Our mistaken messaging on climate change

My good friend Ben Finzel works as a communications consultant specializing on clean energy issues. Ben recently wrote an article about how poor messaging on climate change is hindering progress on the issue. I thought it worthwhile to share it with you.
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A week ago, the world’s largest-ever march to demand action on climate change filled the streets of New York City. Shortly after, New York City hosted the largest assembly of world leaders ever convened on the topic. President Obama addressed the United Nations, and multiple climate meetings and programs took place.

In conjunction with these activities, political and corporate leaders have been making a series of announcements about new initiatives designed to address one or more aspects of climate change.

It’s great to see this progress, but it’s been a long time coming. We’ve known about the threat of climate change for decades. Why has it taken us so long to fully invest in tackling it? What have we done wrong?

People Climate March NYC  Photo By: Shadia Fayne Wood.

People’s Climate March NYC
Photo By: Shadia Fayne Wood.

One of the principal reasons it’s taken us so long to fully invest in tackling climate change is that we’ve made a lot of mistakes in communicating about it.

We’ve witnessed waves of concern and activity about our changing climate, but never sustained energy and engagement. Despite all of our progress, millions of people – individuals with a vested interest who should be involved – have remained on the sidelines. As a communicator working on this and related issues for twenty years, I have observed many of the mistakes we (myself included!) made in communicating about climate change:

  • We made climate change too complex to understand – when the conversation was more focused on “parts per billion” than on the specific, local parts of the planet that will be lost to rising sea levels and shrinking habitats, we lost the communications battle.
  • We made climate change seem too big for any one person to solve – when we talked and talked and talked about the huge, global implications of climate change without also highlighting specific, individual actions that everyone can take to help arrest it, we made it seem that action by any one person would be too small to have any effect.
Dhaka, Bangladesh: The children of Korail slum talked about their difficulties of living as climate refugees and shared their dreams of a better life. Photo credit: Risalat Khan.

People’s Climate March: Dhaka, Bangladesh. The children of Korail slum talked about their difficulties of living as climate refugees and shared their dreams of a better life. Photo credit: Risalat Khan.

  • We made it seem too late to fix – when we talked about “irreversible changes to our climate,” we made it seem that anything we do now is pointless and we (paradoxically) minimized the very problem we were trying to highlight.
  • We made climate change seem controversial – when the national dialogue was more focused on whether or not the problem exists than on what to do about it, we forced ourselves to play defense rather than pushing forward on offense. By defensively acknowledging that there are deniers, we made the conversation about them rather than about the problem.
  • We made concern about climate change seem out of the mainstream – when climate change was seen as fringe (e.g. Al Gore, before he won the Nobel Prize) or “just” political (e.g. just the province of elected officials trying to score points) rather than real and relevant to all, we made it that much harder to engage huge numbers of people in conversations about what we should all be doing to address climate change.
  • We made advocates for doing something about climate change seem holier than thou – when those whose lives don’t revolve around trying to advance products or policies that will address climate change were made out to be capitalist cretins or do-nothing doubters, we made it that much harder to engage the majority of people for whom climate change is a concern but not the driving force of their lives.

So, what’s next? How do we move forward?

To begin, we must learn the lessons of the past to ensure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Here are three communications imperatives that we should follow to build on the momentum of this week’s activities.

1. Simplify the message

We need to discuss climate change in terms that everyone can immediately understand. (Mashable has a good collection of pictures from the recent marches, with a few examples of pithy, potent messaging.) And we need to think about the ways in which we deliver those messages.

In addition to the smart, thoughtful and detailed reports and plans outlining multi-step approaches, we need to reach people where they are with messages that make sense to them. That means conversations among and between all of us everywhere, not just in the news media or at protest marches. Climate change should be a kitchen table topic (before temperature changes mean we can no longer afford to put food on that kitchen table).

2. Assume acceptance

Climate change is happening. End of story.

Let’s take a page from Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and say: “No, no, that wasn’t a question.” Rather than wasting time – and diverting attention – to refuting those who deny the problem, we should move on.

We should assume the widespread acceptance of the problem that actually exists and begin our conversations not with who and why, but with how and what. How are we going to tackle climate change? What are the steps we are taking and should take to make a positive impact? Attention spans are shorter than ever, so we have to get to the point more quickly and more forcefully. The time for debate is over.

People's Climate March: Hyderabad, India: Students of JNTU H college organized movie screening of "Disruption" and conducted a big rally.

