Is climate change above ‘post-truth’?

Stack of newspapers

In this opinion piece, Luke Bevan, Research Manager at the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College Business School, discusses the modern ethical challenges of communicating climate change science to the general public.

The public perception of climate change is affected by a number of psychological biases, making issues, at times, difficult for the public to engage with. For instance, climate change may be perceived to be happening far away both geographically and in time1; it is happening somewhere else, far in the future and to someone else. In addition, research such as that of the Yale Program on Climate Communication has shown that the topic is politically polarising, with opinions on the validity of climate science divided along cultural lines. The issue is further compounded by a media environment increasingly polluted with accusations of “post-truth”.

To make climate science more relatable to people’s day to day lives, communication experts have often suggested talking about related issues such as energy security, flooding and air pollution. Alternatively, they may stress the power of talking about the side-benefits of tackling climate change as key to building support for a transition to a low-carbon economy2. The idea of using these stand-ins, or ‘proxies’, for climate change has gained much traction in recent years and the evidence base for the persuasive efficacy of this approach is extremely solid.

The limitations of proxies

Great care must be taken to ensure public engagement activities are not viewed with suspicion. In the past, climate change deniers have used false accusations of foul play to attempt to detract credibility from climate science. For instance, in 2009 during the run up to the Copenhagen Climate talks, a number of emails stolen during a malicious hack of servers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were published online. The emails were presented out-of-context and appeared to show a conspiracy to cover up global temperature declines. The event became known as Climategate and although eight subsequent investigations exonerated the scientists of any misconduct, the incident was harmful to global climate diplomacy efforts and impacted public opinion.

There can sometimes be anxiety around persuasive communications aimed at encouraging civic behavioural change or creating support for a given policy. Institutions must be seen to be communicating in a transparent and honest way. It is conceivable that relying too much on discussing climate proxies such as energy security may cause strategic and ethics issues, and distract from the heart of the problem.

The question around the appropriateness of talking climate-by-proxy was a recurrent topic of conversation at an event held by the Grantham Institute that I hosted in January. The event brought together a diverse group of communicators and researchers, all interested in the topic of climate change narratives, to discuss the state of play of research and practical progress in the space. A follow-up report published by the Grantham Institute details the broad range of themes under discussion, and findings which include underlying fear of failure, lack of political will, and lack of resources or forums to discuss processes and share experience.

One attendee noted:

“The longer we leave climate change out of the discussion when we talk about all these disparate issues impacted by it, the harder it will be to knit it back in when we really do need to talk about it.”

Similarly, another attendee said:

“There has to be a balance. We hear a lot of “don’t mention the climate”. Obviously we need to be able to link everyday issues to climate change, but where do we draw the line?”

It is clear from feedback that solutions would be welcome for the problem of when and whether to include climate change alongside climate-by-proxy in communication outreach.

Potential solutions

This is an issue that has drawn some attention in academia. One example is the Hyperobject concept of philosopher Timothy Morton3. This idea understands climate change as an object that is massively distributed in time and space, too great for humans to fully comprehend. Instead, we must explore the many manifestations of this object where it touches on our lives. Fascinating as this idea may be, “object oriented ontology” hardly rolls off the tongue and is a little too esoteric to be useful to people talking about climate change in their day-to-day work. Unsurprisingly, such ideas have been criticised as being disempowering, inaccessible and obscure4

Talking about proxies for climate change is undoubtedly an effective and absolutely necessary route to building engagement. However I believe that taken to an extreme there may be some ethical and strategic pitfalls. A ‘broad-brush’ solution that dictates to communicators when to talk about climate change directly and when it is better to talk about something else would be unreasonable. A constructive way forward may involve more practical, bespoke guidance or, at the very least, an open and frank discussion about the limitations and consequences of an overreliance on climate change proxies, as detailed in the ‘Strategic narratives in climate change roundtable’ report.

This may be especially salient as we consider how climate change can remain resilient to ever shifting political tides in what is often described in the media as an increasingly “post-truth” society.

  1. Spence, A., Poortinga, W. & Pidgeon, N. The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Anal. 32, 957–972 (2012).
  2. Bain, P. G. et al. Co-benefits of addressing climate change can motivate action around the world. Nat. Clim. Chang. 6, 154–157 (2016).
  3. Morton, T. Hyperobjects: Philosphy and Ecology after the End of the World. (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  4. Boulton, E. Climate change as a ‘hyperobject’: a critical review of Timothy Morton’s reframing narrative. WIREs Clim. Clange 7, 722–785 (2016).

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