How classic rhetoric theory can affect action on matters of climate change.

With the benefit of being complex and hard to understand, the science behind anthropogenic climate change poses a unique challenge to scientists and communicators alike.

Though scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is supported by a rich body of research and poses multiple, serious threats to this planet (IPCC 2014), the matter is still hotly debated in public and policy forums across the globe.

Arguably the appointed gatekeepers or translators of this ‘rich body of research’ are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Established by the United Nations in 1988, the IPCC reports represent the work of thousands of scientists and are endorsed by all UN member states. These reports are considered pre-eminent, representative of scientific opinion and consensus (Goodwin 2009).

Despite majority consensus being achieved within the scientific community, no amount of facts or experts seem to be enough to influence popular perceptions and motivations, especially in countries like Australia, where climate change policy is still sharply divided.

Often called the “Dean of the environmental movement,” James Gustave Speth admitted in a manifesto for Orion Magazine (Speth 2012):

“Throughout my forty-odd years in the environmental community, public discourse on environment has been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists – people like me. Now we need to hear a lot more from the preachers, the poets, the psychologists, and the philosophers. And our message must be one that is founded on hope and honest possibility.”

If it is culture that will shape the perception and politics of climate change, how?

Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton (2011) said it was not philosophers that stand to enlighten us about “What is going to happen to the human race?” or “What should we do about it?” but of the ecological crisis, he said:

“An unusually warm spring day cannot now be what it was for Caucer and Wordsworth – a manifestation of the mystery and power of the non-human realm. We [used to] go into nature and see that we were the playthings of forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains.

How mindsets have changed. Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet.

Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves.

We have in response to our situation become hysterically sentimental towards nature. We take pity on her. We treat all of her like a wounded panda. We have come far from the attitude of the ancient Greeks, who saw nature as their adversary, potentially generous, but at heart a foe. We have lost all sense of the ancient fight and now feel responsible. Despite our puny frames and lifespans, we have even succeeded in feeling guilt towards glaciers.”

Where Speth (2012) calls for the ‘preachers, the poets, the psychologists, and the philosophers’ to speak on climate, de Botton (2011) realises our relationship with the ecological crisis leaves us feeling ‘responsible’, ’hysterically sentimental’ and ‘guilty’. Both are rich perspectives worth exploring.

This analysis will review influential contributions to the communication of climate change that arguably heeds the call from Speth (2012). It will also present research into how our relationship with this issue as described by de Botton (2011) influences our actions.

Rhetoric of Science

Science is often lauded for its precise, unemotional rationality, and objective, universal language. Yet, this language often separates academics from the general public who attempt to access their ideas.

Greek philosopher Aristotle’s analysis of persuasive argument has much to offer in this regard.

Aristotle (1991) described three means of persuasion: 1) appeals to reason (logos); 2) appeals to emotion (pathos) and; 3) appeals to personality or character (ethos).

In order for our audience to accept or act upon the argument we present to them we can use one, two or all three means of persuasion. Which we use is determined by the nature of the argument, the audience to which we present our argument and the circumstances in which we present it (Corbett et al. 1999).

The language of logos is common in science, understandable with scientific papers largely concerning themselves with establishing the validity of observations. For reference, an example is provided:

“Fourteen of the 15 hottest years ever measured with instruments have been in this century. These higher temperatures are having an effect on
animals, plants, people, ecosystems.”

– Al Gore (2016)

Emotions can affect an audience’s ability to accept or favour a particular line of argumentation. Aristotle (1991) writes about how the arousing of emotions and an understanding of their mechanism can help to convince your audience. For reference, an example of pathos appeal is provided:

“The sky is not the vast and limitless expanse that appears when we look up from the ground. It is a very thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet that right now is the open sewer for our industrial civilisation. We are spewing 110 million tons of heat-trapping global warming pollution into it every 24 hours, free of charge.”

– Al Gore (2016)

The language of ethos establishes the orator as credible and trustworthy. Aristotle (1991) captures this well:

“We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided… His character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”

Another useful relic of Aristotelean logic proves useful in observing and classifying shifts in discourse.

The original presentation of a scientists work is considered forensic and usually takes the form of a scientific report. However, the popularisation of such work causes shifts in genre and statement type.

A scientific report gives prominence to the ‘Material and Methods’ and ‘Results’ sections with tables, figures, and photographs representing the evidence the researcher provides. Fahnestock (1986) observed that when larger audiences are addressed, however, accomodations of scientific reports are not forensic to the same degree.

“With a significant change in rhetorical situation comes a change in genre, and instead of simply reporting facts for a different audience, scientific accommodations are overwhelmingly epideictic; their main purpose is to celebrate rather than validate.”

Aristotle (1991) described epideictic oratory as concerning itself with judging whether something deserves praise or blame and ultimately, aims to solidify the values of ones audience.

But how do we define an appropriate use of rhetoric in scientific settings?

Identifying as neither ‘preacher, poet, psychologist or philosopher’, former vice president of the United States Al Gore has none-the-less risen to the call from Speth (2012).

Since leaving politics, Gore has been heavily involved in climate change communication, even winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Featuring Gore, the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim 2006) is largely celebrated as ‘a pivotal moment in the history of climate change discourse’ and its success is best understood through Aristotles insights to rhetoric.

