Discover more from Creative Destruction
We Suck at Promoting Climate Action, Here is How We Change That
A people-first approach, more emotional storytelling, fewer facts and more friendships, prime-time attention, and new narratives
As more and more people are confronted with the effects of climate change – heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires, etc. – there is an opportunity to shift how we talk about climate change and climate action.
In short, the problem is this: In the last 10 to 20 years, the climate action community – i.e. the sustainability people, the decarbonization folks, the activists, and the environmentalists – have adopted a language and communication strategy that is rather elitist, bubble-centric, too rational, dividing, extremely blurry, too doomerist and doesn’t match the immense efforts by the fossil fuel or profit-at-all-costs lobby. We’ve basically been shit at describing and promoting climate action, and something needs to change!
The result: We’re living in a planetary emergency, but basically all people – the majority at least – continue living their lives as if nothing is wrong.
“We’re in a propaganda war, but only one side is on the battlefield”
Activist & Pioneer in Progressive Communications
It’s time to change that!
So here is how we can better encourage people to take climate breakdown seriously and act – in 4 steps:
Simplifying, Humanizing, and Rebranding
Less Rationality, More Emotions
Fewer Facts, More Friendships
From Bits & Pieces to Prime-Time
Less Doomerism & New Narratives
Let’s dive in:
Simplifying, Humanizing, and Rebranding
Okay, so by now, I think it’s become clear to most people that terms like global warming and climate change weren’t that great of a choice. Both terms are too abstract and blurry, and actually not so alarming.
“In his fast-paced new book about climate change, “The Heat Will Kill You First,” Goodell denounces the term “global warming” for sounding “gentle and soothing, as if the most notable impact of burning fossil fuels will be better beach weather.””
“Yet “climate change” doesn’t work either. Mere “change” is too gentle: it doesn’t indicate whether the change will be negative or positive. It is not immediate: it hints that its consequences will be felt only in the future, when we are feeling them right now.”
But it’s not only these two terms that create more confusion than clarity. There is also a growing number of new concepts that most people just don’t understand and get overwhelmed by, as Jonathan Freedland notes in the Guardian article linked above:
“But there are multiple other terms favoured by the climate cognoscenti that fall at a more basic hurdle: they are simply not understood by the wider public. Net zero, decarbonisation. 1.5C – when tested, they meet blank faces. People either don’t know what they mean or find them confusing. [Also] the phrase “climate justice”. When most voters hear the word “justice”, […] they think of courts or police; bolt it to “climate”, and people are not moved, just confused.”
Similarly, John Burn-Murdoch writes in a recent Financial Times article:
“As climate anxiety grows, the risk that humanity continues to be the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water is only exacerbated by the fact that we continue to emphasise abstract statistics instead of things that people can really see and feel.
I understand the focus on the 2C limit, but it a) sounds small, b) refers to some date in the future, c) lacks any connection to human experience and d) does a pretty bad job of describing what is happening with temperatures.”
Why are we doing this? Why are we coming up with these hard-to-grasp words and concepts? Why do we choose language that results in obscurity and confusion?
In an interesting podcast interview, communications expert John Marshall argues that we have under-communicated to the “average” person.
“No one wakes up in the morning and says, what a great day for some decarbonization.
[…] The smart crowd of people listening to this podcast, they understand the concepts of net zero and 2040 and 1.5 degrees and decarbonization and methane and anthropogenic and all that stuff. But that's not how regular people think about the world. And so we've got a bubble problem on our hands.”
The podcast episode is full of some very interesting insights and quotes – like “no one wants to go to zero” 🤔, referring to all those “net zero” goals – with the main message from John Marshall being that we need to humanize the way we talk about climate change and use a people-first approach.
What he means by that is to start not by talking about the issue, the problem, but to think first about the individuals, the people, the communities and their worries, challenges, hopes, and aspirations. He mentions three main tenants that he focuses on in terms of climate communications:
Simplicity: This is all about scrapping all the complicated words and using plain, obvious, and universal language.
