The Good, The Bad and The Ugly….

Three Recommendations to Improve Climate Change Communication in America

It’s a difficult time to discuss climate change in the US. The president doesn’t accept it as a threat to our economy or environment. Only 15 percent of his Republican party believe it is happening and that figure has not change in 20 years.  As a result, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Agreement and rolled back a number of executive orders and rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Given all the political problems the US faces, it’s hard to imagine climate has  any space. Yet, two-thirds of Americans believe the climate is changing and 45% believe that immediate action is necessary. There is a demand for mainstreaming an action strategy in America.

I was optimistic when the top rated Public Affairs show – Meet the Press – dedicated their full hour to the “Climate Crisis” (December 30th, 2018). Garnering an average viewership of 3.47 million people per episode, this hour may be the most significant broadcast in the US on the subject to date.  

So given the importance of this opportunity; let’s evaluate how they did. After watching the episode three times, there is much to note.  Here is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

  • This wasn’t a climate debate. The host, Chuck Todd, said the science is conclusive. No time will be given to climate deniers. This is a paradigm shift in the public conversation!
  • Their polling data emphasizes that a majority of Americans believe climate change is manmade and that a lack of regulatory action will be more harmful to the economy than doing nothing. Recent years have seen the call to action grow louder.

The Bad

  • The underlying motivator used was fear of the future. We are running from a fiery hell-scape rather than towards a better future. Although fear has been a successful vehicle for Trump politics; climate change doesn’t create as visceral an image as murderers and drug dealers climbing over our borders.  Check out the Be a ChangeMaker blog which explains that this approach isn’t going anywhere.
  • The guests focused on blaming conservatives for federal inaction. The only politician on the show ,one of 40 pro-climate action Republicans, took the ire for the other 85% of his party. I believe we all understand the uselessness of this strategy, by attacking conservatives they become more defensive and less wiling to consider climate action.

The Ugly

The climate scientist, Dr. Kate Marvel, is a brilliant communicator to describe climate change causes, but fell far short in answering “what should be our response?”  I cringed at watching her try to answer straight forward questions:

Host: How do you explain the urgency to Americans?

Dr. Marvel: Oh my gosh!… I wish I knew!…I wish I had a good answer…scientists want to show more data and more graphs like there is a magic equation…there isn’t…its about their [deniers] values and the deep stories of how people see themselves (see Recommendation 1). 

Host: It feels so overwhelming!

Dr. Marvel:  That’s the thing…it is overwhelming!…It should feel overwhelming because it is overwhelming! (see Recommendation 2).

Host: What’s the one thing we can all do right now, everyone wants this one thing they can do?

Dr. Marvel:  We know exactly what is causing this…its us…it’s the Green House Gas emissions with are putting in the atmosphere…(see Recommendation 3).

Host: So its these guys! (the Republicans).

Wow! No one was left with a clear answer to these questions! At the end of the show the message was that the adults are trying to figure this out so put your head between your knees and hope we can crash-land this plane without too many causalities.

I really commend Meet the Press for dedicating this hour.  Personally I believe it should be discussed every day, everywhere.  This might be a start in that direction.  However we need to improve our strategies and here are three recommendations to become more effective communicators.

1.Framing for Conservatives

Appreciate that this is a highly politicized issue.  Conservatives will protect the tribe when threatened.  Let’s stop blaming them and instead reach them.

Social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers have written that conservatives are motivated by comparing the past to the present versus comparing the present to the future.  However, liberals are agnostic to the presentation.  This is not only in words but also pictures:

(Baldwin & Lammers, 2016)

Conservatives were much more likely to consider the past to present comparison, a motivation to take on pro-environmental behaviors.  Using this insight, Americans will appreciate that conservatives use the past vs. present model in much of their speech.  We have seen this in the  immigration issue or the Make America Great Again slogan, it’s an effective frame.

2. Framing Against Hopelessness

Let’s not follow Dr. Marvel’s model and express how overwhelming climate change is; one can construe it’s hopelessly hard to understand.  Just leave it to people like her to solve the problem!  Let’s get out of this trap of our own making.

The World Bank’s report on Climate Change Behavior explains that when a problem is deemed too complicated and too overwhelming it is ignored.  People address those problems they can solve…if they cannot solve it, it isn’t a problem, it is just reality. The saving grace, according to the World Bank,  is that by working in groups we can motivate people past this hurdle.  Find your group, it can be your family, a group of friends, co-workers or a local NGO. 

3. Be Prepared to Answer

Have actions at the ready. A great place to start is the NGO, Project Drawdown (Drawdown in the condition where we are actively reducing our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions). This is the most comprehensive list of Greenhouse Gas reduction actions available. I like that a TedTalk given by their VP Chad Frischmann emphasized that we should focus our discussion on GHG reduction as that is the actual problem; climate change is the symptom.

