What we don’t talk about when we talk about climate change

Almost every day we try to persuade people to care about climate change, but have we talked to the right people in the right way? Joint research by Development Dialogue Asia (DDA) and Communication for Change (C4C) identifies a messaging approach to effectively communicate climate change to the diverse people of Indonesia.
In Indonesia, a number of civil society organizations (CSOs) are trying to get their stakeholders and the public at large to care more about climate change and then take actions to mitigate its effects. To support this agenda, we (DDA and C4C) and Kantar Indonesia held a survey in the country’s 34 provinces with 3.490 respondents by random sampling from April to August 2021 to measure Indonesians’ level of understanding about climate change and their willingness to participate in collective actions to protect the environment from human-caused harms.

Our survey reveals that the majority of Indonesians do not yet perceive climate change as human-caused and is already happening. We also found that, despite very few respondents claiming to have participated in collective actions to protect the environment before, some expressed their willingness to join later.

Following up the survey, we developed a messaging approach and together with Eye to Eye tested them in focus group discussions (FGDs) in Java, Sumatera, and Papua from July to August 2022. We identified potential messages to make the general public understand the fundamental facts of climate change and be compelled to take mitigating actions.
We are inviting CSOs to use the guidebook we have developed to craft effective messages to further their respective climate agendas.

Indonesians do not know that they misunderstand climate change

Contrary to previous research, our survey with Kantar Indonesia did not only ask the respondents (aged 16 to 60) whether they have ever heard of the term “climate change”, but also checked their understanding.

Even though 88% of respondents said they have heard of it, only 44%–or, 39% of them all–could identify the correct definition of climate change. Furthermore, only 1 in 3 respondents believed that global warming is happening right now, and less than half (47%) believed that it is human-caused. In short, many Indonesians do not know that they misunderstand climate change.
When asked about who would get harmed by global warming, less respondents chose immediate circles (family, neighbors, oneself). Instead, they chose groups with higher psychological distance to them (the next generation, wildlife, Indonesian people). To paraphrase, most Indonesians view climate change and global warming as abstract, distant, and impersonal. This does not help them see the urgency to mitigate climate change, let alone act accordingly.

The message of “pollution blanket that overheating the earth” helps people understand

What can we do to make people understand and care more about climate change? We believe messages about climate change that can effectively change behaviors are the ones that can make laypeople visualize the relationships between the cause of climate change and what they are already experiencing in their immediate surroundings. A recent study from the U.S. shows that people overlook climate change messaging with big words and complicated terms, such as “greenhouse gas emissions”, “decarbonization”, and “anthropogenic”.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia we find many instances where climate change messaging is impenetrable for those who are not yet motivated to learn about this subject. They come from governmental institutions, news organizations, and CSOs’ social media posts.
How, then, do we explain climate change in a vivid, concise, and engaging way so that people see it is human-caused and harming them right now? We take an approach that is proven to be effective in moving nonpartisan suburban moms in the U.S. to urge their state governments to take action. This is the message:
The video shows how we can explain climate change with a metaphor of a pollution blanket that overheats the planet. This metaphor not only explains the cause and effects of climate change, but also describes how to mitigate its impact.

We adapted the pollution blanket metaphor to craft climate change messages to the people of Indonesia. When adapting, we added aggravating factors like deforestation (resulting in uncaptured pollution that thickens the blanket) and coal usage in power plants (one of the major polluters but also the biggest source of electricity in Indonesia).
To see whether Indonesians would understand the pollution blanket metaphor, we and Eye to Eye held 14 focus group discussions with men and women aged 18 to 49 from various socioeconomic backgrounds in Jakarta, Jayapura (Papua), Tarai Bangun (Riau), Kisaran (North Sumatera), Tegal, Demak, and Semarang (Central Java).

In each group, we consistently saw verbal and nonverbal reactions that indicated participants’ ability to render how events that they witnessed up close or directly experienced were the consequences of climate change.

The more you know, the more powerless you feel?

Metaphor of a pollution blanket that overheats the earth seemed to compel the respondents to become a part of the solution in avoiding the big catastrophe.

From the FGDs we noted that the only solution that participants believed were in their hands was to plant trees at their homes and neighborhoods. Messages that contained aggravating factors like coal to generate electricity or increased pollution as the consequences of more economic activities were perceived to be out of their control to solve. Participants viewed systemic factors as the government’s responsibility, while at the same time feeling that they had no power to influence the government. At the end, they felt powerless.
It’s crucial to make people believe they can partake in the solution. Informing them that they are in great danger without offering a way out could make them avoid the information altogether, something that is well-documented in behavioral science, as the ostrich effect.

People take action because they are persuaded, not because they are patronized

CSOs that want to craft effective messaging to drive people into joining climate collective actions should answer these questions:

  • How do we frame the message so that people pay attention to it and feel the urgency?

  • After they pay attention, what do we want them to do?

We need to frame the messages according to recipients’ moral values

Latest research in behavioral science (Feinberg & Willer, 2012; Hurst & Stern, 2020; Wolsko et al., 2016) show that using moral framing in climate change messaging that is relevant to the audience drives behavior change effectively.

