that uncertainty is removed they are unlikely to act.

Hence stories and testimonials from similar people are vital components of a credible climate change communication.

If the audience are local government councillors they’ll want to hear:

“The CSIRO predicts that the sea level rises of 37 to 75 centimetres are probable by 2090 with the likelihood of increased flooding and erosion from high tides and storm surges.”

Followed by a statement from a similar person:

“Coastal councils have a responsibility to protect ratepayers’ property and lives. There’s uncertainty about the exact extent of rises, but the risk is still too great for inaction. That’s why we’ve adopted a sea level rise planning benchmark of 100 centimetres .” – councillor Mark Hall, Mayor of Coastal Shire Council

This statement crystallizes a prudent decision out of uncertain data, demonstrating how a reasonable person could act and manage their risk.

A clear, low risk course of action, demonstrated by the living example of a similar person, creates assurance, reducing the fear and uncertainty that drives denial. Good climate change communication is not just about facts. It needs stories too.