People’s Climate March: Hyderabad, India: Students of JNTU H college organized movie screening of “Disruption” and conducted a big rally.

3. Describe an urgent, but addressable problem

If we don’t take action, we’re in for even more serious impacts than we’ve already seen. There are things that we are doing now that are having a positive impact. And there are additional things we can do that will multiply that impact.

For example, promoting the role of energy efficiency (the smartest energy is the energy you don’t have to produce) is both affordable and intelligent. Building increased support for adoption of more renewable energy and other clean power sources enables us to continue to build our economy while dramatically reducing the impact on the environment. Creating new revenue for research and development by reducing spending on subsidies that promote harmful power sources is both feasible and effective. And the list goes on.

As we’ve seen time and again, the power of an effective, compelling story — well told — is greater than the impact of continued inertia. Let’s seize this moment to start a new, lasting conversation about action to address climate change both now and in the future.

People's Climate March: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo By: Robert Weber, Old Plantation

People’s Climate March: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo By: Robert Weber, Old Plantation


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Speaking of exaggerating, up voting your own comment is at best an exaggeration. Probably, it is an attempt at subterfuge.

  • mememine

    Save the planet?

    If you want the denier voting majority to allow you neocon hating eager “believers” to achieve climate action then prove science has ever said their scientific method is what keeps them from saying “proven” or “100% certain”. You don’t get to condemn our children, only science can not a mob of determined “believers”.

    Exaggerating science’s consensus of “could be” just to hate neocons makes us all neocons.

    And while Obomber bombs oil wells in his new Iraq War 2 all you libs can do is bang your drums demanding that the angry weather gods change the weather?

  • GeorgeMokray

    It would be interesting to put together a brain trust to work on messaging about climate change. Here are some possible candidates:
    http://www.eventbrite.com/e/webinar-series-featuring-david-gershon-october-december-2014-registration-11158255643
    David Gershon

    http://www.ideas42.org
    Ideas42 – using behavioral economics for social impact

    https://register.cbsm.com/about-the-presenter
    Douglas McKenzie-Mohr – community based social marketing

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Don’t forget, it snowed in Minnesota last winter. Now there’s absolute proof there is no such thing as global warming.

    I can cite a source for my information. Can you cite the source of your information?

  • And my dog, when the temperature goes below 40 degrees, she shivers. Explain that, global warmists!

  • I know a lady, and she got frost bite last year. So global warming is clearly a hoax.

  • Asok Asus

    ROTFLOL! The only lost battle is the propaganda one waged by the warmists, and of course the problem is it stopped warming 18 years ago even though CO2 levels are at an all time high. The seas didn’t rise. Glaciers didn’t melt. Antarctic ice is at the highest levels ever recorded by satellite. Arctic ice is growing at record rates. There are more polar bears than ever. Severe weather activity is at an all time low. Record lows have been recorded at thousands of U.S. weather stations during the last year. Record early summer snow storms just occurred in the Rockies. The list of incorrect model predictions just rolls on and on and on. It’s hard to fool people when they can look outside their windows and see with their own eyes that you are lying through your teeth.

  • Yeah…

  • emjayay

    Sorry, but that’s not what I was talking about at all (below).. I didn’t mean that you are a right winger, but you were addressing and summarizing the thinking of right wingers who resist the science. You just left off the Jesus part.

  • emjayay

    I work for the National Park Service as an interpretive park ranger. As my supervisor once said, “People are stupid.” Sounds rude and crude and demeaning. But it’s true. You just have to start there.

  • Don Chandler

    The fantasy series that started with The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman) had a climate change theme…the polar bear’s ice melts…it’s too warm for them in the North. Now it seems to be a reality with the walruses ice melting. Winning the minds of the young seems to be an important approach.

    I like the post. it should be an area that liberals and conservatives can agree. Things tend to get too political and then there is an unhealthy partisan divide…unfortunately, all the important issues have this political divide in the US.

  • Indigo

    I don’t think it’s that complicated. It is absolutely true to say that the message must be tailored to the audience but it is absolutely wrong to tailor the message to what the audience wants to hear. I think the message is getting through, although slowly. But the fact of the matter is that the audience, conditioned by superstitious religionism and capitalist exploitation, are slow to pick up on facts and long on distracting spin. Consider that it took the Vatican 500 years to retract the condemnation of stubbornly fact-based Galileo and you see what we’re up against: intractable, willful ignorance bolstered by financial advantage.

