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Climate Communication and PAIN Theory. How to Destroy your Advocacy


“In order to get a person to change behavior, that person must not be told how bad it will be or even how bad it is.  That person must sense it himself or herself.”

A few months ago I wrote about “the lizard.”  See here:


Thus, I read with interest an article on the Huffington Post today by Professors Levine and Klein titled, “Why Climate Change Rhetoric Simultaneously Succeeds and Fails.”

Now, on a couple of points I highlight some neat things about the article.  One of the first things was that the article identified climate talk as “rhetoric.” On this I agree. Climate communication by those who advocate for more aggressive climate policies, in my mind, are ineffective.  They preach to the choir and come up with plenty of positional puffery.  But rarely do they come up with, “We predicted this event right here.  And the trend is showing it.”

In recent years, however, it is fairly easy to see what it going on.  The first trigger of this was the change in terminology from “global warming” to the more vague and inclusive “climate change.” This makes sense, because there was a time when “global warming” was debatable. Additionally, “climate change” was more inclusive in terms of meeting the goal of communication: convincing people to act against it.

Why Not “Global Warming?”

The term “global warming” was brilliant, terse and concise.  It was objective.  But there was a problem with the term: “what does that mean?” The earth warms a degree Fahrenheit.  So what?  In order to make this issue something that people can more easily identify with, the term “climate change” came into popularity.  (Note: not that “climate change” was anything new.  It’s been around for a long time).

The term “climate change” became important as a communication tool since the implication of a warming world is that climate will change.  It turns out, this also isn’t something that will cause the general population to take it seriously.  There has to be more to it to get movement.

What is the Effect of Climate Change on Me?

In order to get people to act, one thing that affects the reptilian center of our brains is the idea of a personal threat. So we are peppered with ideas of the effects of climate change.  Everything from more allergies to stresses on infrastructure to sea level change, as well as increases in damaging weather, are alleged to be effects of climate change. These are effects on others.  These are PERSONAL impacts.

So what?  These are things that will occur slowly and we can manage it.

Climate Change is Sudden

Here we see that the advocates telling people that climate change is already here and is causing problems.  This isn’t just climate change, but it is ABRUPT climate change.  Katrina is an example that climate change already occurred.  Sandy?  “It’s the climate, Stupid.” The California drought – five years ago California was awash in precipitation – just look at the pictures of reservoirs! Snowmageddon.  Super El Nino.  Flooding in Pakistan.  Melting permafrost.  All things that are new and abrupt.

Climate Change is an Outrage

Yes.  Billions of people can be affected by this.  To simply allow small island nations to disappear under water without doing anything would be immoral.  CO2 in the atmosphere causes this?  Whomever is putting it there must be stopped.

Climate Change is Already Happening

This isn’t just some notional event for the future.  Things are happening as we speak.  Indeed, drought has effects beyond just crops, including causing civil wars and the rise of terrorism.  This is happening right NOW.

PAIN Theory and Its Use in Climate Communications

Personal.  Abrupt. Immoral.  Happening Now.

PAIN theory was described about a decade ago by Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert describes a variant of the Reptile: there are essentially four characteristics of threat to which humans have retained their primordial sensitivity.  In contemporary terms, we can examine this in terms of the human perception of terrorism.

(1) Personal – When a human being decapitates another human being, human empathy sets in.  We recognize the human face of these acts, and it triggers powerful human emotions. This is opposed to a tornado or a wildfire or hurricane – nature happens ;

(2) Abrupt – People notice quick changes, and not the slow changes that occur over time. Therefore we take particular note of ISIS, who nobody had heard of two or three years ago. But people are talking about a meter of sea level rise in the next hundred years;

(3) Immoral – Humans react to beheadings, sex slavery and mass murders that can hit anywhere without warning and have a strong moral opposition to those who do those things.  We cannot wrap our heads around a couple of hundred parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere that we can’t see, smell, taste, etc.; and

(4) Now – People react more strongly to immediate threats than long term ones.  Is climate change going to kill me tomorrow?  No. Will a terrorist bomb the Starbucks tomorrow morning? I can’t say that won’t happen. I will thus view terrorism as a more immediate threat than climate change.

This is PAIN theory.  Take a look and we can see that the article by Levine and Klein stated:

An increasingly common argument, backed both by intuition and social science research, is that rhetoric should highlight how climate change will personally affect Americans’ lives.

