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 impact. Studies 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.