The Way We’re Talking About Climate Change is All Wrong. Here’s How We Win Hearts and Minds

The Way We’re Talking About Climate Change is All Wrong. Here’s How We Win Hearts and Minds

NEWSWEEK 08/21/19
By Michael Shank and US Congressman Lloyd Doggett

While reports forecasting a climate change apocalypse and doomsday climate scenarios may get our momentary attention, they are not producing action. Even as we see the impact of climate change in devastating, intensified weather and the spread of disease, we have not changed the hearts and minds of enough Americans—or, at least, those with the power to change the climate landscape.

America can, in fact, rally quickly around security threats. Congress gives nearly $1 trillion annually to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to fight threats like terrorism. If we see something, we’re asked to say something.

The Trump White House and its Republican enablers are doing worse than ignoring this threat—they are dragging us backward. We cannot wait until they are defeated to better communicate our message.

A good start would be to assume that people are focused, first and foremost, on meeting their immediate, basic human needs.

We more often think about the pressing challenges of 2019, not the existential challenges of 2050 (the year for which many climate-related targets are set). We think about job security and the health and well-being of our families more than we think about the future of a species headed toward extinction. Beyond polar bears and penguins, though they offer real warning signs, this is about what is beginning to occur in our own backyard. But too many American consumers and executives won’t notice it, or perhaps care enough about it, to change their behavior until it hits them hard where they live, not just exotic locales in travel magazines. And by then, it’s too late.

While American families absolutely have the capacity to be magnanimous and mindful about humanitarian crises around the world (many of which are increasingly caused by climate change) and climate chaos that will impact future generations, compelling and alarming reports can only do so much to equip them to take on this challenge. Climate messaging should not just alarm the reader; it should also equip them to combat climate change personally, and to demand change from major polluters and lawmakers.

First, climate communication must reach our neighbors where they are, versus where experts think they should be. Climate messages should be relevant to and helpful with basic needs: financial stability, health and security. We need environmentalists to make space for more diverse environmental messengers. People need to see themselves and their community’s priorities represented on the climate stage. Climate change will impact all of us—and have a disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable communities first.

Second, we must use language that most people use. Instead of talking about carbon neutrality, net zero, retrofit accelerators or deep decarbonization, let’s use clear concepts like 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste and discuss the need to electrify and plug in our cars and buildings so they can be powered and heated by wind power and solar power. Let’s talk about what’s dirty or toxic—oil, coal, gas and nuclear—and stop paying to clean it up with taxpayer dollars. Let’s talk about what’s clean and green—solar, wind, geothermal and small hydro—and the green jobs that accompany them.

Third, our climate leaders must turn climate talk into climate action. Showing, not telling. If we want people to switch to more sustainable behavior, we have to show them how life is better with mass transit, electric vehicles and solar panels. Remember, it’s about basic needs and quality of life; that’s what people care about and can afford to address.

Fourth, with President Donald Trump blocking federal action, we need to think and organize locally. Cities like Austin, Texas, have adopted municipal climate action plans in the absence of federal leadership. The more communities, large and small, that embrace the need for climate action and outline specific steps that can be taken to reduce emissions, the better the possibility that we can take prompt, effective action after Trump is gone.

Fifth, and most important, throughout this process, Americans cannot feel like they are on their own when taking climate action. This threat is too overwhelming to face alone. Everyone wants to be part of a community, a movement.

Let’s promote community while saving one another—building an accessible movement that attracts and appeals, not burdens and bellows.

It’s time for a different way of doing things. If we want more communities to see climate change action as feasible and enjoyable, thereby saving the environment and ourselves, then we’ve got to do a better job of reaching and including them—and making it possible for all to join this movement.

Representative Lloyd Doggett represents the 35th District of Texas and serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and Budget Committee. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.