As communications consultant and author Solitaire Townsend pointed out in a viral tweet, searches for “kardashian” have topped climate change searches 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, loss of snow cover, deforestation and coral bleaching. Clicking on the doodle brought you to a search results page for “climate change”, which led to an increase in traffic.
This is just one calculation of climate commitment, and it is not the most scientific. But that plaster 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 residents of advanced economies and the high prevalence of climate anxiety among the world’s children, you’d think it would come up in conversation more often.
So why doesn’t it? It is a matter of human psychology. Much climate communication, from news headlines to slogans, is loaded with doom:
• “IPCC issues ‘darkest warning yet’ on impacts of climate collapse”
• “Another step towards climate apocalypse”
• “It is now or never for action against climate change”
It also tends to speak in rather scientific or abstract terms: carbon budgets, average global temperatures, the 1.5C target. We learn that fear is not always motivating, and statistics are not always convincing.
Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist and former Norwegian politician, summarizes the psychological defense people build against scary climate news:
• We distance ourselves geographically and temporally (melting glaciers in the Arctic and the year 2100 are both far away).
• The eternal feeling of doom leads us into the habit of avoiding the problem.
• Cognitive dissonance between what we do and what we know tempts us to justify our own polluting behaviour.
• We live in a state of denial so that we can continue life as normal.
In other words, fear paralyzes us. The more we hear about the climate apocalypse, the more we are numbed to its significance.
Here’s where the Kardashians come in. Townsend explains that we must remember that humans are monkeys, not angels. Our brains are wired for stories. Gossip is literally good for us. That’s why we’ve always been obsessed with celebrity culture; Thomas Busby highlighted the hollowness of it all in 1786, calling celebrities of the time merely “pretty women in pretty dresses.” The Kardashians are nothing new, but what they do so cleverly is tap into our innate desire to hear about other people.
If climate coverage focused less on melting glaciers and wildfires and more on people, it might be more engaging. There is a reason why Greta Thunberg started the climate protest movement: She is a person, not a statistic.
Even better is to showcase people who change their behavior to become more climate-friendly. Scientific studies have shown that seeing action convinces others to act. Green energy, for example, 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 is no point in downplaying the size of the crisis and the speed with which we must deal with it. But it would also be great if we could get to the business of influencing, rather than just shocking.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion