7 Ways to Effectively Communicate about Climate Change

Today, we not only have a growing climate crisis but a communications one too. Quite simply, we have not figured out how to communicate about climate change in a way that builds support for meaningful and sustained actions to address it. There are many reasons for this, of course. Some believe that climate change isn’t possible because God would not permit it. Others deny science – or believe disinformation intended to sow doubt. Many become overwhelmed by the magnitude of this challenge and simply shut the message out. Often though, we are simply too busy with everyday tasks to focus on something that can be pushed off until tomorrow.

One could argue that communicators are making some progress as, according to a recent Yale study, 73% of Americans believe “global warming is happening”, up 10 percentage points from 2015. Despite this increase, there are few signs that Americans are motivated to take action to solve this crisis. One such indication of this is that social norms around climate change lag personal beliefs, and this can be a powerful deterrent to collective action. For example, according to the same study, less than half of Americans perceive that others “want or expect [them] to take action to reduce global warming”. Similarly, less than half of Americans believe that those “close to them are taking action themselves to reduce global warming.”

Effective climate change communication is needed to shift attitudes, evolve social norms and expand support for action. Many expect the government and non-profit organizations to take the lead. But, businesses and individuals both have an important role to play too. Here are a few suggestions on how to overcome this communication challenge:

Reach beyond the converted. Today, a communications gap exists regarding climate change messaging: most efforts are focused on activating those already converted, rather than try to sway those that are not. For example, social action groups focus on mobilizing their own base in support of social change. Sustainable brands are no different, focusing media spend on those most likely to make a purchase. Few dollars are spent on outreach to those that might be receptive to the message, let alone those that are less so. To grow support for climate change action, individuals, non-profits, governments, and businesses must work together to engage the fence sitters and the skeptics, not just the converted.

Focus on personal impactStudies suggest that people are more apt to believe in climate change when they experience its effects first hand. Recent hurricanes and wildfires made climate change more real for some. Others, however, remain unconvinced: Because they have experienced such events before, they argue, it is not obvious that climate change is now making them more severe. Yet, there are signs that opinions are changing as a recent poll indicates that 46% of Americans say they have “personally experiences the effects of global warming”, up 15 percentage points from 2015.

Communicators should take advantage of this by highlighting ways in which climate change impacts people personally, especially when the impact is unexpected or goes against someone’s own personal experience. For anglers, for example, it is that the trout are no longer found at the expected bend along the river but at higher elevations as they migrate to cooler waters. For commercial fishermen, it is that the local fish they have permits to catch are moving north – or farther out to sea. For coastal homeowners, it is that home prices are not appreciating as rapidly as homes located on higher ground. In all of these examples, people already sense that something has changed, even if they do not yet connect it to climate change. This can make a climate message all the more impactful when they make the connection.

Make it local. Metrics like a 2°C increase in global temperature are hard for many to relate to because such a change is seemingly not that significant on a human scale, despite its destructive impact on a planetary one. Moreover, the average increase in global temperature does not necessarily provide the best indicator of climate impact in local areas. Instead, complement global metrics with local ones. This includes reporting on how temperatures in such places as Alaska are rising faster than global averages. It also means focusing on local temperature extremes that do the most damage including new highs in summer and in winter. Hotter summer temperatures exacerbate drought and forest fires and accelerate the melting of polar ice and permafrost; fewer frost days in winter allow more insects to survive, spreading more disease and leading to the killing of billions of trees.

Motivate sharing. In this politicized environment, people have hardened beliefs about climate change, making people less receptive to ideas that challenge them. Personal relationships often, however, transcend politics, disarming people and making them more receptive to differing thoughts. Stories about local places or local impact – whether economic, social, or physical – can be especially powerful because others within their social spheres can relate to them. Not only can such stories hit close to home, but they can spark conversations about how different events are today from a commonly-held historical norm. Communicators should facilitate such storytelling and promote social sharing to amplify it.

Communicate through trusted messengers. Today, Americans trust few sources for information about climate change. Instead of trying to overcome this gap, communicators should turn to trusted messengers to relay climate messages. According to a Yale study, one trusted source is physicians. Doctors have an opportunity to communicate about climate change, and in particular, the health risks associated with it. This may include messaging about a prolonged allergy season or greater risk of Lyme’s disease. Other trusted sources include those economically impacted by climate change such as farmers, hunters or commercial fishermen, as well as those entrusted to protect the public from harm such as the military.

Frame the message. Communicators should frame a message in a way that people will be most receptive to it. For example, conservatives respond better to messaging that is rooted in nostalgia (e.g., ‘restore the earth’) while liberals respond better to messaging about “preventing future environmental degradation”.  Likewise, for the devout, “ the idea that humans should not befoul God’s creation can be a powerful argument.”

Allow people to evolve their views. It is really hard to get people to change their mind. Beliefs are often based on what people hear from others around them and social norms regarding behavior. Once people hold a specific belief, they tend to look for confirming evidence to justify it. For many, changing their mind is tantamount to admitting that they were wrong before, something that runs counter to most of us. As such, communicators should give people room to evolve their views without losing face. This means allowing them to evolve their views based on new evidence – without negating their past beliefs. “I now see evidence of climate change whereas I did not see it before”.  What is most important is what people believe today – and going forward – rather than dwelling on the past.