If you want a short list of actions you can use these:

  • Immediately: Significantly reduce meat consumption, if you eat meat. Look into flexitarianism where one eats a plant rich diet and meat occasionally.
  • Immediately: Planned your meals so you are not throwing out food.
  • Near Term: Consider buying habits that local source food and reduce impulse purchasing.
  • Near Term: Consider how you might use public transportation, carpooling or a bike.
  • Long Term: Research cars, large appliances and house sealing (e.g. windows) when its time to replace those items.

Let’s fight the temptation to throw up our hands and hope somebody in charge can handle this problem.  This belong to all of us.   

4 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly….

  1. I’d heard about the programme but not actually watched it and I hadn’t heard about the lack of answers to probably the most important question! That’s quite worrying. Although, I’d probably freeze up on TV so maybe I shouldn’t judge!! I totally agree we all have to own it and I’d add a critical to your list – lobby your government representative. Individual action is important but we also need massive system wide change, and only governments can make that happen. But we vote for them so they should listen to us…. although thinking back to the beginning of your point, that’s a bit tricky right now!


  2. Thanks, Marc. I can imagine that it’s not an easy scenario to talk about climate change. But how about getting Jerry Brown or even Schwarzenegger on these shows? For those of us outside the USA, California’s governors (present and past) have done better jobs in championing the cause of climate change than sadly your President!

    I like your pragmatism and optimism in laying out the bite-size actions that each one of us can focus on instead of balking at the hopelessness or enormity of this challenge.

    Dr Marvel, unfortunately, seems to be ill-prepared or equipped to communicate the climate change action plan. In her defence, not all of us can make doomsday look appealing like Oscar-winning movie a la Al Gore and his ‘The Inconvenient Truth’!

    It’s not just the scientists it seems; I remember reading Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s essay “The Death of Environmentalism” some months ago. They sure did a grand job to show how the environmentalists haven’t done a good job of saving our planet. Surely we need better strategies including communication strategies and saleswomen (and men) who can sell these stories – for saving our planet.


  3. Hi Mark, I read your post with much interest because there is quite a vivid debate around how to communicate about sustainability issues and some argue that it is mostly done in the wrong way. Also, since last year I have been running a blog together with a PCSVC colleague, and I have been thinking a lot (pretty obsessively!) about effective communication for sustainability. For any news I post or blog I write I ask myself: “Is this passing a message that has the power to change people’s attitude towards the problem and make them consider acting differently?”, “Do I risk to pass the message that we are doomed?”. “Can people reading this piece feel empowered to change?”. Not easy questions to answer…and indeed I am doing my best, but I am sure that I am not always successful in getting what I wish for.
    Yet, I think that following some principles is useful and I am very interested in knowing your view on what has guided my communication efforts so far:
    1. Try to increase people’s understanding of sustainability-related topics starting with something “tangible” as recent news. It is proven that abstract, far away in time or space topics are harder to grasp or better to relate to. As the journalist, Samantha Hayes says “the villain is often invisible”. We need to make it as visible as possible and local examples, recent events are an excellent way to engage the reader and make him eager to read further.
    2. Focus on the positives instead of depicting a gloomy picture. It can be hard and at times impossible, but we should always be aware of the risk of the equation “too much gloom=doomed”. This has been very well described by Solitaire Townsend in her book the Happy Hero (excellent reading on this topic). It is crucial therefore to inject a sense of hope, show that things are evolving – even if slowly – and look for actors that are taking actions (great to increase people’s agency!).
    3. Provide simple solutions and practical advice. This part is essential for two key reasons in my view. First, it swaps the sense of guilt that a reader may feel, with a sense of agency and the positive vision of him/her contribution to the solution. Second, it makes the issues manageable and actionable.
    Now it looks to me that Dr Kate Marvel dramatically failed to address point 2 and 3!
    Also, the part of her interview that you reported made me think about the book that I am about to start. Definitely spot on! The book is titled “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming” by Per Espen Stoknes (he is a Norwegian psychologist and politician for the Green Party). As I read many reviews before buying it, I briefly report what resonated with me and I believe can contribute to the insightful discussion that your post has generated.
    1. Stoknes states that communication around climate change often starts from an inadequate understanding of the way most humans think, act, and live in the world around them. Communication around sustainability if meant to drive behaviour change, needs a great understanding of human psychology and neither climate scientists nor journalists seem to master the subject.
    2. He describes five main defence strategies that keep us from acknowledging the need for change
    • we distance ourselves from the big, scary issue;
    • we avoid doom and sacrifice messengers;
    • we experience cognitive dissonance;
    • we get rid of fear and guilt through denial mechanisms;
    • we automatically resist criticisms of my identity, job, and lifestyle.
    Hopefully, I will have read the book by the 31st of March, and I will be able to pass it to you, but it looks it can provide excellent insights on how to contribute to more effective communication on climate change and other sustainability-related challenges.
    Note: Another great read on climate change is this article by FUTERRA

    I look forward to more conversations on this topic soon!
    Have a great week-end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s