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InPsych 2012 | Vol 34

Psychology in current issues

Communicating climate change to the Australian public: Avoidance of complexity

Emeritus Professor Graeme Halford FAPS FASSA of the University of Queensland has been active in the climate change area since 1989, when he convened a workshop on human dimensions of climate change for the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Since then he has participated on the International Committee of the International Geosphere-Biosphere program, and run a number of other public activities including ‘Getting the Economy and Ecology Together’ for the Queensland Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Halford believes that cognitive psychology can make an important contribution to the response to human-induced climate change by facilitating basic understanding of this complex issue.

It is well recognised that climate change is an immensely complex phenomenon, and sceptics and advocates of vested interest can exploit this situation by making claims that have an appealing simplicity, but which tend to distort the issues in the public mind. As a science, psychology should be concerned that the views of the vast majority of scientists involved in climate change research are being increasingly called into question with the rise of climate change denialism. This compounds the already complex issues and creates confusion and uncertainty. People will find it easier to make an informed judgment if they have a clear understanding of the essence of climate change. Findings from cognitive psychology can be utilised to keep complexity to a minimum in communicating with the public about climate change.

Research by myself and colleagues has documented the effects of cognitive complexity in reasoning (Halford et al., 2007), language comprehension (Andrews et al., 2006) and mathematics education (English & Halford, 1995). People have highly effective ways of dealing with complexity, essentially by decomposing complex tasks into simpler subtasks that are processed serially. Complexity effects are observed most clearly in tasks that inhibit decomposition, of which interpretation of interactions is a good example (Halford et al., 2005). Our research leads us to conclude that climate change issues have a complexity that provides a real challenge to people’s understanding.

Application of this cognitive research means that the essence of climate change should be communicated with minimum complexity. However, while there is an abundance of admirable documents that aim to increase community understanding of climate change (such as those from the Australian Academy of Science (2010), CSIRO (2010) and Garnaut, 2010), it has proved difficult to communicate the reality of climate change to the public in a way that overcomes the complexity barrier.

The following statements reflect an attempt to develop a ‘minimal complexity’ account of the climate change issue.

How climate change has occurred

  1. Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have increased since industrialisation.
  2. Greenhouse gases increase the temperature of the atmosphere.
  3. Global average temperatures have increased over the past century.
  4. Global warming is predicted to destabilise climate, increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including floods, fires, droughts and storms.

Points 1 and 3 are shown by measurement and point 2 can be demonstrated in laboratories. Therefore all of points 1-3 are established beyond reasonable doubt. Point 4 is more theoretically based, but is still well substantiated by climate models. Importantly, point 4 is more plausible if points 1-3 are accepted. Points 1-4 can be expanded and verified using material in excellent existing sources, such as those referred to above. However it is essential that the focus on essential points not be lost.

These are the most basic propositions about climate change, acceptance of which can provide a foundation for greater public understanding, permitting more complex arguments to be understood. For example, people can then progress to understanding how an emissions trading scheme can provide an incentive to industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While recognising that it goes against the grain for leading scientists and academics to make simplistic statements, the complexity of climate change makes it easy for vested interests to sow doubt and confusion. Therefore it is essential that we find a simple, accurate and memorable (SAM) basis on which people can build their understanding of climate change. This is an important contribution that psychology can make to the response to human-induced climate change.

The author can be contacted at g.halford@griffith.edu.au


  • Andrews, G., Birney, D.P. & Halford, G.S. (2006). Relational processing and working memory in the comprehension of complex relative clause sentences. Memory and Cognition, 34(6), 1325-1340.

    Australian Academy of Science. (2010). The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers. Canberra: Author. ISBN 085847 286 4.
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (2010). The Big Picture: Session 1: What is climate change? Accessed from www.csiro.au.

    English, L.D. & Halford, G.S. (1995). Mathematics Education: Models and Processes. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum. ISBN 0-8058-1457-4 0-8058-1458-2.
  • Garnaut, R. (2010). What if Mainstream Science is Right? The Rout of Knowledge and Analysis in Australian Climate Change Policy (and a Chance of Recovery?). Proceedings of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra.

    Halford, G.S., Baker R., McCredden , J.E., & Bain, J.D. (2005). How Many Variables Can Humans Process? Psychological Science, 16(1), 70-76.
  • Halford, G.S., Cowan, N., & Andrews, G. (2007). Separating Cognitive Capacity from Knowledge: A new hypothesis. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(6), 236-242.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on June 2012. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.