“Confusion and hopelessness are the enemies of understanding.”
Humanity: This is about connecting people to other people’s stories and the emotions they feel. Not better climate policy descriptions but deeper, more personal connections.
“We have definitely found that the messages that work the best have a person in it, […] and talk about how that person is being affected [by climate breakdown].
We did a little AB test where we had a message that you know, a lot of climate philanthropists really like, which is a conceptual message. Look at our opportunity for economic advantage and competitive advantage and job gains and all the conceptual stuff. And then you just have another message with a mom talking about her kid. The second message outperforms the first by a factor of 4 to 1.
And so when we start to humanize the conversation and take it out of the conceptual terms where it's been for a long time, we get a lot of effectiveness.”
“The right messages are those that connect climate change to personal identity. Our life -- not future lives, not the world -- our community, not necessarily environmentalism -- our values, and not just children -- our child.”
Lastly, Accountability: This is about rebranding climate change and getting rid of its blurriness.
“I don't think the concept of fighting climate change means that much to people. I mean, people don't really understand it that well. I think the right rebrand is to fight the pollution that's causing climate change or fight the polluters who are causing climate change because we can fight a polluter or we can fight pollution. That's a very identifiable thing in somebody's mind. But it's really hard to fight an abstract concept […].
So probably the biggest part of the rebrand […] is to make this a pollution issue, and particularly in the Global South as well, where air pollution is just such a scourge, and really make that the rallying cry of ending the pollution problem.”
David Fenton, another climate communications expert who I quoted at the beginning, has a similar opinion:
“Fenton urges the climate community to speak of pollution – a word everyone gets – and to settle on the image of a “blanket of pollution trapping heat on Earth”. Every oil and gas emission makes that blanket thicker – and all that trapped heat helps cause floods and start fires, he says.”
I actually also once wrote about why air pollution is the best case against fossil fuels citing that, amongst others, solving air pollution doesn’t necessarily require a new technological invention, an almost impossible global cooperation effort, or will only have an effect years or decades later. In short: it’s an easier and clearer sell!
Less Rationality, More Emotions
This second topic relates to the scientification, quantification, and economification of the environmental movement. The climate community has obviously been very much influenced by the science community (and rightfully so!). But it also had an effect on how we talk about climate change and climate action. And as sustainability and decarbonization increasingly become a competitive advantage for corporations, the economic and business world is now also more and more influencing the climate movement, making the lingua franca more business-y. Even ideas that are now “trending” in the climate and sustainability field, like the Doughnut Economy or especially Degrowth, are super abstract and rational, and kind of require at least a bit of (macro-)economic knowledge to fully get them. I previously talked about economism and how we’ve been using economics increasingly in domains outside of economics and the consequences of that.
This story bywhich I once shared already explains this as well:
“A veteran activist once told me of a meeting he attended in the 1980s in which a group of leading environmentalists decided to adopt the term “sustainability” into their core lexicon. “We wanted to sound scientific,” he said. “We didn’t want to use words like ‘love’ or ‘precious’ and be dismissed as tree-huggers. We wanted to give people a rational, hard-headed reason why we should protect nature. We thought that appealing to the beauty and sacredness of nature wouldn’t reach the people who were destroying it, so we tried to make it about their self-interest instead.”
[…] The result is that environmentalism has been hijacked by people and institutions who are not nature-lovers.”
The aforementioned David Fenton similarly writes about the “love for complexity” and the aversion for simplification that climate scientists, as well as many climate advocacy organizations, have. And this prevalent idea that most in the climate community hold, that facts persuade by themselves.
What we need now is more storytellers! And more emotional stories! We need people who can actually simplify the facts and tell emotional stories that touch hearts instead of brains. And we need that nature-love back, the sort of Woodstock-hippie-esque, more spiritual, feelings-evoking reason for transforming the world.
“We were replicating, recreating, reusing the system that we thought we wanted to change. […] I really noticed in our work was this tendency to, as kind of professional policy campaigners, use the same assumptions of a rational actor that underpin the homo oeconomicus type of economics […] in our own tactics. […] We were putting our carefully sourced and libel-checked facts in front of policymakers and expecting them to respond on a rational basis. Of course, they didn't.”
