6 Tips to Make Climate Communication Less Awful

6 Tips to Make Climate Communication Less Awful

APOLITICAL 01/14/20
By Michael Shank

This article is written by Dr. Michael Shank, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs.

Environmentalists have long depended on good data and sound science to set the direction of their advocacy agendas. Climate change campaigns are an excellent example of this. They’re reliant on rigorous modelling, and the science-based estimates and forecasting that follow, to substantiate and legitimate any advocacy effort.

This strategy makes a lot of sense. When advocating for a low-carbon agenda, to prevent further warming of the planet, it’s essential to have solid data on how much carbon is left in our budget (i.e. how much carbon we can still spend or use). Without good data, setting the goal, for example, of keeping warming “well below 2 Degrees Celsius,” as stated in the Paris Agreement, has little meaning. Thanks to our scientific community, however, we know now that warming above this temperature limit, from pre-industrial levels, would make the Earth inhospitable and uninhabitable in large parts of the world.

Campaigning for the future

Here’s where some environmentalists often stop short, however, thinking that the data alone will win the day in transforming the hearts and minds.

In fact, there’s been an over-reliance on data in advocacy work, ignoring the myriad ways in which people absorb information, transform thought and self-motivate action. A better approach, especially in a “post-fact world” where science is readily dismissed by some federal governments, would be to mimic the model of a political campaign and to remain in campaign mode for the immediate future.

There are a dozen ways in which public servants and policymakers could more effectively amplify their message and improve upon their ability to motivate citizens to act. A dozen ways, as this article shows, to move away from data dependence and toward concerted campaigning. These twelve tacks, if taken in total, can move us closer to climate coherence, where attitudes (in which the majority believes climate change is happening) align with behaviours (in which the majority is doing something about it).

Currently, there’s little consistency between attitudes and behaviours. Climate attitudes are strong, while climate behaviours are weak. These twelves tips, then, taken together, are, at minimum, a must-try. The days of defaulting to data only are over. Let’s begin.

#1 Moral appeals

There’s too often the assumption that the environmental message (e.g. the seas are rising rapidly and polar bears are imperilled) carries the strongest weight and that there’s inherent impact on the publics when using an ecological frame.

The same mistaken assumption applies to messaging with moral overtones, as if there’s an implicit ethical agreement with the audience. Similarly, appeals on the heels of a humanitarian disaster assume some semblance of collective compassion in response. Yet, these are not always the most reliable messages. Not everyone considers themselves an environmentalist. Not everyone operates from a moral framework. And not everyone is so quick to be compassionate, especially when isolationism is trending.

What often resonates most with people are economic, health, security and quality of life messages. And when it comes to climate, we have many. We know how devastating climate change and its causes are to the economy; as an example, governments spend over $5 trillion dollars annually on direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies.

There is absolutely no need to be grandiloquent in our descriptions of global warming or the technological solutions needed to solve it

We know that free energy — the sun and the wind — brings a formidable return on investment ($10 trillion every year by 2050, with a $19 trillion boost to the world GDP). We know that fossil fuels are killing us, with 7 million people dying prematurely every year due to air pollution. And we know that climate change is a serious security risk and threat multiplier, a matter on which the rich world’s defence ministries agree, imperilling people everywhere due to droughts, rising sea levels, heat waves and hurricanes. And all of this affects the quality of life.

This is what most people care about — their pocketbook, their health, their own mortality and, more generally, their quality of life. It’s a selfish sensibility but it’s a dependable one, versus the expectation that an audience will be compassionate enough to care about the environment or anyone else. Messaging, thus, should prioritise economic, health, security and quality of life frames. It’s what resonates.

#2 Messengers

When it comes to climate messengers, we desperately need more diverse and charismatic ones. While this is changing slowly but surely, we don’t need more white men on the front lines of the movement.

While a few well-placed white men have done much to move the ball forward on climate campaigns, for example, it’s time for them to step back from the spotlight and support others stepping up. The “look and feel” of the environmental movement isn’t always looking and feeling like the whole of society. But it must if we want the majority to come on board the movement.

