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Communicating Climate Change: Make it relevant

By Denise Robbins.  Denise is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where she studied environmental science and statistics. She now works in communications and is passionate about the environmental movement, writing short stories, and living sustainably.

As an Ecowoman, you probably believe in climate change. Maybe the imminence of climate change and the importance of our global ecosystem has resonated so deeply with you that you are trying to what you can to live a sustainable lifestyle.  But for many, this message doesn’t ring true. Even though the majority of Americans, 67% according to the latest Pew study, believe that climate change is real, very few are inspired to act. And some believe this is due to miscommunication.

Climate change is an issue that is beginning to touch everyone. Some are calling it the biggest challenge of our era. So, how do we get people to rise up to the challenge?

On Thursday, October 18th, Net Impact hosted a panel titled “Climate Communications Challenges” to address this question, with three panelists from a wide variety of backgrounds. Tim Juliani comes from a scientific organization called the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), formerly called the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Mark Grundy, of the Carbon War Room, works to bring sustainable solutions to the private sector. And Alex Bozmoski, of Energy & Enterprise Initiative, speaks for the conservatives and libertarians.  They all believe in climate change. Here is the recap of the discussion.

Part 1: What are the greatest challenges to getting the message across about climate change?

An underlying theme of the responses was the disconnect between the solutions being offered and the people they were meant for. Those that understood the implications of climate change, and came up with solutions, were considered elitist.  No one likes to have their lifestyle criticized. Especially surrounding talks of cap and trade, which was confusing enough to alienate people, this rang true. If the public didn’t understand and couldn’t take part in the discussion, why would they accept the solution?

Even so, it seemed like cap and trade legislation was on its way in Congress until the financial crisis of 2008. When the economy collapsed, all hopes to pass climate change legislation were destroyed, and they have never truly recovered. The rhetoric changed radically, and question became whether one supports the economy OR the environment. Earlier this year, a certain Presidential candidate announced “Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans & heal the planet… My promise is to help you and your family.”  It was almost a joke that the two could be thought of as one in the same – and this rhetoric is used on both sides of the political spectrum. The damage from the financial crisis has not been fully repaired; the climate movement is still suffering.

Part 2: How do you inspire people to act, despite of the challenges?

Discuss extreme weather, but don’t add a caveat.

Courtesy of NASA (

This past year has been one of extreme weather- 82% of Americans have experienced extreme weather in the past year. And this resonates with them, when they can feel the impacts of climate change so profoundly. But the important thing, according to Juliani, is to use this information without an addendum – namely, that it is impossible to link any particular weather event to global climate change. Adding that caveat fosters skepticism and doubt. There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real and man-made, and that is what’s important to communicate.

Make it relevant.

The other important facet to communicating climate change is making it relevant and engaging, according to the panel.  Sustainability is an all-encompassing topic that applies to everyone in different ways. Because of this, the panelists claimed the need for different messages for different groups. For some, speaking of climate change doesn’t resonate (especially for those that are still skeptical).  But lowering carbon energy usage makes economic sense for almost everyone. Grundy spoke of working with small islands – islands in danger of rising sea levels from climate change – to become carbon neutral. But they did this not to prevent climate change, simply because it made economic and social sense.

Part 3: How do you get people to trust what they’re being told?

Similar to the response to second question, the common answer was to segment the audience and outline different messages for different audiences. To take it even further, they suggested even using different messengers. There are many widely differing groups who are getting engaged: faith-based groups, foreign groups, democrats, republicans, farmers, small business owners, corporations, and more.

One audience member not satisfied by the final response. By segmenting the message, wouldn’t that make it weaker? Wouldn’t that confuse the overall message? She said as much when they opened up for questions, asking the panelists to provide a singular message that could resonate with everyone. So the final message to take away was: focus on the opportunity, rather than the doom and gloom, that is presented by climate change. There is enormous opportunity for innovation in the renewable energy sector. There is the chance to get ahead in the game and be a leader. By addressing climate change, someone can become an inspiration, and maybe even change the world.

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