Public Communication of the Climate Crisis

Notes on Public Communication

For many, many years, scientific lectures have been given on the topic of the climate crisis. Political speeches are made and posters are put up. For a long time these lectures and speeches were held in small, scientific circles, which were then politically carried out. We are now seeing lectures on the topic in our more everyday life. At specialist conferences, at university, at school, at work, and sometimes with friends.

Especially with Parents4Future and their new information campaign, there has been a willingness to train people without a scientific background to give successful lectures on “The climate crisis and what we can do”. At the same time, we are experiencing a shift in the focus of communication from scientific precision to emotional addressing, especially within the for-future movements. The tenor is: “The communication purely about technical knowledge and scientific facts has not moved anything in the last 30 years. People need more than factual knowledge, they have to feel the threat. “

Taking these changes as an opportunity, a group of Psychologists4Future deals with the topic of public communication and sheds light on various aspects, including:

  • How can we speak as publicly as possible about the climate crisis?
  • How can we convey urgency and problem awareness without frightening and causing helplessness?
  • How can we address different target groups?
  • How can we communicate our central message in such a way that we achieve our goal and what is actually our goal?


The goals of public communication can be very diverse and becoming aware of the goal of the lecture / speech is the first step on the way to good climate communication. My goal can be, for example, to enlighten, to spread knowledge, to educate people. Or my goal can be to scare, to convey threat and to cause panic. Another goal would be to help people to act on their attitudes (“I want to live more climate-consciously!”) (Eg eat less animal products) and to demand good framework conditions for this from politics.

We consider this last goal to be the most important for achieving long-term sustainability and achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. That is why we want to limit our suggestions for public communication to this goal.

11 Tips for Public Communication That Inspire Action and Thinking

The imparting of knowledge alone does not lead to action. We can imagine the climate crisis as follows: Just because I understand chemically and physically how the atmosphere is made up and how the greenhouse effect comes about, I probably won’t change my lifestyle.

But what is very much needed is problem knowledge and practical knowledge. We must very well have knowledge of what the problem is (the earth is warming up and this has consequences for the lives of people on this planet) and what we can do about it (e.g. knowledge of how we can effectively reduce our carbon footprint ).

It is therefore sufficient if we present the problem (and not its causal details) – and then show precise options for action with evidence of effectiveness. Only with this combination does the motivation for long-term action arise.


Hamann, K., Baumann, A., & Löschinger, D. (2016), Psychologie im Umweltschutz. Handbuch zur Förderung nachhaltigen Handelns. Munich: oekom, page 24ff.

We want to achieve problem-oriented coping with the problem through practical knowledge, we want people to consciously approach the problem and feel effective in doing so.

Action knowledge that only covers the private, individual area is problematic. Exclusively individual actions can lead to an excessive sense of responsibility and reduced well-being (Ojala, 2018). If we turn our own life upside down and consequently try to do everything right in all areas: mobility, nutrition, energy, etc., then this can lead to excessive demands. Then we quickly notice: we cannot do everything right – mainly because the social norms and the framework conditions of our everyday life are designed in such a way that a large CO2 footprint is the standard in Germany as well. In short: we cannot always be a hero or a heroine of our everyday life.

References to political framework conditions associated with limits and standards should therefore be used to relieve the burden and provide necessary knowledge (see Kopatz, 2019). We are currently living in a world that constantly encourages us to behave in a way that is harmful to the environment. The pork schnitzel from conventional agriculture is cheaper than that from organic farming, flying is cheaper than traveling by train, online orders are more convenient than buying from the shop next door.

So if we wanted to do everything right, we would have to go against this system and against our habits every day – and that’s very exhausting. If, however, we have political framework conditions with sensible limits and standards (such as, for example, that every food / clothing item etc. would reflect the price of the resources consumed), then it would be much easier for us to choose the cheaper, ecological pork schnitzel or the cheaper one To decide train journey.

