From a behaviour change and collective action point of view, there are two main adult audiences that really matter in climate change communication. These groups both require some form of persuasion, but they are very different in almost all respects, and cannot be addressed by the same messaging.
If we want to see more widespread acceptance of climate science and more effective action taken to adapt and mitigate, we need to:
Convince climate skeptics to be concerned about climate change.
This means getting them to accept its basic physical reality and at least some of its wide-reaching consequences. This does not mean trying to reach hard denialists, but rather folks who are on the fence, who are not entirely sure. Many of these people will be socially proximate to more hardcore deniers, or more generally immersed in regional, familial, or political cultures inclined to climate denial.
Although this appears to be an “information deficit” problem, we have known for a long time that the key cognitive and educational barriers here overwhelmingly relate to values and identity rather than facts and cognition. The challenge here is to meet people where they with enough validation and compassion to welcome them to the conversation, skepticism and all.
Finding common ground can allow a values-based conversation to unfold first, paving the way for personally relevant observational and experiential discussions about locally relevant climate effects. Changing a deeply held opinion that has been implicitly bequeathed is a vulnerable experience, as is coming to terms with the gravity and breadth of climate change as an interlocking network of environmental threats.
Bringing skeptics into the tent of the “concerned” segues nicely to the second challenge.
Convince concerned folks to demand systemic political and commercial change.
Public discourse around many environmental topics has been largely hijacked by the 20th and 21st century western bias towards individualistic consumer culture. This has been a great success of climate denialism because it obscures how thoroughly foundational high-carbon energy and transportation are to all facets of modern culture and society. Their truly systemic role means the main sources of carbon emissions are largely out of sight and control of individuals.
Problematic consequences of this include the “single-act” bias (whereby people are convinced that they have done their part by swapping incandescent for LED lightbulbs or buying a hybrid vehicle) and “loss aversion” bias (whereby climate action is seen only as a net loss to our affluence or convenience because of denialist framing but also thanks to our natural cognitive inclination to discount future risks and to be more concerned about small short-term costs than much larger future benefits).
More generally, systemic problems require systemic solutions. The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial sources that are not directly influenced by individual consumer choices. The key cognitive and educational barriers here relate to cultivating a sense of personal and collective agency and challenging deep-seated biases towards atomized individualism.
Personal connectedness plus collective agency equals effective action.
Ultimately people need a sense of personal connection to a challenge as well as some degree of cognitive understanding of it. The challenge in moving to action, in the case of climate change, is vastly compounded by its probabilistic nature, unclear future time frame, and largely invisible, systemic causes.
Instilling a sense of personal responsibility has long been held up as a necessary step towards more collective action, or as a sensitizing and empowering strategy to offer hope and local agency in the face of what might otherwise seem to be intractable and intimidating problems.
But we have to ensure that we don’t leave people stuck in isolation as consumers. Mobilization as citizens allows us to demand political changes, and mobilization in the name of the greater good lets us act as a community with shared values. Connecting people to a values-based or political sense of agency and change will enable the sweeping regulatory and financial changes necessary to really tackle climate change.