One of the biggest, most important debates in climate change circles centres on the messaging that will motivate people to take action.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: An 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is achievable by 2050, but only with much wider understanding of the climate crisis, and much broader buy-in for a suite of climate solutions.
Which is why it’s frustrating, even if it’s understandable, that climate communicators are still engaged in an occasionally fierce debate over the best strategies for getting the message out.
Raising the Climate Alarm
The most obvious response to climate change, and still one of the most common, is to raise the alarm. To anyone familiar with the file, there’s more than enough bad news to go around. In the last week to 10 days:
- The news of a small lake forming at the North Pole was a reflection of July temperatures that are 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above average this year.
- An underground tar sands spill in Alberta has been going on for six to nine weeks and the operator, Canadian Natural Resources, has no idea how to stop it.
- The Canadian government’s very thoughtful, strategic response to the Lac Mégantic rail disaster, delivered Sunday by U.S. Ambassador Gary Doer, is to threaten more rail traffic if the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t approved.
There’s a certain sense of momentum, of getting things done, when we share this kind of material on social networks. If only people knew what was happening—so the story goes—policy would change and the climate crisis would be reversed.
If only it were that simple.
Telling the Good News
The other school of thought in climate change communications starts from the assumption that people are motivated by opportunity and hope. Here, the emphasis is on the positive:
- The massive increase in wind-generated electricity
- The plummeting cost of solar
- The shining potential of energy efficiency
- The factors outside the energy system that drive deep, permanent reductions in demand for fuel and electricity
- The gathering evidence of a “carbon bubble” that could drive rapid changes in our energy economy.
With so much good news to tell—so the story goes—clean energy advocates will be able to cut the fossil fuel industry off at the knees, without ever having to go negative. If a community can embrace sustainable energy for the sake of local job creation and energy security, without even believing that climate change is a threat, why let our language get in the way of the carbon reductions we so desperately need?
If only it were that effective.
You’re Both Right
The debate reminds me of a village feud that erupts in the 1960s musical, Fiddler on the Roof. The lead character, Tevye the Dairyman, has to mediate a dispute between two neighbours, one of them swearing he sold the other a horse, the other insisting he’s taken possession of a mule. Tevye looks at each of them in turn as he renders his verdict:
“You’re right. You’re right. You’re both right.”
I have no data to back this up, but I’ve been testing a mixed communications approach for several months, with pretty good results.
Every chance I get, I do talk about the depth and urgency of the climate crisis, because I know no other way for people to mobilize quickly enough, effectively enough to get the job done.
But I never talk about the crisis without pivoting to practical, realistic alternatives. Ideally, within a couple of sentences. If possible, in the same sentence. Because I know no surer way to paralyse people who need to get active than reminding them of a life-threatening problem, with no bridge to a solution.
According to Talking Climate, a UK-based partnership of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) and the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), “there is mounting evidence that simply turning up the volume on the scientific facts and figures is not enough to get more people interested and engaged.”
In a recent paper in Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, Sarah Schweizer and colleagues added that “climate change will resonate with diverse audiences when: (1) it is situated in cultural values and beliefs, (2) it is meaningful to that audience, and (3) it empowers specific action.”
Balancing the climate story isn’t easy, and every specific topic, community, and campaign will call for its own unique mix of positive and negative messaging. But it is a mix, and we’ll only get it right if we start with the facts, evidence, arguments, and solutions that each audience needs to hear about.
This week, we begin a series of posts on climate change communications, policy, and action. Sustainability is at the core of Smarter Shift’s operations, and we see the transition to low-carbon energy futures as the single most important area to apply our expertise in content marketing and online community management. Whether you’re an energy specialist, a communicator, or a marketer, please join this conversation as though the future depended on it!