I know there are a lot of other great ideas out there for communicating about climate change. Tweet your ideas to @dwigder.  I would love to hear.

Advertisement

Outdoor recreation can’t beat the heat of climate change

In Montana and similar big-sky places across the U.S., outdoor recreation is core both to the local economy and a way of life. Climate change is beginning to undermine this as it alters the natural systems and habitats that outdoor recreation depends upon. 

Many product companies and resort destinations are positioned to adapt to this change. Others businesses, including local outfitters and guides, may not be as fortunate. Regardless, all companies have the opportunity to take a leadership role in responding to climate change, and in the process, to help preserve a way of life that dates back generations.

Outdoor recreation economy

Outdoor recreation represents a significant share of the U.S. economy: $646 billion in annual spending that supports more than 6.1 million direct — and countless more indirect  jobs. Spending includes $120 billion on outdoor recreation products and $543 billion for trips and travel-related spending.

Climate change is expected to affect this. While comprehensive national studies are hard to come by, state-level impact has been documented. Take Montana. Today, the economic contribution (PDF) of outdoor recreation in that state is significant: $5.8 billion in consumer spending and 64,000 jobs — or more than 12 percent of total employment across the state. According to a recent report (PDF) prepared for the Montana Wildlife Federation, climate change is expected to eliminate 11,000 jobs related to outdoor recreation, or one in six in the state.  

Jobs are only part of what is at risk. Nearly three-quarters of all Montana residents (PDF) participate in outdoor activities each year, one of the highest participation rates of any state. Climate change is forecasted (PDF) to have a dramatic impact on this and expected to cause a 33 percent decline in snow sports, a 15 percent decline in big game hunting and a 33 percent drop in angler days.

Adapting to climate change

Certain outdoor recreation companies are better positioned than others to adapt to climate change. For example, product companies can diversify their product lines, such as reducing their dependence on cold-weather products. Columbia Sportswear, a leading outdoor apparel company, recently acquired PrAna, a yoga and climbing apparel company. Newell Rubbermaid recently floated the idea of selling off winter sports brands that it acquired with Jarden this year.

Similarly, ski resorts are making investments to attract visitors year round. For example, Big Sky Resorts in Montana made investments in warm weather activities such as bike trails and zip lines. Last year, summer revenue was up 10 percent.

Mitigating impact

When it comes to climate change, adaption is not the only thing product companies and resorts can do; they also can take a leadership role to help mitigate it. This means reducing impact across their supply chains — from the sourcing of materials to selling products at retail.

One way to do so is by having more companies adopt the Higgs Indexto guide internal decision-making and vendor selection. Another way is by encouraging more companies to switch to renewable energy to power their facilities.

Climate action should not just be limited to operational decisions. Climate leadership also means being more transparent with consumers. One way to do so is by transforming the Higgs Index into a consumer-facing label in order to allow consumers to make their preferences known with their wallets.

While product manufacturers and resorts are positioned to take action, other types of businesses such as fishing outfitters and guides are in more precarious positions, as their prosperity is highly dependent on the health of local rivers.

Last summer, for example, many of Montana’s rivers were subject to “hoot-owl” fishing restrictions from afternoon until midnight when higher-than-normal heat put excessive stress on cold water fish. Those that remained open ended up overcrowded with anglers.  

Worse, climate change is impacting the aquatic habitats where Montana’s prized trout live. As temperatures rise, warm water fish such as the smallmouth bass are moving upstream into higher elevations, encroaching upon trout that thrive in colder headwaters.

Dan Vermillion, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission and owner of a local fly fishing guide company, reported that smallmouth were being caught along stretches of the Yellowstone River which were 1,000 feet higher in elevation than previously recorded. Last summer, a parasite caused a massive fish kill in the Yellowstone. The primary reasons for the outbreak: “near-record low [water] flows and warm water temperatures.”

Today, many anglers still attribute poor river conditions to bad luck, rather than a changing environment. Climate change awareness is growing, however, as occurrences happen more frequently. As it does, outdoor destinations will end up with fewer customers as visitors shift their travel plans elsewhere.

Certainly, local actions can mitigate some impacts from climate change. In fact, the Northern Adaptation Partnership, a collaborative effort that includes 16 National Forests and three National Parks across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, has created a comprehensive plan (PDF) to do just that. Mitigation efforts along local streams include restoring floodplains, reducing habitat fragmentation and increasing tree shade adjacent to streams. 

Educating consumers

Despite these efforts, most fishing outfitters and guides will remain largely dependent on local conditions for their livelihood, and have limited ways to mitigate the impact. One thing that outfitters can do is to educate their customers as to how climate change is affecting local ecosystems. In fact, such efforts could be quite effective, as studies suggest that “perceived personal experiences” with climate change have a greater influence on consumer attitudes than even previously held beliefs.  

Of course, some may see such a move as risky as it might discourage some visitors from returning. But, it is equally probable that it will prompt more people to visit places such as Montana before outdoor conditions get decidedly worse.

–Originally published on Greenbiz, 2016