How Anthropogenic Global Warming Messengers can Become More Persuasive

Anthropogenic global warming, or anthropogenic climate change, is often a confusing clusterfuck because the topic has two layers: the scientific and the political/cultural. It’s to the latter I’ll turn. On the one hand, you have a mass of people that loudly chant “climate change is real!” This chant is usually more a way for them to signal their credentials to their teammates than indicative of any particular adherence to science or solutions (I know, I was there). The mass on the other side loudly proclaims that anthropogenic global warming or anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, also more often as a way to signal their credentials to their respective in-group.

Unfortunately, for advocates of anthropogenic global warming (and this goes for both the actual climate scientists and the activists that swirl around them), the climate change skeptics are actually more persuasive. Let me explain.

First, the proof is in the pudding. The advocates of anthropogenic global warming (roughly) have usually been losing elections, while the climate change skeptics (roughly) have usually been winning (at least in the United States, the biggest or second biggest greenhouse emitter in the world). Is anthropogenic global warming solely responsible for this? Of course not, but the messengers of anthropogenic climate change just aren’t persuasive enough.

Anthropogenic global warming advocates primarily base their messaging on fear. The effects of climate change, they say, will be catastrophic. Climate change in Florida will flood the peninsula as sea levels rise, displacing millions. This would be only one of many such displacements caused by global warming. Agriculture and climate change is also a combustible combination. Famines are possible. Look at the drought in California!

California drought and climate change

And so on. All things to be concerned about, certainly. But now consider the messaging of the climate change skeptics.

Their messaging is also based on fear, but of a far more immediate nature. Advocates of anthropogenic global warming might say that fossil fuels and climate change are intertwined, but think of all the jobs lost immediately and in the medium term as a result of limiting their use. Many millions. Many millions! Naturally the result is that many would dismiss it as a hoax or just not care much about the polar bears.

Polar bear climate change

On the one hand, you have a long term trend the effects of which are still variable and unknown, and on the other you have definite, immediate job losses. Adding to the latter is the feeling that a central authority will dictate more and more control of your life, a deeply held aversion in America. The country started over that, after all.

Advocates of anthropogenic global warming have to come to grips with this. They can cite all the facts and all the climate change trends they want to, but it won’t be effective persuasion in comparison. There is also a glaring problem with their central fear-based messaging that Robert Cialdini outlines in Pre-Suasion:

But there’s a particular type of fear-stoking message that appears most capable of changing behavior. It does so, ironically enough, by reducing the fear it produces. That’s no small advantage, because high levels of fear about the ominous consequences of lung cancer (or diabetes or hypertension) might cause certain likely victims to deny that they will encounter those consequences personally. “Hell,” a heavy smoker might say, “my grandfather on my mother’s side smoked all his life and lived to eighty. So I’ve probably got good cancer-fighting genes.” Others might entertain different but similarly misleading nonsense to dampen the inflamed anxiety. A favorite among young people just starting to smoke is to suppose that by the time they suffer the ills of their actions, medical cures will be both available and easily obtained.

What’s the persuasive alchemy that allows a communicator to trouble recipients deeply about the negative outcomes of their bad habits without pushing them to deny the problem in an attempt to control their now-heightened fears? The communicator has only to add to the chilling message clear information about legitimate, available steps the recipients can take to change their health-threatening habits. In this way, the fright can be dealt with not through self-delusional baloney that deters positive action but through genuine change opportunities that mobilize such action.

The “Godfather of Influence” was talking about health-based messaging here, but it works equally as well for anthropogenic global warming messengers. Consider what they do. They talk about the science of climate change and the dangers of climate change – the sea level rise, the droughts, extreme weather events, maybe even those cute polar bears. On the lower rungs, they scream that “climate change is real!” But wheat else? You’ve stoked the fear, but the messaging thereafter is often lacking, including that there’s little indication that the effects of global warming will happen to you personally. This leaves an easy vacuum for opposing voices, the advocates of climate change skepticism, to come in. They can say it’s a hoax, they can warn about power grabs and lost jobs. Maybe some will just cite facts that seem as convincing as the facts the anthropogenic global warming activists typically cite – maybe about volcanoes or the oceans. Facts are rarely ever just facts. People find what they want to find.

