Lessons learned from a decade of climate change messaging

With climate science back in the spotlight, environmental communicators are putting less emphasis on statistics and giving more weight to local impact.

With climate science back in the spotlight eight years after the film An Inconvenient Truth, environmental communicators are putting less emphasis on statistics and giving more weight to local impact

This winter will be remembered as the season when the weather phenomenon “Polar Vortex” entered the North American lexicon, as well as for its bitter cold.

Other extreme weather events around the world, such as the relentless storms flooding the UK or Australia logging its hottest year on record, have played their part pushing the issue of climate change back onto the global agenda.

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry labeled climate change as “perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” underscoring President Barack Obama's pledge for stronger action on the issue in his State of the Union Address.

It has been four years since the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, which was generally considered a failure. World leaders are planning to meet again next year to thrash out a new deal on the issue at the UN Summit in Paris.

Communications on the topic have shifted noticeably from the “doom and gloom” messaging of a decade ago, according to Mark Grundy, director of communications at Carbon War Room.

“Back then, the message was one of sacrifice, the problem was here to stay, and the only way to tackle it was by giving something up or paying more,” he explains.

The fallout from Copenhagen was a “pivotal” moment for climate change communications, Grundy adds.

“We were one of the first nonprofits to flip the messaging and make climate change an opportunity, moving it from CSR to procurement and new business development for corporations,” he says. Grundy adds that maritime shipping is an example of an industry that has done this by creating “eco ships” that are more cost efficient for companies to charter.

Meanwhile, messaging around job creation, efficiency, and how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions without hitting consumers too hard in the pocket can appeal to older generations that may be jaded by previous talking points on the subject, he explains.

Developing countries, especially those in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are most likely to feel the brunt of climate change through droughts, floods, and fierce storms, according to the World Bank. Yet the issue is also hitting closer to home for Americans because of current weather conditions, as well as some activists blaming climate change for disasters including droughts in California, Colorado wildfires, and Superstorm Sandy.

This personal experience is promoting a shift in public perception on climate change, say environmental communicators.

Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org, says the nonprofit aims to make its audience realize that climate change is “a clear and present danger.”

“We haven't forgotten about the polar bears and melting ice caps, but we're talking much more about extreme weather and climate impacts,” he says.

Henn says communications designed to engage the public on the issue should focus on storytelling.

“People love stories,” he explains. “This is the greatest problem humanity has ever faced, and the challenge of tacking it should feel like an epic adventure. You could say it's the story of a scrappy movement of local heroes taking on the most powerful industry on the planet in a fight for the future.”

Ria Voorhaar, international communications coordinator at Climate Action Network, agrees that communicating the local impact of climate change and “connecting with people in a way that makes sense to them” will have a greater affect. She recalls that the technical and numbers-based communications used in the pre-Copenhagen days turned people off.

“We can get caught in trap of over-simplification in communications, but we have to stick to our principles and appeal to people on level they connect with,” Voorhaar adds.

She explains that cold-weather conditions have prompted some confusion over the use of the phrase “global warming.” In the US, where it is used more often, some advocates suggest replacing it with the term “global weirding.”

“Climate change is a more accurate phrase – I just wish it was more powerful in a way, as it seems too soft for what is actually happening,” she says.

While it is important to engage consumers in the grassroots parts of the movement, politics still has a crucial role to play. The New York Times revealed that financier Tom Steyer plans to spend at least $100 million on ads attacking governors and lawmakers that oppose efforts to curb global warming.

“We have the solutions to the climate crisis at our fingertips, but the fossil-fuel industry has a stranglehold over the economy and our political system,” adds Henn. “A lot of change can come from the bottom up, but unless we can change the dynamic in Washington, DC, I don't see how we're going to truly address this crisis.”

Climate change is more of a political hot potato in the US than in Europe, and it is generally considered a partisan Democratic concern after being introduced to the mainstream by An Inconvenient Truth, Grundy explains. This has resulted in the media, in its attempt to tell both sides of the story, giving more weight to the argument of climate change deniers than it deserves, contend both Grundy and Henn.

“When the world's top scientists are 98% sure we're heading toward a self-made catastrophe, we should be well past 'he said, she said' reporting and into primetime quality coverage,” explains Henn. “Our race against the clock to solve the climate crisis should be a great adventure story. Instead it is relegated to back pages.”

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