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.

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Why public opinion on climate change matters to business

Today, the business community is sharply divided about whether to take action on climate change.

There are those for which taking steps to prevent climate change is beneficial. Industries such as renewable energy and battery storage stand to profit from a shift to a low-carbon economy, whereas others such as travel, real estate and agriculture are threatened if climate change continues unabated. Other companies have taken steps to green their operations based on economic or ethical considerations, while others have done so in response to consumer pressure.

At the same time, many businesses actively oppose taking action. Many of these companies have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo because their profits are tied to fossil fuels. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group that claims to represent all businesses, largely supports the status quo.

Not surprisingly, a similar debate is raging in Washington over the best public policy to deal with climate change. Given the complex and multi-generational challenge that climate change poses, the right public policy is essential for businesses to be part of the solution. At minimum, policy can create a stable environment for business investment, essential for incubating nascent technologies. At best, it can promote an orderly transition to a post-carbon economy.

A powerful force

This jockeying is not limited to lobbyists trying to influence politicians over martini dinners; instead, much of this effort is focused on swaying public opinion. Indeed, studies (PDF) suggest that public opinion is a powerful force that helps shape public policy. Moreover, the influence of public opinion is amplified when people consider the issue important — or when it can provide politicians with political coverage to take a stand that goes against the fold.

Today, many businesses — or wealthy individuals with vested interests in these businesses — have aligned to defend the status quo, often by influencing public opinion. For years, ExxonMobil and other oil companies overtly sought to sway the public’s view of climate change. Over the last 10 years, foundations and wealthy donors — many with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry — have stepped in to fund a climate change counter-movement (CCCM) to the tune of $900 million a year.

Arguably, the CCCM has influenced public opinion, including the belief as to whether climate change even exists. A recent Yale/George Mason University study indicates that a mere 13 percent of Americans believe that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, a very small percentage given that 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific papers since 1990 align with this consensus view.

CCCM communications tactics have been surprisingly simple: sow seeds of doubt with the public about whether climate change is real. The CCCM has been able to do this with ease by distributing fringe research that challenges the validity of climate change or by pointing out weather events such as an unexpected cold snap that seemingly conflicts with a warming climate.

Climate skeptics enhance the credibility of their position by publishing opinions or sponsored articles in mainstream publications such as Forbes or Wall Street Journal. Headlines such as “The Sea Is Rising, but Not Because of Climate Change” sow doubt with users even if they browse only the headlines, and despite that scientists deemed the article’s credibility to be “very low.” Other articles, such as “Climate Forecast: Failed Prognostication,” move from fringe to more mainstream publications as they are redistributed on message boards, social media, search engines or news aggregators. This specific article, originally published by the Institute for Energy Research, a non-profit organization that seems to count ExxonMobil and Koch Industries among its major donors, was redistributed in Yahoo’s news feed.

Such articles try to obfuscate global scientific consensus on climate change by claiming that there are so many competing theories that no one really knows what is happening. Worse, they argue against taking action because the cost to do so would be too high. The author of one article titled “Is the IPCC Wrong about Sea Level Rise?” and published by Forbes claims that any “continued rise [in sea level this century is already] locked in due to temperature changes that have already occurred. No reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will prevent sea level rise in the near term.”

The problem: The author is a former oil executive with little discernible background in climate science.

By prolonging the debate, the CCCM has achieved a primary goal: deferring meaningful action on climate change to the future. But delaying action is not without cost: It reduces the incentive for business to invest in next-generation technologies and industries, hurting the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy, especially as other nations, notably China, leap ahead.

This is not to say that pro-climate action business groups have been silent. But, in many ways, their efforts have been disconnected, short-term focused and lacking a single-minded objective. Hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, for example, financed a get-out-the-vote campaign in 2014 focused on electing officials who were climate-friendly. Elon Musk turns to social media to draw attention to his businesses, most recently by launching a Tesla electric car into space. Recently, the major advertising holding companies teamed up with the United Nations to launch the Little x Little campaign with the goal of motivating Gen Z to take 2 billion acts of good by 2030 in support of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Other campaigns have been more enduring. 350.org’s divestment campaign is one such example. This organization pressures individual investors, pension funds and endowments to divest from fossil fuel investments. But this effort has not been without its critics who question whether the end game should be divestment, versus public policy that more directly addresses climate change.