In public communication we can try to support this path by pointing out the political and participatory possibilities in our democratic system and motivating people to get involved socially and politically through good examples and concrete practical knowledge.

In addition to the relieving function, this also corresponds to the realization that we are dependent on political and societal changes in order to comply with the goals in the Paris Climate Agreement.


  • Ojala, M. (2018). Eco anxiety. Medium – RSA Journal (4).
  • Kopatz, M. (2019). Schluss mit der Ökomoral. Munich: Oekom.

We all live our lives according to the values and attitudes that are important to us. We all have chosen the way we lead our own lives for various reasons, and in many areas we think that’s a good thing. This is completely normal because we humans feel compelled to live and act according to our values so that we feel “consistent” and “authentic”.

So what happens when our values, which are very important to us, are suddenly attacked? We then get defensive very quickly. In particular when we are confronted with existential threats and / or insecurity, according to the “Terror Management Theory”, we reflect strongly on our own values and our own identity (Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Van den Bos et al., 2005). Against the background of social norms and group orientation, this also means that our “in-group” (the group to which we feel we belong) is given enormous importance and more positive characteristics are ascribed to it. It also means that we rather want to distance ourselves from our “out-group” (groups to which we do not belong, who represent other values) (for a current study in a German context, Schmitt & Maes, 2002).

Therefore, the consideration of different values and how we address them is very important in public communication.

On the one hand, we should try not to attack people personally in terms of their values and to criticize ways of life, but rather look for common values that make it clear that there is a common “in-group”. That we all care about future generations, for example, or that the preservation of our living space is an important common value for us (Marshall, 2015 and

This point plays an important role when using narratives (so-called narratives). If I find a narrative of the climate crisis that can address the values of my listeners, they feel that their point of view has been picked up and understood – and at the same time they recognize in their own value system that climate change is a problem. If, for example, identity as a Christian is important to me, then I react to a different story than if my identity is primarily shaped by professional success.

Depending on the audience, the climate crisis can and should be communicated with a different focus. Empathy with my counterpart is therefore – as in a personal conversation – important for success.


  • Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessment and conceptual refinements. In MP Zanna (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology (29), pp. 61-139. New York: Academic Press.
  • Van den Bos, K., Poortvliet, PM, Maas, M., Miedema, J., & van den Harm, E.-J. (2005). An inquiry concerning the principles of cultural norms and values: The impact of uncertainty and mortality salience on reactions to violations and bolstering of cultural worldviews. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (41), pp. 91-113.
  • Schmitt, M. & Maes, J. (2002). Stereotypic ingroup bias as self-defense against relative deprivation: Evidence from a longitudinal study of the German unification process. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 309-326.
  • Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

This point follows on from the previous one and tells us that we have to address different topics for different target groups in order for the information to be classified as relevant.

For example, if we emphasize the topic of social justice in connection with climate change, this can have a very strong effect on, for example, Christians and people from the politically left-wing spectrum and can make them think. However, the very same issues may trigger either no response or a defensive response from people who care about economic growth, technological innovation, or national security.

That is why it is very important before each lecture to check before each conversation which values could be central here depending on the target group and to coordinate the information presented accordingly. Here, too, this specifically means using a certain (so-called) framing and certain narratives. The use of narratives is not understood here as manipulation, but as the processing of information that we provide for ourselves every day anyway (also here: Marshall, 2015 and


Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

For a very long time, the climate crisis was portrayed as something far away, spatially and temporally. Many people were aware that the climate crisis existed, but also that this crisis is not happening here and not now.

This awareness has changed in the last two drought summers in Germany. We could noticeably notice that the climate crisis has already hit us and that it is changing our lives. Our thinking is determined every day by a distortion that psychologists call the “availability bias” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). A distortion in thinking that leads to the fact that we are only ever very aware of current events and classify them as important.

In public communication we must therefore try to recreate this effect of noticeability and closeness again and again. We can do this, for example, by showing pictures from Germany, from the region, which depict the consequences of the climate crisis.

