When it comes to climate change, there's no escaping the relentless litany of news stories telling us how bad it is and how much worse it's going to get. And despite the grim and grimmer reports and predictions, people – individuals, communities, governments – seldom seem to be roused into the sort of action we’re told we need to take. So maybe it’s time we changed the messaging. That’s the view of George Marshall, founding director of UK charity Climate Outreach, an organisation dedicated to driving public engagement with climate change.

George is in Ireland to address the National Climate Stakeholders Forum and to advise the Department of the Environment about climate change communication. He told Claire Byrne that, in his opinion, our brains are wired to ignore climate change:

"Let’s put it this way: if someone was coming at me and attacking me with a knife, I’d immediately – bing! – I could click into that, something that I could recognise. There’s an enemy, there’s a problem. And that’s how we've evolved to adapt to issues which require an immediate response. Something like this which is abstract, it’s caused by people all over the place, it’s far away, we haven’t faced it before, it involves costs and – let's face it – you know, I leave putting my tax return to the very last minute. You leave things, you push them away into the future and we always have other things to worry about."

So the urgent, immediate issues tend to get all our attention, while the longer-term dangers, even though they’re very real and very serious, tend to get put on the back burner. There are only so many things we can worry about at any one time. Recent extreme weather events, though, may be putting the issue more front and centre of people’s minds:

"It used to be that when you asked people do you think climate change is a problem now, they’d say, no, but it’s a huge problem for future generations. They’d kind of push it down the road. Now, they’re saying yes, it’s a problem now."

Curiously, George says, research done in Ireland suggests that, although people think climate change will affect the country and other people, they don’t think it’s going to affect them personally. And that sort of disconnected thinking isn’t peculiar to Ireland, according to George, it’s universal:

"Any country in the world where you ask people who do you think it’s going to affect, it’s always someone else. Similarly, if you ask people who do you think is causing it, it’s always someone else."

Part of the problem, George argues, is that we need a positive story about how taking action can make a difference:

"It’s not about saving polar bears, it’s not about saving the planet, these big abstract things, no, it’s about a positive national transformation moving forward which is going to bring benefits to everyone."

Transformation may make for a more positive story, but George warns that it isn’t going to be easy:

"It’s going to be hard, it’s going to require changes. The outcome of this will, in many ways, be beneficial for air quality, for having comfortable, affordable housing, to have a better way of transport, all of these things and economic opportunities. But it will be difficult, the transformation will be difficult. And so that’s why we need a story that really takes people with us."

George has been talking to Irish government representatives and politicians this week about promoting a national story on what we can do together on climate change. But Claire wonders if the things that people get exercised about here – turf-cutting, for example – will continue to cause problems, if people feel they or their way of doing things is under threat. George argues that that’s actually a different issue:

"The issues which emerge around climate change are very rarely about climate change. They’re almost always about culture, about identity and trust – trust is huge – issues of fairness and, I think very much, about issues about whether people feel valued."

One of the main challenges for Ireland’s fledgling national story will be bringing farmers along. Agriculture doesn’t have to be the bad guy in the story, though, George says. Again, it’s a question of people feeling they’re valued:

"You have to say, 'You the farming people, you are the custodians of the land. You are the backbone of our country, the backbone of our culture and therefore, we have a problem, this is difficult, let’s face up to it, let’s be honest about it, let’s work together to solve it.’ So it has to be about language of partnership. And yes – there will be changes which might very well be culturally challenging."

That’s putting it mildly. According to George, we’re in a better place than a lot of other countries when it comes to talking about climate change. So will hopefully make the path to that national story a little easier.

You can hear Claire’s full conversation with George by going here.