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The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

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This training explores the barriers and challenges we face when communicating to various audiences about climate change, as well as strategies to overcome those issues, including understanding the values, worldview, and identities that a particular audience has. In this training, Dr. Sabine Marx responds to questions submitted by volunteers after the January 2018 National Call, as well as reviewing key content from the call.

TOC and Guide Section
Training Objectives & Agenda

Objectives of this training are to help CCLers to:

  • Understand the psychological barriers that prevent people from taking in information correctly
  • Have enhanced awareness of communication challenges
  • Evaluate their current communication strategies
  • Have greater competency to connect and communicate with audiences

Training agenda:

  • Key takeaways from the January 2018 national call 
  • Climate change skepticism
  • Values, world views, and identities
  • How to get to know your audience: participatory processes
  • Potential losses from deferred action (loss aversion)
Key Takeaways From the National Call
  • Risk perception is subjective!
  • Decision makers:
    • Are selective when attending to information
    • Evaluate options using both cognitive and affective processes (importance of emotional appeals)
    • Are influenced by beliefs, values, goals, and prior experience 
    • Can benefit from social context of decision making
    • May lack awareness of or access to solutions

Some established psychological principles: 

  • Losses loom larger than gains. People fear losses more than they value gains 
  • We have a “Finite Pool of Worry.” We can’t worry about everything.
  • Beware the single action bias. We tend to look for a single solution to problems.

Selected communication principles to reach your audience

  • Is your message relatable?
  • Tie the information to their most pressing priorities
  • Does it grab attention?
  • Strike a balance of being vivid enough but not too alarmist 
  • Frame the information to elicit sufficient level of affective response
  • Does it motivate action?
  • Lead with solutions
  • Translate solutions into actionable steps appropriate for your audience
  • Emphasize the impact of taking action/efficacy
  • Does it foster cooperation, collaboration, and community building?
  • Tap into group affiliation (what do we have in common?)
Climate Change Skepticism

There are several types of skepticism

  • Skepticism that is part of the scientific process, such as the level of uncertainty in climate models 
  • Skepticism based on misinformation 
  • Skepticism due to unconscious, underlying psychological processes

How to best communicate with skeptical audiences? 

  • Pick just a few key facts about climate change from trusted sources to share and put those facts in context
  • Translate unfamiliar or unintuitive statistics and numbers into relatable examples
  • Whenever possible, provide clear visualizations 
  • Acknowledge uncertainty, but focus on established facts
  • Invoke the precautionary principle, “better safe than sorry”
  • Highlight the opportunities to shape the future, help them imagine an alternative/better future
  • Remind people that they make decisions under uncertainty all the time (enrolling in college, investing in stocks, medical treatments, getting married)
Values, Worldviews, and Identities

One of the most important first steps is to understand your audience’s values, worldviews, and identities.  These can then drive your communication strategy.


  • Values: independence, privacy, equality, patriotism, fairness, loyalty
  • Worldviews: hierarchical, egalitarian, individualism, communitarianism
  • Identities: mother, Republican, businessperson

Example of value misalignment: 

Someone who strongly values personal property rights learns that new dunes planned to protect the coast against sea level rise will obstruct her waterfront view. She’s likely to A) not support the dunes and B) dismiss or deny a primary factor that would justify the dunes - sea level rise.

Example of value alignment: 

Someone who values national security may be receptive to hearing about how renewable energy can reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, thus improving national security.

A worldview is a person’s deeply held beliefs and attitudes about how the world works and how people should relate to one another. For example people who identify as egalitarian are skeptical of solutions that come from the market, but tend to be supportive of solutions that involve regulation.

A person’s identity often determines their goals. However people can have multiple (often conflicting) identities and goals, such as:

  • CEO, business owner
  • Parent
  • Member of a board
  • Member of religious community
  • Neighbor
  • Citizen
  • Employee
  • Shareholder

It’s important to find the right messenger for the audience you are communicating with. An ideal messenger is someone whose identities, values, and group affiliations are similar to those of the audience.

How to Get to Know Your Audience: Participatory Processes

In advance of presentations, and as a long-term process, engage with a diversity of groups, including those you disagree with. 

  • Determine all relevant audiences and parties
  • Include partner organizations with different missions and goals
  • Develop reciprocal relationship with scientists, practitioners, public
  • Translate research into usable recommendations

Here are questions to ask groups you engage with. In your group: 

  • Who can use the information we want to communicate?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Which variables are of interest and at what time-scales?
  • What are suitable presentation formats?
  • Who should communicate the information?
  • Who should we liaise with?
  • Who has decision authority?
  • Who has decision resources/capacity? 
  • Whom have we left out?
Loss Aversion

Tap into people’s desire to avoid future losses rather than their desire to realize future gains. Studies show that people discount future gains more than future losses.

People may be more likely to adopt environmentally responsible behavior and support costly emission reduction efforts if they believe their way of life is threatened and that inaction will result in even greater losses.

More concretely: When talking to a homeowner, you can frame energy efficient appliances as helping the homeowner avoid losing money on higher energy bills in the future, instead of helping them save money in the future.

Citing future losses taps into this psychology. For example, in 2015, Citigroup forecast the cost of not acting on climate change as $44 trillion in lost GDP by 2060.

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Intro & Agenda
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Climate Skepticism

Values, Worldviews, and Identities

Knowing your Audience

Dr. Sabine Marx

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To skip ahead to a specific section go to the time indicated in parenthesis.

Intro & Agenda 
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Climate Skepticism 

Values, Worldviews, and Identities 

Knowing your Audience 

Dr. Sabine Marx
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