Language to Win on Climate
You can’t win a war unless people know they’re under attack. In the war to defeat climate change, the American public is still not sufficiently knowledgeable or aroused to act.
Research from Yale shows that only 26% of the public are alarmed about global warming — the most alarming threat ever faced by humanity. Only 20% know all the climate scientists agree we are heating the earth at our peril.
Current climate communications is a bit like the Tower of Babel – activists all talk about it differently, so our potential echo chamber is not powerful. Partly as a result, the public still doesn’t know much about this issue, can’t describe it simply and rarely talk to their friends or family about it.
If the tested, proven simple language and imagery that follows is repeated, repeated, repeated every time climate is discussed with the public by scientists, activists and officials, it will help change the public opinion playing field to win.
- Only if people simply understand the threat will they demand action. Here’s what works best, repeating: “We have put a pollution blanket around the earth, which traps heat, melting Arctic ice, raising sea levels, flooding homes, and making storms, wildfires and droughts stronger. The good news is we know how to remove the pollution blanket — by stopping pollution and switching to clean energy.” This is far more effective than talking about “emissions,” “net-zero,” “existential threats” and other concepts the public largely doesn’t fathom. People think in existing mental circuits, or frames. The frame of “pollution” results in people saying “that isn’t good.” The frame of “climate change” often signals conflict, controversy and confusion.
- How much heat energy is being trapped under that pollution blanket around the earth? The same amount as exploding 500,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the earth’s atmosphere — every day. So no wonder all that trapped energy is making the weather more extreme. This is a simple, understandable visual metaphor everyone can get.
- The public still thinks there is enormous scientific disagreement about what causes climate change. And no wonder, as spreading doubt about whether scientists agree has been the primary strategy of oil and coal companies. When people find out there isn’t disagreement, support for action skyrockets. Here’s how to change this, by repeating: “99% of climate scientists agree that humans are heating our planet with carbon pollution, threatening our health, safety, economy and security. 99% of climate scientists agree.”
- Change the frame to PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY. This puts the other side on defense for NOT protecting us. “ We have learned we must listen to scientists to protect our health and way of life, as we have with the virus. They are now warning us we must phase out carbon pollution from fossil fuels to protect our health, safety, homes, families and economy. We must listen to the scientists.”
- Clean Energy Jobs are an important argument, and we should be clear there are many more jobs to be had in transforming the entire built, energy and transportation infrastructure to stop pollution. But research proves jobs alone is NOT the most effective approach for most people. Be careful that the “jobs” frame alone can benefit the other side, as some jobs will be lost in polluting industries — this puts us on defense. CHANGE THE FRAME with: “If we don’t act against carbon pollution, it will surely damage our economy with extreme weather and higher food prices. It is INACTION on climate that threatens everyone’s jobs and the whole economy. And there will be plenty of good new, high-paying jobs in clean energy.”
- Stress the $ benefits of clean energy. “Clean Energy is not only healthier, its now cheaper than polluting energy. Solar and wind are the cheapest energy. And they can never run out or go up in price. Insulated homes have lower energy bills. This switch will save everyone money, forever.”
- The public agrees — polluters should pay. “Those arguing against protecting Americans from climate change are representing polluting companies, who should pay to clean up their mess. They aren’t representing the health, safety and prosperity of all Americans.”
- Stress the benefits even more simply and clearly. “Americans want, and deserve, clean cars that don’t cause asthma and stronger storms. They want, and deserve, to heat their homes, not our planet, and to save money doing it. They want America to own the clean energy and clean car industries, not give them away to China.”
This language is based on research by academics and marketing industry veterans now working full time on climate communications.
If you work on climate change, please repeat these until you are all sick to death of it — only then will the public have heard it.
David Fenton founded FENTON, the social change firm, in 1982. He now works on climate communications.