But we can also ask the listeners whether they have already observed changes in their life or in their environment and then put these in connection with the climate crisis, so that people can establish the connection between experience and knowledge about the climate crisis for themselves and for themselves Become aware of the current relevance of the topic (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, points 2 and 3).


  • Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability. Cognitive Psychology (5), pp. 207-232.
  • Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the interested Public. New York.

We constantly orientate ourselves consciously or unconsciously to our fellow human beings. Our fellow human beings are the most important source of information for us when it comes to appropriate and proven social behavior. If we observe behavior in other people, we can assume that this is a functioning and appropriate behavior. With regard to the climate crisis, we often see our fellow human beings appear to be indifferent to the crisis. Your CO 2 footprint remains the same as it was before the widespread knowledge about the climate crisis.

In order to use this effect in public communication, however, we can invite people to a lecture or speech who belong to a similar social group and know each other. There is a great opportunity when the presenter is seen as part of the group and thus as trustworthy – for example, a farmer, a student or an engineer (Marshall, 2015, p. 116ff).

Not to be forgotten, however, is the great effect that discussions in the family and in close circles of friends have on the perception of the climate crisis (Goldberg, van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2019). So if you don’t dare to give a lecture and speak in front of many people, you should be reminded that a conversation in the family or even with a friend can bring about great changes. In these situations the speaker is given one thing in advance: trust and credibility.


  • Goldberg, MH, van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2019). Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2019, 23

  • Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

People have different ways of processing information, which can be divided into emotional and factual ways. We can know and talk about a topic very abstractly and rationally and at the same time find it not emotionally relevant. (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 2009, point 3)

Scientific graphs, tables and facts address our rational-abstract thinking and allow us to understand the problem of the climate crisis in a factual way. However, they often fail to take our emotional thinking with them and give us the feeling of threat and the need for action.

So how do we manage to convey personal and emotional relevance? By including, as already mentioned, personal and current experiences of the listeners and thus giving space for the appropriate narrative and personal stories.

When we look into the past of humanity, we see that stories have always had a great place in human culture and civilization. People have always used stories to explain the world and give it meaning. Stories are like the social norm with personal behavior – they help us to orientate ourselves towards other people, to put facts into a larger context.

Therefore, speakers should tell stories about themselves that can also have a turning point. People who speak publicly about their own mistakes and show themselves as human are much more likely to gain the trust of the audience than people who speak of facts and of the fact that they always do everything right (Marshall, 2015).

Especially when we come together in an ambivalent social interaction (and this is often a lecture followed by a panel discussion), we allow ourselves to be guided much faster by personal sympathy than by objective truth. Another possibility to build in stories (“storytelling”) is to ask the listeners about their experiences and to let them talk about them (Marshall, p.105).


  • Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the interested Public. New York.
  • Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

At the beginning we had formulated the goal of wanting to initiate long-term actions and changes and in the previous point we saw that addressing emotional thinking is an important key factor in public communication.

However, the dose is decisive here: too much emotionality and, above all, too much threat, fear, maybe even anger, can lead to a strong impulse to act on the part of the listener, but this only lasts for a short time (Hamann, K., Baumann, A. , & Löschinger, D., 2016, p. 96ff). One of the reasons for this is that the released energies are only available for a short time and are more used for emotion-oriented coping than problem-oriented. We then use the energy primarily to feel better (to reduce fear and threat) instead of solving the problem.

According to the appraisal theory of Lazarus (1991), this mechanism is strongly related to the perception of one’s own resources. Strengthening these resources can, on the one hand, lead to more problem-oriented coping, but on the other hand, it is not necessarily sufficient if the emotions have been so high and not caught again.

Therefore, in the course of lectures, only a very limited use of emotions, which contribute to the understanding of problem knowledge, is to be advised and, in addition, a great focus to be placed on practical knowledge and solutions, so that people do not leave the lecture hopeless and fearful – and instead of constructive ones An unfavorable defense mechanism is initiated. Another way to recapture emotions could be to stimulate an exchange among the listeners about what has just been heard. Here, the power of social interaction is used, everyone then no longer feels alone with his / her interpretation of the information.


