Human behavior often works against us when change is needed to serve the common good.

Human beings are often selfish creatures with a natural tendency to exhibit the bystander effect, a reluctance to intervene in situations because of an assumption that others will.

It took decades for both our culture and government regulations to catch up with medical evidence that showed smoking was detrimental to one’s health. As recently as the 1960s, advertisements touting the health benefits of cigarettes could be found plastered across American magazines and newspapers. “Not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels!” exclaimed one advertisement.

Public relations can be a force to shake people’s natural inertia and build demand for change.

Over the years, climate change has gained traction toward becoming a matter of fact, not opinion, in our country. Yet, there is still much work to be done. Research by Media Matters for America found that, despite there being an enormous amount of climate-centric news in 2015 after the pope’s encyclical and the Paris Agreement, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox collectively spent 5 percent less time covering the topic than in 2014. And, a study by Pew Research Center showed that only 27 percent of American adults believe that almost all climate scientists agree that humans are responsible for causing the climate to change (in reality, between 90 and 100 percent of climate scientists are in agreement on this).For example, climate change is a polarizing issue here in the United States. Big oil is following the lead of big tobacco and waging a war against those who are ringing the alarm bells that, yes, climate change is happening right now and, yes, it is due to human activity.

We need to overcome these barriers to acceptance in order to increase public awareness and implement climate solutions, and communications can be a powerful tool in doing so.

Underscore the Urgency

Most of the coverage on climate change is focused on the long-term impacts unlikely to take place for decades to come, such as rising seas swallowing large swaths of low-lying land, inhospitable climates, and the extinction of key plant and animal species across the globe. When exposed to media coverage of these studies, audiences often ignore them since many won’t likely occur in their lifetime.

Pivoting to focus on the immediate impact climate change is having right now on land and in the oceans can create a greater sense of urgency. Coral reefs are bleaching from an unbalanced pH of the ocean, sea level rise is consuming the Marshall Islands, and fields in California are drying up from unprecedented drought.

In places like California, if water still pours from the faucet when you turn the knob, it’s easy to ignore the drought. If the water stops flowing, then you will realize the seriousness of the situation, and be motivated to take action. Once a crisis immediately impacts a person’s day-to-day life, they will begin to act, but often it’s too late.

Highlight Individual Stories

Joseph Stalin is often quoted as saying “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” People are more likely to be moved to support a cause that is tied to an individual, rather than the masses, also known as the collapse of compassion.

Stories have been found to have a much more powerful impact on people than simple statistics. John Allen Paulos, a mathematician, put it: “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”

While statistics are important for establishing credibility, they must be paired with human stories that trigger empathy in the audience. Consider profiling those who are being impacted by the impacts of climate change: a family being forced to relocate due to sea level rise, a farmer who lost his livelihood because of drought, a mother who lost everything during a Category 5 hurricane. These personal stories will connect your audience to the characters, driving home the harsh reality that people across the world are being impacted by climate change and related extreme weather every day.

Incorporate Visuals 

Moving photography is vital for driving home the urgency of climate change. According to Climate Outreach, seven principles should be used when selecting photography to highlight climate change:

  1. Avoid staged or stock photography and show real people
  2. Choose fresh photography
  3. Select behaviors at scale, not individual actions, that contribute to climate change
  4. Couple behavioral actions and impacts to empower your audience
  5. Localize the issues
  6. Refrain using photography of protestors
  7. Take care to not offend different audiences

And it’s not just limited to using impactful photography; visualizing data can have a similar effect. Sixty-five percent of the population is made up of visual learners, underscoring the importance to display data in an easily digestible way.

There are endless ways to display data around climate change – everything from infographics to interactive charts is effective.

Make Your Communications Action-oriented

Once people understand the gravity of the situation, it is easy for them to feel overwhelmed and hopeless thinking their actions won’t make a difference. One way to combat this is to tell them what they can do to help. Empower your audiences to make small changes that can have a lasting impact: changing out their lightbulbs to energy efficient models, using reusable shopping, or reduce their beef consumption. Highlight that all actions big and small can, and will, make a difference.

Climate change is not the only environmental issue that is struggling to be taken seriously by society. Clean energy, conservation of endangered species, and recycling have all struggled to make progress due to the barriers imposed by human nature. A better understanding of how our brains work and how they respond to society’s issues can help your organization or campaign reach and captivate more audiences, eventually making a revolutionary impact on public opinion and helping to change the world.

What’s the best way to create social change? Write in and tell us what you think.