Podcast: Selling the Science of Climate Change

Founder and chairman David Fenton spoke on Climate One’s podcast to answer the question, how can effective communication better sell the science of climate change? Listen to his conversation with Renee Lertzman, Climate Engagement Strategist, Author and Speaker, Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University and Cristine Russell, Freelance Science Journalist. Play Climate One’s podcast, ‘Selling the Science of Climate Change’, here.

The scientific consensus is that human activity is cooking the planet and disrupting our economies. Yet many people still don’t believe that climate change will affect them personally. Or they deny that the problem is urgent enough to take action that would disrupt their lifestyles. Why has communicating the facts about climate change to the public been such a challenge?

“Facts don’t work by themselves,” says David Fenton. “Facts only really work when one, they’re embedded in moral narratives.  Secondly, facts don’t work unless they’re embedded in stories. And third, the brain only absorbs messages that are simple and that are repeated.”

Over four decades, Fenton has pioneered the use of PR, social media and advertising techniques to advance social change. Some of his best-known campaigns include stimulating the rise in organic food sales, saving swordfish from extinction with a coalition of top chefs, public health campaigns against tobacco and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and many others.

“Part of my job,” he explains, “is to help scientists speak English and acceptable accurate drama.”

Fenton believes in exploiting the findings of cognitive science to deliver otherwise complex messages. “Only campaigns work,” he stresses, “Only the repetition – I’m repeating myself I know – of simple messages changes public opinion and affects the brain.”

Fenton notes that while it’s hard to be optimistic when you hang out with climate scientists, he remains so because the climate movement has never really tried to reach the general public at a scale similar to a national advertising campaign – let alone the disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s not too late to avoid the worst,” he says, “So had we tried to really get people to understand the urgency of this in a way that they can understand and that actually reaches them repetitively and failed, I’d be really depressed.  But we haven’t tried it yet.”

To address that urgency, Fenton has specific suggestions. “Don’t talk about the planet,” he cautions. “That doesn’t appeal to the public. And besides the planet will be fine. It will recover in geologic time. We just won’t be here. This is about humanity.”

He also notes that while much of the philanthropic money spent on climate change has gone toward what he calls the “supply of policy” – studies, reports, science, meetings, conferences – very little has been spent on stimulating the public’s demand for it. “We now don’t lack a supply of policy,” he says, “We know what to do. We lack demand.”

But what about individual deniers who have closed themselves off to argument, no matter how persuasive? “As humans we’re capable of tolerating and managing a lot of contradictions in ourselves and in one another,” explains Renee Lertzman, a climate engagement strategist. “When we’re confronted with information that brings up conflict with our beliefs, our worldview, our, ideology, our mind will actually generate incredible strategies to deny, repress and basically avoid our engagement with the situation and with the reality.”

The influence of children on their parents when it comes to climate change is starting to be recognized, says Lertzman.“One organization, the Alliance for Climate Education, that I’ve been working with, actually is focusing on supporting young people to have more effective conversations with their parents.“And this also relates to the point around conversation,” she continues. “That when we’re in social interactions with people we trust and care about, that is absolutely where we can start to see openings.”


// This article was written by Climate One. Read the full piece here.