  • Hamann, K., Baumann, A., & Löschinger, D. (2016), Psychology in Environmental Protection. Handbook for promoting sustainable action. Munich: oekom, page 24ff.
  • Lazarus, RS (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46 (8), 819-834.

The relevance of social norms is also reflected in this point. People are strongly oriented towards their fellow human beings and the atmosphere in a group. Therefore, moments in which individuals or the group of listeners as a whole publicly commit to a change in behavior are very valuable in order to overcome the “weaker self”. Even if I never see the people again, to whom I said I will eat vegan from now on, I feel more responsible to implement the change than if I had just kept this decision to myself (Hamann, K., Baumann, A ., & Löschinger, D., 2016, p. 31f).

In addition, this point plays a major role, especially when it comes to the climate crisis, which often leaves us alone with our lifestyle. For example, we hear in a lecture: “And our lifestyle today is part of the causes, we have to rethink everything differently, do everything new.” And then feel guilty and strongly responsible for everyday decisions in our everyday life.

But if a lecture or workshop manages to show people collective action and collective commitment, then this sometimes difficult effect of problem-oriented assumption of responsibility is alleviated.

We also find people who have similar goals and whom we can join. Ideally, we can also be inspired and politicized in the discourse, broaden our horizons for other narratives and thus counteract polarization.


Hamann, K., Baumann, A., & Löschinger, D. (2016), Psychology in Environmental Protection. Handbook for promoting sustainable action. Munich: oekom, page 24ff.

At its core, the climate crisis is not a positive, optimistic or hopeful topic. So if we deal with this topic constantly, perhaps for a long time, it is easy to lose confidence because political changes are not strong enough, not fast enough and not profound enough.

Some speakers on the topic of the climate crisis tend to show only negative, hopeless and pessimistic facts that are simply intended to make the problem even more clear to us. But people live from confidence. If we do not lose confidence in spite of a problem, we are also motivated to act, otherwise we could leave it immediately.

It is therefore the task of a lecturer and everyone who deals with the topic of the climate crisis to look for and convey solutions. To evaluate the problem again and again before the current situation and to draw positive things from the small changes.

We see in a study (Ojala, 2018) that problem-oriented action gives us a feeling of very great, sometimes overwhelming responsibility, which is difficult to endure and also not justified in such a large and complex topic. Because only we as individuals cannot make it.

We therefore need trust in the political process, in social change and in individual authorities. We need confidence in humanity that we will solve this problem. This confidence and trust do not come by themselves, especially not with this topic. It is therefore important to explicitly incorporate suggestions for this in lectures and to feel them yourself in order to be able to convey them credibly (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 2009, point 2; Marshall, 2015, p. 233).


  • Ojala, M. (2018). Eco anxiety. Medium – RSA Journal (4).
  • Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the interested Public. New York.
  • Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.

A boomerang effect means that a rumor or misinformation remains even stronger after a dispute – by making them more familiar, for example, through the sheer naming.

If speakers have to mention false information and rumors again, it is therefore good to immediately give a clear indication that the information in question is incorrect (“There are sunspots – but they are clearly not relevant to the climate crisis, and that’s why …” ) or irrelevant (“Overpopulation is not relevant to the debate as these countries are responsible for the least amount of CO2 emissions.)”

It is important that a refuted rumor leaves no “gaps” in the mind. In addition to explanations for disproved information, it is therefore good to name motives for why the rumor was spread in the first place (e.g. false information from economic interests).

The boomerang effect can also be promoted by listing too much information. Therefore, the motto for speakers is: “Less is more!”. It is helpful to have a clear focus on the most important message in order to refute misinformation.


Cook, J. & Lewandowsky, S. (2011), The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland. November 5. ISBN 978-0-646-56812-6

Author: Lea Fischer