Through a glass, darkly: Why a social science perspective suggests we need to radically revise climate change communication

Through a glass, darkly: Why a social science perspective suggests we need to radically revise climate change communication

Matt Adams

‘The environmental challenges that confront society are unprecedented and staggering in their scope, pace and complexity. Unless we reframe and examine them through a social lens, societal responses will be too little, too late and potentially blind to negative consequences’. [1] This is a portentous statement, stridently advocating the necessity of a social science perspective on environmental challenges such as climate change; not least in world forums such as COP21 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference  – that will take place in December 2015. If social science urges us to look at environmental challenges through a social lens, what are the implications of doing so, for communicating those challenges, to powerful elites and the wider public?

Social science has long suggested that providing information about the extent of climate change and/or why and what behaviour changes are needed will never be sufficient to generate the necessary collective changes. People do not pursue ‘bad’ behaviour merely because they lack information about better alternatives. A failure to change is not primarily the product of erroneous or insufficient information. This rule applies to world-leaders, policymakers, climate scientists, corporate heads as much as it does the rest of us. And yet the social science contribution, of course, continues to be presented as information (like this article!). Lengthy social science publications (such as the 600+ pages World Social Science Report) provide further information in the hope that they will change behaviour; even if, ironically, a key message of that information is about the limits of using information to change behavior.

What is the alternative? Social science models of change generally speak of a need to engage with ‘deeper’ and ‘wider’ drivers of behaviour (see Adams, 2014 for a full discussion). ‘Deeper’ drivers might be unconscious anxiety and subsequent denial and defence mechanisms; a psychological proclivity for narrative structures; or the significance of embodied experience of the consequences of one’s actions.[2] Most social science would claim that these ‘drivers’ do not work in isolation – they are embedded in, encouraged by, ‘wider’ contexts such as existing social and cultural norms, conventions, material infrastructure. Encouraging change therefore requires engagement with these more complex drivers: for example, providing social support so anxiety can be expressed and contained; developing narratives that can encourage and foster identities rooted in sustainable behaviours; encouraging material and phenomenal connections to the ecological consequences of our actions.

Let’s explore this last example in a bit more detail. One constructive response to the limitations of the information-deficit model has been Kenneth Worthy’s work on ‘invisible nature’. He initially builds his argument on an intriguing reading of Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments. In the ‘touch-proximity’ series of experiments, Milgram found that the closer ‘pupils’ were to ‘teachers’, the less willing they were to ‘punish’ them in leaning tests. A later review of the many experiments that followed Milgram’s framework claimed that the proximity was the strongest determinant of ‘destructive behaviour’ of all the factors considered across many experiments.[3]  Worthy uses this finding to development the concept of phenomenal dissociation, which he defines as ‘a lack of immediate, sensual engagement with the consequences of our everyday actions and with the human and nonhuman others that we affect with our actions’. [4]  This lack of engagement is not an individual psychological variable for Worthy, but rather a situational symptom of modern globalized society translated into routine individual experience.  He reiterates a familiar sociological claim that modern life is spatially organized so as to remove ‘us’ from direct, phenomenal experience of the harmful consequences that much of our behaviour has upon human and nonhuman others, including other species but also ecosystems more generally.

I’ve not done his argument justice, but I want to move on to Worthy’s take on the implications of phenomenal dissociation for interventions tackling environmental challenges. He asserts that ‘knowledge of the harmful consequences of one’s actions is not enough to inhibit destructive actions; immediate, sensual experience of one’s consequences and the spheres where those consequences are expressed are crucial ingredients in limiting destructiveness and fostering caring relationships’.[5]

This is a bold claim. How might the ‘crucial ingredients’ of immediate, sensual experience be integrated into the complex network of relationships that mediate between human and nonhuman nature? The challenge for any form of environmental education in this context is to create some kind of phenomenal proximity to the consequences of behaviour. Inspiration here takes the unlikely shape of an international Girl Guide leader’s meeting in Mexico in 1981, as recounted in Juliana Mansvelt’s book, Geographies of Consumption. [6] The meeting was aimed at encouraging a leader’s engagement with environmental and social justice issues, and more specifically, ‘to make consumption dilemmas and differences real for the participants’.  One exercise in particular tackling unbalanced global food scarcity – ‘Bread Alert’ – exemplifies this intention, and is worth reproducing in full:

Leaders were randomly divided into groups representing the approximate proportions of First World, Second World and Third World at that time (in a ration of 3:7:20 respectively) and given breakfast: First World, a full ‘American’ style breakfast; Second World, a small glass of fruit juice and a roll; Third World a dessertspoon of boiled rice. Barbara Arnold, one of the two New Zealand delegates, was assigned to the First World group. She tells how difficult it was to sit next to others who had little or nothing, knowing that for some of the people in these groups such consumption levels might be a daily reality.  While Barbara and her First World colleagues wanted to cooperate to give the others a portion of their allowance, they were forbidden to. Barbara noted the situation was made worse by the others having to watch her group eat, and she wonders whether they would have felt the same if the Second and Third World groups had not remained at the breakfast table’.

In this activity, although a staged performance, participants are given a taste (literally) of the consequences of unequal consumption habits; and, vitally, the affected others are in close proximity. Barbara’s anxiety and reflection are as interesting as the exercise here. They make clearer than usual the spatial and phenomenal dynamics normally in place, by temporarily transcending them. ‘Thus the realities of the participants’ consumption, and spaces of politics which separated them from understanding and acting towards others, were made visible in the performance of hunger in a context in which a visual and embodied exchange could take place’.

It is by no means a perfect fit, but as an example it flags up the possibility of a different kind of environmental communication and intervention; based on experiences of recreated proximity and embodied experiences of empathy. There is further inspiration to be found in various artistic and educational projects that have taken this logic up creatively (e.g. Metis, Institute for Humane Education, Forest Schools). A further implication of Worthy’s argument is that proximity to, and phenomenal associations with, nonhuman nature are potentially conducive to more ‘caring’ or sustainable behaviour towards the nonhuman other; a possibility that seems to be reflected in recent empirical work on conservation programmes and nature-connectedness.

Social science urges us to look at environmental challenges through a social lens. Bringing this to the attention of powerful stakeholders is vital, and should inform decision-making processes and conventions such as COP21. However, we must pursue the logic of a key social science insight further in considering how we do climate change communication, encourage behaviour change and engage in environmental education. We are not suffering from a lack of information, but informing ourselves of this will not overcome inertia and inaction. Looking at environmental challenges through a social lens means exploring forms of communication and education that radically address the implications of what we see.

[1] From page 653 in Hackmann, H, Moser, S.C. and Asuncion L. St. Clair. (2014). The social heart of global environmental change. Nature Climate Change 4 653–655.
[2] Recent examples of these various points of emphasis include the work of George Lakoff, Renee Lertzman and Kenneth Worthy.
[3] p. 157 in Worthy, K. (2008) Modern Institutions, Phenomenal Dissociations, and Destructiveness Toward Humans and the Environment. Organization & Environment. Vol. 21(2): 148-70.
[4] As above, p. 149
[5] As above, p. 150.
[6] Published in 2005 by Sage. All subsequent quotes are taken from this book, pages 160-162.


Matt Adams is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton. His writing and research has considered various aspects of social identity, particularly in terms of inequality, class and consumption.  He is currently researching the social and psychological dimensions of ecological crisis.

Image: Kevin Foresman   CC-BY-2.0