Communicating climate complexity: 3 reasons for hope


One of the great challenges when messaging climate change is its sheer complexity.

Research is awash with examples of complexity turning people off. In an age of information overload, the last thing many people want is yet more facts and figures. Some marketers even take advantage of this aversion to complexity: it’s called ‘confusion marketing’. That’s essentially what the Gruen Transfer is: using interior decoration to bamboozle consumers into buying more.

Our knowledge of climate change is based on complex syntheses of complex science. Like the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, this can sometimes contradict lived experience (‘But this winter there’s a lot of snow!’)

It has complex causes, like politics, power, money, and technology.

It has complex effects on societies and natural systems.  Some of these, like ecosystems and climate systems, are so complex themselves that we can’t understand or accurately predict the effects of climate change on them.

The only simple message seems to be how hard this all is.

But I thought really hard, using my highly evolved human brain, and I found three fairly simple reasons for hope amidst the complexity:

  1. Humans can take simple lessons from complexity - eventually. Over the millenia we’ve been dealing with challenges in our complex environment, from ravenous beasts to floods and famines. Over time, we tend to distill our group knowledge into large lexicons of simple take-home messages. Never smile at a crocodile. A stitch in time saves nine. And so on.
  2. Humans have faced this kind of issue before. Glaciation and the retreat of glaciers already happened to us. They must have caused huge changes in human food sources and patterns of migration, but obviously we managed to adapt.
  3. Humans can think about complicated systems. The complex nuances of human relationships are a good example. Nothing was ever so complicated as a bunch of talking apes trying to work out who has to go round the corner to buy milk for the office, or who really brought those presents under the Christmas tree  – but we arrive at an answer in the end.