No longer a contender for office, Gore introduces himself at the beginning of the film: “I used to be known as the next president of the United States… I don’t find that particularly funny.” which draws interesting parallels to the infamous Gettysburg Address where Lincoln said “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”.

In both cases, the under-representation of the orators character and merit has had the reverse effect and instead, establishes an effective appeal to ethos which is maintained throughout the film.

Gore has battled and lost in both politics and environmental activism. Yet, he risks himself to tell “An Inconvenient Truth”.

Naturally, the film is rich with appeals to logos: glaciers are melting; the hottest years on record are all within the last century; CO2 levels in the atmosphere are still increasing. Gore’s ability to command factual material, without doubt, added to the success of his address.

Gore also refers to consensus within the scientific community, affirming the image of a scientist as a ‘cultural hero’.

Most interesting however, are the appeals to pathos. Not long after his introduction, Gore shows a picture of earth, taken from the moon. He says:

“You see that pale, blue dot? That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history, has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the wars all the famines, all the major advances – it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilisation. I believe this is a moral issue, it is your time to seize this issue, it is our time to rise again to secure our future.”

The phrase “our only home” generates a sense of the collective purpose and “its our time to rise again” an enabling of same. Emphasis is placed on encompassing words like ‘everything’ and ‘all’ (which appears six times), phrases like “our ability to live on planet Earth”.

Gore spends most of the film laying down the grim facts of the current state of things but employs pathos appeals leaving the audience optimistic.

Smith and Howe (2015) suggest “It is the combination of these dimensions, the performative fusion of logos with pathos and ethos, that explains why audiences would spontaneously stand and applaud after screenings [of “An Inconvenient Truth”].”

An ability to grasp a disputed issue such as climate change and transform it subject matter which individuals from all over the world can engage is critical to ongoing, rational debate.

An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim 2006) demonstrates a compelling argument for the effective use of Aristotles (1991) three means of persuasion in scientific rhetoric.

Which leaves us yet to address the feelings de Botton (2011) describes as in response to the ecological crisis.

A ‘fear appeal’ is a persuasive communication technique that attempts to arouse fear in order to promote motivation and action (Reser and Bradley 2017). It has two defining characteristics: it induces fear and an ‘appeal’ to do something.

Despite a strong view among scientists that fear appeals are not effective or appropriate, they are often employed in communication of climate change. The feelings de Botton (2011) describes are, with little doubt, in response to fear appeals or pathos orientated communications.

In analysing the use of fear appeals in scientific rhetoric, Reser and Bradley (2017) outline the arguments for and against their use.

Arguments for the Use of Fear Appeals

• the need to enhance message salience and audience attention
• the argument and some evidence that fear appeals promote processing of risk information 

• the appeal-implied adverse consequences if actions are not taken
• research evidence from other fields that fear appeals can aid message acceptance and engagement
• the widespread precedent of using such a strategy—with this being particularly the case for emergency warnings in the case of environmental threats such as extreme weather events and natural disasters
• a general belief that fear appeals can be effective with respect to communication and influence success.

Arguments Against the Use of Fear Appeals

• Fear appeals have been counter-productive in particular contexts
• Fear appeals can heighten existing levels of fear, anxiety and stress
• The notional psychological distance of climate change with respect to temporal and geographic distance and the difficulty of imagining such a future global phenomenon.
• Chronic use and overuse of fear appeals can diminish value
• Media saturation and sensationalised coverage of projected dangers and implications of climate change appreciably erode public attention and issue engagement.
• There exist multiple ethical arguments cautioning the use of fear appeals

They conclude that although decades of research into the efficacy of fear appeals in behaviour change show that it can be useful in certain contexts, with regard to climate change communication and engagement, however, the effectiveness is not demonstrated.

Associate Professor Kelly Fielding from The University of Queensland has contributed significantly to a growing body of work that researches the role that psychology and communication can have on motivating people to engage in and act on environmental issues.

Working alongside Bissing-Olson et al. (2016), Fielding researched the ability of emotions to influence environmental behaviour.

The study showed that when people were feeling more positive they tried to do more for the environment, whereas negative emotions made no difference in behaviour.

“Emotions can greatly influence behaviour, yet research on links between incidental emotions and pro-environmental behaviour is limited.

[In this study,] ninety-six university students recorded their engagement in specific pro-environmental behaviours, and their feelings of pride and guilt about these behaviours. Results showed that pro-environmental behaviour was positively related to pride, and negatively related to guilt.

Pride about environmental behaviour was positively related to subsequent engagement in pro-environmental behaviour, but only for people who perceived more positive pro-environmental descriptive norms. Guilt was not related to subsequent pro-environmental behaviour.”

In other words, when students were feeling positive emotions, such as enthusiasm or excitement, they were more likely to take pro-environmental action and the opposite when students were feeling relaxed or content.

It is interesting to perceive these works in light of the feelings described by de Botton (2011) and to consider how climate change rhetoric influences our behaviours.


Aristotle (1991) said that we must ‘speak seriously of serious things’ which is what has been attempted in this analysis.

Gore’s work demonstrates the success of simple (and age old) communication techniques and is presented here as illustrating the need for broad scale ecological and rhetorical reform.

The ways in which information can change as a function of rhetoric, and in which rhetoric can influence behaviour, is deserving of scrutiny. Most urgently so in leading us toward effective global action on matters of climate change.