  • Ben Finzel

    Thanks George – I appreciate that you see the point I was trying to get across in “spending some time thinking about this issue and sharing it with this audience.”

  • Ben Finzel

    It’s so great to see such deep thinking and passionate engagement. Would that more people were as concerned (as several of you have pointed out).

    I see your points about defining the “we” in my post. I was referring to all of us (myself included) who understand that climate change is a threat and want to help engage to address it. At the risk of responding to an unnecessarily personal attack with another one, I’ll just say that I assumed that by my writing about “we” and referring to my own experience, I was taking responsibility for what I was writing about along with everyone else.

    And just to be super clear: my post does not represent THE silver bullet to solving the problem. It’s a multi-faceted challenge that requires many different points of engagement. I was attempting to address PART of it and was not professing to have ALL of the answers.

  • GeorgeMokray

    The climate change movement, like the anti-nuclear power movement before it, never found an actionable thread. They focused on an enemy instead: the nuclear establishment, the political establishment. For over twenty years I’ve been saying climate change is moot. Don’t bother bringing it up until somebody else does. My slogan is Solar IS Civil Defense because what you need to have on hand in case of emergency – flashlight, radio, cell phone, extra batteries – can all be powered by a few square inches of solar cells. Add a hand crank or pedal powered generator and you have a reliable source of emergency energy, day or night. That light, radio, cell phone, and AA battery of electricity is also the entry level for about 1.5 billion people around the world who don’t have access now, the people who are most affected by the changes we are already experiencing.

    And even rabid right wing survivalists appreciate the idea of civil defense and preparedness.

    Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina taught us that a US city can devolve into bare survival conditions in a few hours. NYC, Boston, and many other cities and towns are planning for resilience in the face of the next weather emergency, something we absolutely, positively, undoubtedly know is coming soon, unlike “climate change.” The best of that resilience planning is not only adaptation but also, somewhat, mitigation for climate change.

    And even the deepest denialists know that there’s going to another hurricane, blizzard, flood, wildfire, or drought no matter how little they believe in climate science.

    Let’s speak to those concerns and do something real on an individual as well as collective basis rather than rehash the climate change “debate” for another two or three decades.

    PS: I publish a weekly looking at public events around Cambridge, MA (MIT, Harvard, and all those other schools) about energy and other things (http://hubevents.blogspot.com). I’ve tried to get 350MA interested in monitoring these lectures which are too frequent for any one person to attend them all, collate the information which does not travel from one academic department to another, and to ask pertinent questions of the guests which can change the discussion. So far, there is no interest at all. The climate change movement is stuck in history, recapitulating the civil rights and anti-war tactics of the 60s™© all rights reserved and the divestment and freeze tactics of the 80s’ apartheid and nuclear weapons movements.

    There are other ways to do things. I’ve outlined one simple but perhaps significant one.

    PPS: Robert Cialdini, the author of _Influence_ and one of the people behind the energy efficiency promotion company Opower, is interested in these issues but, according to my correspondence with him, has never been asked by the climate change movement to use his expertise in formatting an actionable message. I assume there are many more social scientists with opinion changing experience who have also not been enlisted in the climate change movement. Good on you for spending some time thinking about this issue and sharing it with this audience.

  • AnitaMann

    I wish that the two examples here of changing public opinion — Vietnam war and smoking — could be instructive in changing behaviors (and more importantly, policies and laws) that affect climate change. In both of those instances, the fiercest advocates for change felt that the issue was personal. Real bodies, real sons and daughters, were coming back dead. Real Vietnamese were being killed right there in real time. In smoking, there came a tipping point where anti-smokers thought, hey, I have a right not to have smoke in my face and that trumps your right to smoke in this space. Again, personal, short-term, understandable and in many cases emotional.

    Climate change is something that few feel emotional about, at least not in the same way. It’s too big, too long-term, too hard to grasp, not causing enough personal pain yet. And I don’t know if even the best messaging will have any effect on public behavior that will put pressure on government and industry. I hope I’m wrong. But I think it’s up to forward-thinking leaders to put the policies in before the public can come around to pressure them; in this case I think it’s more like Loving vs. Virginia, where SCOTUS did the right thing long before average joes got the idea.

  • Anita has a valid point. One of the key things needed in effective writing and advocacy is to identify your intended audience.

    Who are the ‘we’ being talked about here? I’m not the TV talking-head show producer who invites a climate scientist and a climate change denier onto a show to make it seem like there’s a debate of equal merit to be had on either side. I’m not a Congressional representative who has to sit there and, by protocol, not be allowed to call my GOP colleague a tree-stump stupid moron for not knowing the difference between climate and today’s weather.