There is is: Personal. Rhetoric has gotten to the point where terrorism itself is being blamed on climate change.

Klein and Levine Conclude that it Depresses People

This should not be a surprise. People faced with negative thoughts about something that is impersonal, not abrupt, is morally vacuous and affects the future is depressing. In fact, there have been many suggestions that rhetoric about prospective cataclysmic effects of climate change make people fatalistic and paralyzed.

Unlike the jury – who has within itself the power to correct a wrong (and let’s face it, there is a human face to any personal injury lawsuit) – a regular citizen can, if convinced, believe that he or she can do little or nothing to prevent the harm from happening. He just accepts it.

I, myself, believe that climate rhetoric is failing for a far simpler reason: it runs contrary to people’s perceptions.

Climate Rhetoric Fails because the PAIN Explains Actions based on Subjective Perception

Those in the lead with climate communications are failing in their goals. Whether deliberate or not (I think it is deliberate – these people are intelligent, educated and truly care), the PAIN elements are seen throughout climate communications.

But again and again we see reports that the “skeptics are winning the debate.” There is a reason that seems pretty obvious to me.  Telling people that they are threatened is entirely different from people feeling they are threatened.

It’s that simple. The Eastern Seaboard of the US faced record warmth during the month of December, 2015.  70 degrees in late December in Buffalo, NY is something that is not regarded as a problem by most.  A 70 degree day in December does not cause any of the PAIN issues for a person.

A person may recall just a year prior, when six feet of snow fell on Buffalo’s southern suburbs.  Six feet of snow is viewed as a personal threat.  It arrived abruptly. It caused deaths and immense disruption of routine.  And it happened already.  A 70 degree day, no matter what a person may argue, does not FEEL hazardous.

Telling a person that something hurts when it doesn’t feel like it will not work.  In order to get a person to change behavior, that person must not be told how bad it will be or even how bad it is.  That person must sense it himself or herself.

Cry Wolf Syndrome

Another issue is repeated threats of catastrophe.  People in California are experiencing a drought.  Very very few have had their water interrupted by it.  It doesn’t affect them.  The worst drought on record was survivable. What may have even previously been regarded as a potential problem has now been the worst drought ever and…

People have, for the most part, done pretty well.  As the warnings and rhetoric continue, people just start to tune it out. And this leads to the final problem with climate communicators.

It Just Sounds Disingenuous

A person has told me the climate is changing and it’s awful. It doesn’t feel like it.

A person has repeatedly told me that hurricanes will be more frequent and destructive.  But it’s been a decade and we used to get one every couple of years.

And when one looks at the use of the PAIN standards, it speaks of manipulation.  When one sticks to a playbook, it means that a person is no longer speaking from the heart.

Call to Action

The climate community has to look in the mirror and do a serious assessment. The rhetorical history has failed. According to Klein and Levine, it is counterproductive!

A new approach is needed.  This means getting away from the rhetoric.  It may involve putting some asses on the line in making predictions for the next decade (i.e., “By 2025, there will be planting of commercial citrus in Georgia” or “there will be 500 cases of endemic malaria north of the 37th parallel in North America by 2025” or even, “the West Side Highway in NYC will be permanently closed due to inundation by 2030”).

More of the same will not work and is alienating people. Is the issue important enough to put egos aside?

Time will tell.



2 thoughts on “Climate Communication and PAIN Theory. How to Destroy your Advocacy

    1. Because they are smart, motivated and educated. John Cook himself (the author of the paper demonstrating the 97% consensus) commented on my site the following about climate communications:

      “So to be clear, the reason for communicating consensus isn’t for emotional reasons – it’s a very clear-headed consideration of the social science research into the cognitive processes involved when people think about climate change. It’s about addressing the most significant and damaging misconception about climate change.”

      He is up to date on it. Up to speed. I have all the respect in the world for Mr. Cook. He is a good man, a bright man and a person who truly cares and believes. On the other hand, I think he can do much better. When focusing efforts on “more effective communications” we start hearing the same thing over and over. It then sounds forced and less organic.

      Thus, the PAIN factors explain why people behave as they do. They do not, in my lay observations, operate as a way to, for lack of a better word, manipulate the behavior of others. Instead, they explain why people are resistant to ideas of mechanisms that they do not themselves sense. They are attempting to tell people that their FEELINGS are wrong.

      Most people who have ever been in a relationship know the perils of denying a person’s feelings.

      Thank you for your comment.


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