There is little doubt that many businesses will be adversely affected by climate change, whether it be their supply chain, operations, products or brand. This impact will differ by industry and by geography. Public policy that begins to addresses climate change can mitigate its impact. It also can help businesses better adapt to the change — or even thrive in spite of it.

Providing a counterweight

Arguably, to lay the groundwork for policy change, businesses need to devote resources to building support with the public for climate action. At the very least, pro-climate-action businesses need to provide a counterweight to the continuous barrage of messages from the CCCM. There are several ways to do so:

Accountability: Publishers should be held responsible for the truthfulness of articles — including opinions and sponsored articles — that they publish under their names. This is especially important for articles that challenge scientific consensus because authors are clearly using association with the publisher to garner credibility for the story.

The rules can be simple: Fact-check content that challenges fact-based scientific consensus and decline to publish — or at least clearly label — articles if they fall outside the consensus view. For good measure, publishers could even provide the percentage of scientific studies that support or contradict claims made in articles they publish.

This type of system leaves room to challenge accepted scientific facts while providing proper attribution for unsuspecting readers when an author’s opinions do not align with scientific consensus. Such labels also should extend beyond a publisher’s site to wherever headlines are distributed. Without such a system, publishers risk distributing misleading — if not blatantly fake —news, something that should run counter to any reputable publisher.

Advocacy: Businesses should advocate for public policy that would help them manage the complexities of climate change. To lay the groundwork for policy change, they first need to build support for action through sustained and coordinated outreach to the public. This would involve creating new advocacy groups — or expanding the role of existing ones — to raise funds and coordinate campaign development.

Funding might pose a challenge initially: While many companies openly support climate action, others might not yet fully appreciate the threat that climate change has on their operations. They also may fear alienating certain consumers by appearing to take a political stance. But increasingly, companies are making public their support for climate action, such as those who voiced support for the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement. Moreover, wealthy individuals likely also will step up to support such a campaign, similar to how others support the CCCM today.

Relatability: To influence public opinion, communicators should work to engage the “Concerned” and the “Cautious,” two audiences (PDF) identified by the Yale Program for Climate Change Communications as perhaps the most movable on this issue. Growing support among these groups would go a long way in influencing public opinion, as combined they make up just over half of the American population.

Research (PDF) indicates each audience requires different communications strategies. The Concerned, for example, are more likely to take action if they feel threatened by climate change and have a clear understanding of how to mitigate this threat. While the Concerned already feel threatened, they do not believe that actions being taken today effectively will deal with this threat. As such, communications should focus on convincing them of “the ability of individuals or groups to effectively mitigate climate change.”

From a business perspective, this may mean highlighting significant investments such as the $1 billion from chocolate manufacturer Mars to mitigate climate change or the recent success of Net Power in testing a commercial-scale pilot for generating zero emissions energy.

Research also suggests the Concerned are swayed by opinion leaders. This is consistent with the findings of other studies (PDF) that say that activating political and economic elites can help sway public opinion. As such, businesses should activate opinion leaders as part of their campaigns.

Communicators should also engage the Cautious. While the Cautious tend to believe in climate change, they have a high gap between their belief that climate change is happening now (26 percent) versus sometime in the future (81 percent). To engage these people, it is key for communications to close this gap.

This means demonstrating that climate change is really happening — not by overwhelming people with facts, but by demonstrating how it is already affecting local businesses, jobs and a way of life. Outdoor recreation is a great example of this as climate change is already affecting where people fish and hunt, something that affects local guides and outfitters. Commercial fishing is another example as warming coastal waters force boats to travel farther north and out to sea to catch fish that once thrived right offshore.

To make things more challenging, the Cautious spurn traditional media channels and pay less attention to news — especially environmental news — than most Americans. As such, businesses should communicate with the Cautious through more personal channels such as social media, word of mouth or local newspapers.

And because the Cautious trust few sources for information on climate change, businesses should communicate through trusted messengers to relay climate messages. These messengers could be local business owners affected by climate change or local physicians (PDF) who witness prolonged allergy season, greater spread of Lyme’s disease or higher instances of asthma.

This article was originally published on Greenbiz.