There’s also a tendency among some subnational actors to go it alone, forgoing the opportunity to rally messengers, or surrogates, on behalf of the message (remember, we’re in political campaign mode).

This happens either because city and state officials don’t have the time to recruit surrogates, and offer some much-needed surround sound, or because they’re not automatically thinking and operating as if they’re in political campaign mode. Regardless, it’s essential to approach every climate project with surrogates on standby — from the business, financial, labour, health and security communities — ready to rally.

#3 Mainstream majority

When communicating with people who aren’t already on board, it’s time to let go of the ego that often drives esoteric talk.

It’s time to use the lingo that most people use. There is absolutely no need to be grandiloquent in our descriptions of global warming or the technological solutions needed to solve it. We do a serious disservice to the climate movement when we do so. If you look at the most often used words on Facebook, for example, they’re overwhelmingly monosyllabic. The onus is on us, then, within the climate community, to meet the mainstream of society where they’re at.

Make sure that any climate message coming out of our cities is made into a meme for sharing on social media.

We must become adept at the art of translation. Every time we engage the public, we need to be our checking multisyllabic meanderings at the door and speak clearly and succinctly. If we fail to bring along the publics, and fail to use their frames and phrases, then national policy, under new and unfriendly leadership, too often runs ram shod over past progress. Lock in public attitudes, engaging them with their frames and their phrases, and you lock in the policy.

#4 Mass media

Egocentric tendencies also abound when it comes to working with the media. Many climate advocates want to work only with elite media outlets. This is not uncommon. In the US, for example, the New York Times or Financial Times are held up as the gold standard for opinion publishing and some choose to ignore all the other channels that exist to amplify their message. Too many advocates only aim for elite newspapers and ignore the papers with mass distribution to the moderate middle and what’s frequently read by the mainstream majority, including what might be considered tabloid.

This is a serious oversight. We need to be in the newspapers that are getting read in the diners and hotels across our countries, as well as the local community papers, because that is what people are reading. The same goes for local television and radio as well. Follow the viewership. If we really want to reach the masses, we must be in their media.

#5 Me

Now we are getting into some less frequently tread but equally important frontiers.

When it comes to our individual role in any of this climate messaging, it’s critical to walk the talk when leading publicly. The public wants to see consistency in our communication if they’re going to do as we do, say as we say, talk as we talk. Any shortfall, no matter how small, is picked up, torn apart and fed to the media critics. That means throughout our climate advocacy efforts, we’re choosing low-carbon lifestyles.

That means that we should use mass transit, choose a plant-based diet, opt for sustainable and organic fashion, fly less, power and heat our houses with renewable energy and more. Do this and our message sticks. We shield ourselves from the kind of criticism that befalls other highly public climate leaders when their houses are too big, their cars are too heavy emitting, their plane travel is too extensive, etc. Fail to fully confront a sustainable walk and it’ll bite us, as the audience is often ready to pounce and poke holes in any climate action agenda. Let’s make sure we don’t give them any more motivation or material.

#6 Memes

This is an easy one. Make sure that any climate message coming out of our cities is made into a meme for sharing on social media.

It may take a minute, but it’s a must. If we can’t translate a meaty message for the myriad social media vehicles out there, we haven’t tried hard enough. Everything and anything can be “meme-ified”. And if you’re getting stuck on this “M” assignment, or don’t know what a meme is, simply ask your in-house millennial or check out the examples here.

This is helpful practise in learning to distil a complex message into a basic concept, something hashtag-able. And it’ll undoubtedly help us in other aspects of our communication, too. So, #TryIt.

You can start doing all of these things today. You don’t need a large campaign budget to make memes or change your habits so they are in line with your message. Next week I will be back with another in Apolitical with six more Ms to make your climate message more impactful. But in the meantime, why don’t you use the tips to put climate on the agenda and share your experiences on twitter. — Michael Shank