To become more persuasive, the messengers for anthropogenic global warming have to try a different approach. Taking Pre-Suasion into account would be a good start. Perhaps ironically but unsurprisingly, one of the most persuasive anthropogenic climate change messages I heard came from Carl Sagan close to 30 years ago in the 10 year update to episode four of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (skip to 57:33).

Note how Sagan begins by talking about “the hellish conditions on Venus” in relation to an increasing greenhouse effect on Earth. This big thought captures your attention to the then more modest, but still fear-based information about climate change-related effects on Earth that are more likely and conceivable. Then, Carl Sagan lays out four climate change mitigation strategies:

  1. More efficient use of fossil fuels (ex: cars that get 70 miles to the gallon instead of 25).
  2. Research and development on safe alternative energy sources. Carl Sagan was enthusiastic about solar power, but I think that’s been more than proven to be a pipe dream in the years since 1990. That’s another topic in itself though.
  3. Reforestation on a grand scale.
  4. Bringing the poorest people on the planet to self-sufficiency to stem population growth (it’s more than the billion in his time, though).

This brings the message full circle – global warming is man made, Venus reminds us that the greenhouse effect is a serious business, and even though the effects on Earth will be far more muted in comparison, there is still ample reason to be afraid. But, here are clear things that we can do to prevent this fear from being reality. The fear is reduced with clear information about legitimate steps, dealing with the fright through a real plan and not “baloney,” as Cialdini might say.

But Carl Sagan doesn’t stop there. He reminds us about Venus again, saying toward the end:

Now, no one has proposed that the troubles with Venus are that there were once Venusians who drove fuel-inefficient cars, but our nearest neighbor nevertheless is a stark warning on the possible fate of an Earth-like world.

This is almost a case study in commanding, persuasive language.

After filling our minds with images of the hell that is Venus, the “now” commands attention. Then, like Robert Cialdini suggests in Pre-Suasion, Carl Sagan acknowledges the central weakness of his premise, namely, that Earth isn’t Venus and nothing we possibly do can make it that way. Then he uses the key word “but,” which takes the listener from a “perceived weakness to a counteracting strength,” namely, that the ecosystem is a very delicate thing and that we need not upset the apple cart to too high a degree for us to suffer serious consequences.

That’s how it’s done.

If you’re trying to spread the message of anthropogenic climate change or global warming, anchor your pitch with something big like Venus, acknowledge the weakness inherent in the anchoring, talk about more concrete fears (preferably personalized), and then give a simple, bulleted list of concrete, actionable steps to mitigate the fear, possibly ending with benefits like new jobs for new industries (you’ll have to provide some evidence, of which it is lacking for “green energy” so far, but again, I can talk about that later).

Most of all, climate scientists, if they want their message to spread, have to get out of the realm of factual superiority, and the cultural forces trying to spread the need to confront anthropogenic global warming have to get out of thinking virtue signaling and shouting “climate change is real!” is persuasive. In fact, by insisting that “climate change is real” (I’m looking at you too, Bernie Sanders), you’re giving into the frame of the climate change skeptics. And simply calling them “climate change deniers” is going to engender hostility because it’s an insult, plus, it makes you look like you have something to hide. It allows people to dismiss your anthropogenic global warming messaging as a climate change conspiracy.

If anthropogenic global warming is important to you, and you want to see climate change solutions, it’s better to go with the approach above. Otherwise, you’re likely going to continue to lose, except perhaps in Europe. The United States, China, India, and the emerging countries won’t care very much. The arguments against climate change will continue to be strong there because there’s so much at stake compared to the unpersuasive approaches being taken in comparison.

If you’re an anthropogenic climate change activist who wants to be more persuasive, read Stumped, because Trump is winning on the issue you care about and you’re not, and also because I like polar bears and don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.

Polar bears climate change