“Activism is so often associated with pain and suffering; really dire, serious people insisting we have to suffer, to sacrifice, to protest, to forego so many of the sensual pleasures of life. […] People are already so overwhelmed and depressed, why would they want anything to do with such a movement?”
Moreover, new research reveals that emotions are a crucial component of decision-making:
Lastly, what also comes to mind is, of course, sociologist Hartmur Rosa’s idea of resonance – i.e. a way of encountering the world that is characterized by affection, emotion, (self-)transformation, and unpredictability – which I already explored extensively here, in case you wanna dive deeper into this topic. This leads me to the next point:
Fewer Facts, More Friendships
I’ve recently come across an interesting article by James Clear, the author of the famous book Atomic Habits. In the article, James suggests that, before we even talk about or promote a certain story or facts, we should actually start with befriending:
“Humans are herd animals. […] Understanding the truth of a situation is important, but so is remaining part of a tribe. […] We don't always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about. […]
Facts Don't Change Our Minds. Friendship Does.
Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. […] You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.
The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially. […]
Perhaps it is not difference, but distance that breeds tribalism and hostility. As proximity increases, so does understanding. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln's quote, “I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” […]
When we are in the moment, we can easily forget that the goal is to connect with the other side, collaborate with them, befriend them, and integrate them into our tribe. We are so caught up in winning that we forget about connecting.”
I find the above so valuable and important, especially as loneliness numbers are going through the roof and people are having fewer friendships. And this, of course, also links back to the first section and John Marshall’s people-first approach.
So, how can the climate community actually nourish community?
Thanks for reading Creative Destruction! Subscribe to receive new posts and support my work. It’s free 😉!
From Bits & Pieces to Prime-Time
I mentioned David Fenton a few times already. In one of his articles, he also talks about the lack of what I would call prime-time attention for the climate crisis. David is quite US-focused but I’d say this is also a huge issue in many other countries.
“But the environmental advocacy organizations, their funders and the Obama and Biden White House share some of the blame: They have never mounted a campaign at scale to get the truth to the public. President Biden has never given a prime-time speech on the issue, has never held a public meeting with climate scientists, and never explains that extreme weather is driven by burning oil, coal and gas. Former President Obama never made public education on climate change a priority. […]
In the U.S., although environmental advocacy organizations bring in billions of dollars a year, almost nothing goes to public communication, and most of that is for fundraising. This guarantees failure on the battlefield of public opinion. […]
The climate foundations devote the bulk of their funding to the supply of policy, commissioning studies, think tanks, reports, conferences, etc. Yet, we have no shortage of great policy ideas to solve climate change. What we lack is demand for these policies, otherwise known as political will. No one is yet funding the massive public climate education and mobilization needed at scale that would create it. And it isn’t because of a lack of resources. It just isn’t their worldview.”
With prime-time, I also don’t just mean presidential addresses to the nation. Big sports events, huge TV shows, all these globally known streaming series… people are literally glued to their screens, so there has to be some creative way we can steer that into the right (more meaningful) direction, right?!
One interesting idea comes from Philadelphia (I know… again, the US…). I recently came acrossarticle “How to Fix A Country in 12 Days” in which he explains how Philadelphia turned the fixing of a bridge into a sporting event and made it all happen in just 12 days.
“It livestreamed construction. It made heroes of tradespeople. It brought in local sponsors. It took the internet’s blessing and curse – its ability to firehose attention onto seemingly small things – and used it to its advantage.”
Could similar approaches help us pump up critical renewable energy infrastructure or car-free city transformations? Again, the need for the right kind of emotional storytelling is critical, but also: the need for storytelling at scale and virality!
