Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, a crisis that will affect every industry, every nation, every human life. Yet people seem more curious about the Kardashians. That's not a criticism or a lament, but a sign climate communicators might have some things to learn from one of the world's most famous families.
As communication consultant and author Solitaire Townsend pointed out in a viral tweet, searches for "kardashian" have outranked searches for climate change since January 2007 (when Kim Kardashian first rose to fame). Climate change has only beaten the Kardashians once, on April 22, 2022, otherwise known as Earth Day. Google's "doodle" to celebrate the event highlighted climate change with gifs of satellite images showing melting glaciers, snow-cover loss, deforestation and coral bleaching. Clicking on the doodle took you to a search-results page for "climate change," driving a spike in traffic.
This is just one metric of climate engagement, and it's not the most scientific. But it gibes with public opinion polls. A 2021 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while a majority of Americans say they worry about global warming, only 35% discuss the topic "at least occasionally." Given that the crisis is seen as the biggest threat on average by citizens in advanced economies and the high prevalence of climate anxiety in the world's children, you'd think it would crop up in conversation more often.
So why doesn't it? It's a matter of human psychology. A lot of climate communication, from news headlines to sloganeering, is laden with doom:
- "IPCC issues 'bleakest warning yet' on impacts of climate breakdown"
- "Another Step Toward Climate Apocalypse"
- "It's Now or Never for Action on Climate Change"
It also tends to speak in fairly scientific or abstract terms: carbon budgets, mean global temperatures, the 1.5C target. We're learning fear isn't always motivating, and statistics aren't always persuasive.
Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist and former Norwegian politician, summarizes the psychological defenses humans mount against scary climate news:
- We distance ourselves geographically and temporally (melting glaciers in the Arctic and the year 2100 are both far away).
- The perpetual sense of doom leads us to habitual avoidance of the issue.
- Cognitive dissonance between what we do and what we know tempts us to justify our own polluting behavior.
- We live in a state of denial so we can carry on with life as normal.
In other words, fear is paralyzing us. The more we hear about the climate apocalypse, the more we become numbed to its meaning.
Here's where the Kardashians come in. Townsend explains: "We need to remember human beings are apes, not angels." Our brains are wired for stories. Gossip is literally good for us. It's why we've always been obsessed with celebrity culture; Thomas Busby was highlighting the hollowness of it all in 1786, calling celebs of the era just "pretty women with beautiful dresses." The Kardashians are nothing new, but what they do so smartly is capitalize on our innate desire to hear about other people.
If climate coverage focused less on melting glaciers and wildfires and more on human beings, it might be more engaging. There's a reason Greta Thunberg kickstarted the climate protest movement: She's a person, not a statistic.
Even better is to showcase people who are altering their behaviors to be more climate-friendly. Scientific studies have shown that seeing action convinces others to take action. Green energy, for instance, is contagious: The biggest predictor of whether or not you have solar panels is whether your neighbor has them. The same ripple effects have been seen with electric vehicles and the rise of plant-based alternatives.
Of course, there is a place for scary headlines and numbers, too. There's no use downplaying the size of the crisis and the speed at which we must address it. But it would also be great if we could get to the business of influencing, rather than just shocking.