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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