The good, the bad and the messaging

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I had a great time this weekend at the Psychology for a Safe Climate conference. There were some excellent speakers from across the social sciences, including a thought provoking paper from Byron Smith on messaging and framing around climate issues.

A huge challenge in climate change communications is morality. We’ve long known that environmental messaging cuts through very effectively when there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

People just like that kind of narrative: Evil Coca-Cola is blocking the container deposit scheme! Greedy miners want to dig up the pristine Kimberley!

These are messages that externalise environmental harm, and they’re easier to take on board than ‘I need to stop buying bottled water’ or ‘I use computers and smartphones made of the metal dug up in places like the Kimberley every single day’.

But who’s the baddy when it comes to climate change? Grasping fossil fuel companies? Lazy, corrupt governments? You and me, as we leave the lights blazing, eat our imported food, drive to work and plan our next exotic overseas getaway?

Another speaker, Andrea Bunting, suggested exploring the dimensions of moral framing: some messaging internalises it (guilt) while other messaging externalises it (anger). People were more easy to spur to action when they could feel moral outrage at an external party. She suggested fossil fuel divestment campaigns like Go Fossil Free were a good model, because they point the finger at some obvious ‘bad guys’, giving us, the ‘good guys’, clear action to take.

I must say that I came away with a renewed consciousness that globally, we’re all part of the climate change problem and, to reference a cliché, we all need to work together to solve it. How to work that into messaging is another question entirely!