    ‘Simplify my message’? How? Why? Nobody asks me for MY message on climate change, and quite honestly I question the effectiveness of my putting time into developing pithy sign-slogan skills.

    Protest signs didn’t end the Vietnam war. It wasn’t messaging. It was graphic video and photos, shown night after night on TV. It was the de-legitimization of those who kept claiming the war was worthwhile and could be won any day now. As the old story goes, our political leaders were saying, “When we’ve lost Walter Cronkite, we lost the war.”

    And just take that list near the top: “We made.., We made…, We made…” I dispute not only the construct of blaming ourselves — and by extension, every climate protection advocate everywhere — but the very premise of most of the accusations. Every one of those supposedly self-sabotaging strategies were, in fact, the tactics employed not by climate protection advocates but by the deniers who are motivated by selfishness and by an insatiable appetite for profit.

    To use another example: It wasn’t anti-smoking advocates who made the science of cancer and heart disease seem inconclusive and too complicated. It was a deliberate strategy on the part of the tobacco companies.

    Arguing whether or not climate change exists — WE aren’t the ones who created the false dichotomy. It’s the ‘fair and balanced’ media and the lousy excuse for journalism today that did it. ‘We made concern for climate change seem out of the mainstream’ — No we didn’t. That was the deniers with their unceasing attempts to reframe the debate, make it seem like only “the elite, effete liberals” who care, aided by the aforementioned compliant corporatist-allied mass media.

    We’re not the ones who made fun of Al Gore. They did, the corporatists and GOP wingnuts, in an
    effective attempt to transform him from ‘learned expert’ to ‘caricatured clown.’ And just how the heck did “we” make climate advocates “seem holier than thou”? This was the work of message consultants like Frank Luntz. Frankly, the “we made” litany edges well into the realm of victim-blaming. You’ve identified the tactics of the enemies of our biosphere and ascribed them to us.

    ‘We’ — the undefined ‘we’ — are not the enemy. The scolding isn’t appropriate.

    If you’re going to use the inclusive ‘we’, Ben, you need to buy in. You need to provide some concrete examples — not overly broad generalizations — of where you yourself f*cked up. Basically, you need to share in the blame you’re looking to spread around.

    Now I can surmise that we, the readers, writers, and commenters of AmericaBlog may not have been the intended audience for this communication, which John reprinted. I am compelled to conclude this because otherwise the inclusive ‘we’ pronoun is entirely inappropriate. Nevertheless, I still feel that blaming climate protection advocates for the (sadly) successful strategies of the deniers is misdirected. When THEY attempt to use the disingenuous tactics of ad hominem attacks, phony conflation and false equivalency, the thing to do is to point out the rank dishonesty of what they are attempting.

  • AnitaMann

    Ben, I’m missing something here. Who is the “we” communicating the message? Institutions? Communications consultants like yourself? People at their kitchen table?

    The biggest problems as I can see are not the message(s). They’re the timeline and human nature. Politicians and leaders need to implement significant policies. And this can only come from intense pressure from the public – much greater pressure than they’re facing from industry. But ordinary people don’t get motivated until a truck is about to run them over in ten seconds. People are too focused on what’s in it for ME, right now. If they believe climate change is real, what they’re hearing is that many of these catastrophic changes will be happening years from now, maybe after they’re dead. So that leads them to say: well, long term prognostications often change; maybe someone will come up with a solution by then; in the meantime, I wouldn’t mind a warmer winter; what about my job?; where’s the cheap gas; oh, look a shiny squirrel!

  • Ben Finzel

    John, thanks for posting this piece here. I appreciate the opportunity to engage with even more folks on this topic and thank you for your generosity in sharing my perspective.

  • Ben Finzel

    emjayay, thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m afraid you’ve completely missed the point of the piece, however: I am offering my perspective on how to do a better job of communicating about the urgency of climate change going forward so that we can help to tackle the problem. I’m not espousing, promoting or otherwise advocating for any religious approach of any kind. And I’m far from a right-winger, but thanks for the chuckle on that point.

  • emjayay

    Well, that list pretty much sums up the thinking of every single right winger on this issue. It’s God’s will/plan and the only solution is praying and putting your faith in your personal savior Jesus were left out however.

    They will change at only a glacial (non-melting) speed, since everything about this challenges their basic worldview.

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