Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What do Journalists need to write powerful stories about Climate Change?




I have been working in the last four years on the topic of climate change. I found that many journalists have been telling people about the effects of climate change, such as the rise of temperatures, chaos in weather patterns, and drought that causes crop failures. Then these stories are used to be followed with the sentences; “we need to take action seriously towards reduction and reversal of global warming” Many articles only showed the problems from climate change with general or wide coverage, such as sea level rise and drought. Telling these stories make people think that “the climate change problem is really big and nothing I may be able to do to solve it”. Some people even think that the problem is exaggerated.

Now I am studying this hottest environmental topic in the best university for environmental science. I found that climate change is a statistical phenomenon that is difficult to be experienced directly, it presents a unique challenge for the human brain. Showing people long-term trends in the average global temperature simply does not carry the same weight in their decisions as the type of strong emotional reactions formed through (negative) experiences. Affective cues—fast and associative judgments of things people like and dislike—are formed through everyday experiences, and they help people make judgments and decisions, especially about risks. People brains are equipped with a biologically hard-wired alarm system that motivates responses to immediate environmental threats. The problem is that because they cannot readily see, hear, or experience the risk of climate change, so their risk warning system is not activated. So, how the journalists can activate it?

People cognitive understanding of climate risks is often discounted psychologically by the fact that global warming has traditionally been conveyed as an impersonal risk that is likely to happen in other places, to other people, at some point in the distant future. But even with the emotional and cognitive alarms deactivated, there’s still another way that people often learn about risks, through the online features (text, infographic, audio, video), conversations and connections with other people they care about, such as close friends and family. The journalists can test to share their campaigns to their inner circle, to check their social alarms.

Regarding the content, the journalists can focus on the impact of climate change on their region and the local community. For example, numerous studies have shown that climate change is exacerbating the drought, increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, floods, and landslides- in a specific region. The human brain is much like a dual-core processor, which means that they learn best when abstract information is elucidated by real-word experiences. For example, although people cannot directly observe climate change, people can and do experience its impacts. What’s important, however, is that people can connect what they experience locally with what they already know “intellectually” about the problem.

The journalists can also help to consider the moral components of climate change, which as the result of human decision-making is fundamentally a moral issue. This topic becomes a course in the university, called “Global change and global ethics”. The poor will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, even although they contributed the least. Similarly, the choices that people make today will likely impact the quality of life of their children and grandchildren. People are often intrinsically motivated to help others, to convince them further, ask them: knowing that we are all partially responsible, do we feel that we have a moral obligation to take climate change seriously?

Climate change has many types of risk, it is possible for people to worry so much about the issue that it paralyzes them. Worry is an active emotional state that often motivates people to find ways to mitigate a particular threat or problem (the adaptive response). Fear, on the other hand, often overwhelms people and can lead to inaction, denial, and other maladaptive responses. This has to do with the fact that the brain’s subcortical “fear center” (the amygdala) has more connections running to the higher-order prefrontal parts of the brain than vice versa, therefore it is often easy to be overwhelmed by fear but more difficult to consciously control it. A healthy amount of worry can motivate action.

People are not always aware of what is the effective climate action. So, the journalists must tell both sides; problems and solutions. For example, in the case of drought, the journalists hence can invite the readers to support the projects that assist farmers for climate change adaptation. Alternatively, the articles can also persuade the readers to buy socio-environmentally certified products who provide incentives for sustainable agriculture practices by the farmers.

Besides telling climate change stories, the climate journalists also have to work to counter-attack climate change deniers because they can be threats against climate action. The deniers have an ideologically-motivated reason to deny climate science and resist climate action. Ideologies are a very inflexible type of worldviews that often cause people to filter information about the world in a way that is consistent with they already believe and make them likely to reject any information that challenges these beliefs.

To convince the deniers, the journalists can utilize expert consensus approach from many research consortiums. I worked for several consortiums from the EU Horizon2020 project that involved researchers from all over the world. I found that expert-consensus can be cognitive short-cuts, or heuristics, to help inform people decision-making, under limited time and resources. Consensus-heuristics condense a complex amount of information into a simple normative fact, reducing the cost of individual learning. People's subjective perception of the level of consensus among scientists acts as a "gateway" to other key beliefs that people hold about the issue, such as the belief that climate change is happening, human-caused, and the worrisome problem that requires policy support. What's especially important is the finding that highlighting consensus seems to speak particularly well to those who are often skeptical (e.g., political conservatives). One potential reason for this finding is that changing one’s perception of what scientists’ think is a non-identity threatening belief to change. As such, it appears to be an attractive gateway to changing other personal beliefs. In short, emphasizing agreement may help reduce perceived conflict.

A psychologist explains that if people could invent one risk that bypasses all their psychological alarm systems, climate change would be it. People have seen the projections, read the articles about record annual temperatures. People know the threat of climate change is real. But why it’s so hard for their brains to perceive climate change as a real threat and how people can motivate themselves and others to action. There is a gap between recognizing the danger of climate change intellectually and feeling motivated to address it, as well as how to do it.

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