From Doomerism to New Visions
Okay, just look at the messaging of one of the most defining documentaries of the climate movement:
Don’t get me wrong, I think Al Gore’s documentary was crucial and sooo good! And the guy is well known for leveraging anger (hint: this is an emotion 😜; less rationality, more emotions…remember?!), which he is doing these days again by making us super angry towards the fossil fuel industry, a clever and very much needed new framing in my opinion. And not only because it taps into emotions but also because, as mentioned already, it reframes what or who we are fighting: from a very unclear “fighting climate change” to a clearer “let’s fight the polluters”.
But – here comes the “but” 😉 – what we also need, amidst all that doom and gloom and rising levels of climate anxiety, is a more awe-evoking, positive story.
“In awe, the self-image becomes diffuse, intermingling not just with other people, but common humanity, the biosphere and everything.”
Henry Wismayer, NOEMA
So how do we create these positive stories and visions?
One interesting article I found talks about the need to shift from climate deadlines to climate lifelines, explained with this clever analogy:
“Imagine a leading authority in your life told you tomorrow that you must run a marathon in four weeks’ time in under four hours, or the world will come to an end - the chances are you would chuckle in their face. No chance! That’s too soon, too fast, and what’s more, you haven’t got any running kit. So, you might say you’ll do it - because you’re being told you have to and you wish to please them (even though you can’t get your head behind the world truly coming to an end). But in your mind, you dismiss it as impossible and stay on the couch.
If, however, that same authority explained that running would make you feel better, be healthier, live longer, and suggested that the local community begin a running club, now that might spark your interest. If that authority went on to offer coaching sessions, provide good running shoes, and help foster a team spirit - friends to run with and from whom you could also learn - in the space of four weeks, you would feel energised, supported, and inspired to run faster. You might also want to show other communities the benefits of your new lifestyle; perhaps they should follow suit.”
Another interesting approach is this free report by Futerra, which illustrates dominant climate narratives and imagines some new, alternative (also ignored) narratives that inspire new thinking. Here are just a few interesting quotes from the report:
“Even with all our post-Enlightenment critical thinking, compulsory education, science so advanced we can stare into the black hole of another galaxy… In a fight between a story and a fact, the story will win.”
“Today, 56% of young people now think their world is doomed. This is hardly surprising when people all around the world say they hear more about the negative impacts of climate change than about progress. If we continue with the same old messages, the same old ‘narrative frames’, then we will keep losing the climate fight.”
“Most positive visions generated by environmentalists […] are sexless, boring, hermetically sealed shells. Instead, we need messy visions, emotionally intense stories set in believable futures, worlds with jeopardy, excitement, and a reason to want to go there.”
The report mostly just acts as an inspiration and an open call for building new narratives, while showcasing a few collages and short descriptions of some potential new visions. I particularly liked the two visions below:
Another interesting new vision or narrative is the so-called Life-Affirming Civilization. I explored this idea by Jeremy Lent in a previous newsletter post and it basically asks the thought-provoking question: ‘What if we based our human society on natural ecology?’ Check out the entire post to learn more, but here is a little excerpt from it:
“Based on this crucial precept, an ecological civilization would be designed on the core principle of fractal flourishing: the well-being of each person is fractally related to the health of the larger world. Individual health relies on societal health, which relies in turn on the health of the ecosystem in which it’s embedded.”
“Cities would be redesigned on ecological principles, with community gardens on every available piece of land, essential services within a 20-minute walk, and cars banned from city centers. The local community would be the basic building block of society, with face-to-face interaction regaining ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing. Education would be re-envisioned, its goal transformed from preparing students for the corporate marketplace to cultivating in students the discernment and emotional maturity required to fulfill their life’s purpose as valued members of society.”
So again, what we need is less doomerism and more awe-evoking stories of a sustainable and just future!
Or, as Buckminster Fuller would say: A new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
That’s it for this deep dive into transforming climate communications & narratives!
I hope you enjoyed it! If so, please help me spread the word and share this with your network! I’m sure you know someone who would be interested in reading this! 😉
Thanks a lot!
PS: You can also support this newsletter by ☕️ buying me a coffee which will help me spend more time on the newsletter and pay for my domain hosting and research tool expenses.