Our survey found that 8 in 10 Indonesians stated that they felt a moral obligation to protect the environment from human-made threats. Where did this moral obligation come from? What kind of moral framing works for Indonesians?

Beside asking their knowledge about climate change, we also asked the respondents whether some actions are right or wrong according to their moral values. We adapted the questions from the first version of Moral Foundation Questionnaire (Haidt & Graham, 2009). We found that 9 out of 10 Indonesians (93%) have conservative worldview.

Aside from Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression that seem to be relevant to everybody, those with conservative worldview are sensitive to more moral foundations like nationalism and patriotism, proportionality, group loyalty, law and order, and sanctity. On the other hand, those with liberal worldview prioritize care and equality above loyalty, respect to authority, and sanctity.
We grouped our respondents into 5 segments based on their understanding of climate change, their drive to join collective actions, and their worldviews. This grouping has no correlation to age and gender, but to some extent, to socioeconomic level (income, occupation, and education) as well as geography (urban or rural). The diagram below illustrates this segmentation:

Based on the number, we prioritize the following 3 segments:

The established and informed conventionals (33%)

This segment is dominated by urbanites from middle and higher-middle class, who hold conventional worldviews (but are not fundamentalists) and follow the current events from media and social media. Compared to the general population, they are more knowledgeable about climate change. More of them feel morally obliged to protect the environment, and are more willing to join the climate collective action.
  • Dina (30)
    Eksekutif bank, Jakarta Selatan
  • Satriyo (35)
    Aparat Pemda, Payakumbuh

The pacifist cheerleaders (28%)

This segment likes to adorn themselves with membership badges from various groups: wearing shirts and pins, or using twibbon and avatar on digital presence. They are less of a soldier on the trenches than they are cheerleaders on the side. Avoiding open conflicts is paramount to them. They are demographically similar to the general population, but more of them work middle-income, blue-collar jobs.

Their level of understanding of climate change is at the same level as that of the population. Even though they are still considered to hold a conservative worldview, they do not immediately oppose liberal narratives. The narrative that resonates the most with them centers around togetherness and harmony within diversity. They do not object to being assumed as activists, although it does not necessarily mean that they have participated in or want to join collective actions.
  • Novia (19)
    Pengemudi ojol, Semarang
  • Jepri (38)
    Penjaga gerai ponsel, Bekasi

The defender of their land (27%)

Most people of this segment work in agriculture or as housewives. They are not interested to find out about “the rumble out there”, and are the least knowledgeable about climate change. They are also the most reluctant to join collective actions.

However, they are very motivated to protect the foundation of their communities. They are more conservative than the general population, and very loyal to their immediate circles.
  • Risda (49)
    Buruh tani, Bengkulu
  • Damar (42)
    Petugas satpam. Gunung Kidul
Climate change messaging needs to be framed differently according to each segment. For example, to target the Established and Informed Conventionals and the Pacifist Cheerleaders, we need to frame the message as: “to protect our family, especially our children''. Or we can target the Conventionals with the narrative of “protecting nature is protecting what God has entrusted us with” and deliver it with the help of religious leaders.

Another frame to target the Cheerleaders is by using the narrative “we cannot all be happy if some of us aren’t happy” to trigger a sense of local solidarity.

Meanwhile, we can target the Defenders by framing the message as “protecting our livelihood and our way of life”.

Choosing the right messengers is just as important. All segments listen to those whom they think are just like them. Therefore, we need to rethink if we will have “influencers” who hold little similarity to the message recipients.

Messages will be more likely bring about changes when the recipients want to and are able to participate

CSOs spread messages because they want people to do something to further their climate agendas. However, our survey revealed that only a few (18%) Indonesians claimed to have ever participated in collective actions to protect the environment. They stated that they were more eager to participate in low-risk and less-involving activities, such as donating and volunteering. This means that CSOs need to start offering a wide range of ways to contribute and participate.
Balancing CSOs’ climate agendas on one side and people’s risk tolerance in participating in collective actions on the other side is not easy, but we need to do it. That being the case, in communicating climate change CSOs need to add call-to-actions that do not overwhelm or scare people while at the same time still further the organizations’ agendas.

History shows us that diversity in ways to participate in collective actions is not a bug, but a feature of successful social movement. In the African-American civil rights movement, we recognize notable heroic figures (Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Park) and actions (Freedom Riders, march from Selma to Montgomery). However, this movement was supported by many “unsung heroes” in their own ways. Georgia Gilmore did her part in her kitchen by cooking and baking, to feed the activists and raise money for the activism.
Georgia Gilmore
A cook in the civil rights movement in the United States
Gilmore formed a club called Club from Nowhere and sold food during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted for 280 days in 1955 - 1956. She also cooked for activists and protesters at the Selma marches in 1965.
Georgia Gilmore
A cook in the civil rights movement in the United States
Gilmore formed a club called Club from Nowhere and sold food during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted for 280 days in 1955 - 1956. She also cooked for activists and protesters at the Selma marches in 1965.
By using the right messaging, we can light up optimism and motivate people to act until we meet many other Georgia Gilmores out there who are ready to stand together with us in this fight.

Learn about the research, spread the message

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