Climate Change & Adaptation

Finding the right message on climate

Part Two of our occasional climate communication series focuses on resonant messages for different audiences.

In part one of our series on climate change and communication, we explored “climate literacy,” the basic understanding of climate science that allows us educate others. But despite the vast agreement among scientists and the public about the realities of climate change, communication about the topic in our day-to-day lives can still be a challenge.

So this next installment will focus on how to be an effective communicator and how you can influence others to act too. We’ll identify common audiences and offer example messages for different audiences. We’re interested to hear from you about examples from your own life!

Who’s telling what story?

First, you need a timely and meaningful message. We definitely have that in climate change—some social scientists are calling it the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.  It will impact all people and societies around the world at some point, and is already doing so. It threatens us now, and it absolutely threatens our children and grandchildren.

Here in the northeast, we’re already seeing effects. One of the biggest concerns is acidification of Long Island Sound, from nitrogen pollution and climate change. Acidification means that many organisms are unable to survive—especially oysters, clams, and lobsters—which hurts the environment and our vibrant regional economy that depends on seafood production. Local air quality is also a concern, as fossil fuel burning power plants pollute northeastern cities, especially in the summer when the air conditioning load requires more electricity.

Al Gore presenting his slideshow on climate change. Image via environment.about.com.

Al Gore presenting his slideshow on climate change. Image via environment.about.com.

In order to communicate successfully, you need a communicator. The good news is, in regards to climate change, that communicator can be anyone. Everyone has heard of Al Gore and his infamous slideshow, but nothing so fancy is required. Communication works best when we share own experiences (plus some facts to back you up). So New Yorkers talking about their experiences during Hurricane Sandy can be even more influential than Gore, with all of his training and flashy technology.

Who’s your audience?

Effective communication requires an audience. Luckily, since climate change will impact everyone at some point, everyone is a potential audience! It’s important to note here that we’re not trying to “typecast” or discriminate—there’s a lot of research that specific audiences respond most strongly to particular messages and messengers, but of course that’s not true for every individual, regardless of which groups they may belong to. Some example groups follow.

Millennials

Former intern Emma exemplifies a millennial interested in climate action.

Former intern Emma exemplifies a millennial interested in climate action.

Millennials will be the largest generation in America by the end of the year. They’re the first generation that may not end up better off than their parents, and they’re deeply committed to putting their money where their mouths (and values) are. They also have little faith in the current political process and are much more likely to think that personal behavior and sustainable business are the most effective ways to combat climate change. They respond best to younger messengers, as they often distrust older generations for “having gotten us into this mess” in the first place.

Conservatives

Many political conservatives are skeptical of using big government to tackle climate change, and believe that there are many other more important issues, such as education and the economy. However, common ground does exist. Effective messages could focus on conservation and humanity’s role as responsible stewards of the natural world. Climate change could also be framed as both a challenge and an opportunity to showcase American innovation and technological prowess. We can lead the world in green innovation and green energy, for instance, a benefit to the climate and the bottom line. Business leaders and innovators are trusted messengers for this group.

Grandparents

Grandparents are hugely effective advocates when they believe that their families are in danger. They value protecting children and allowing them to have similar experiences they themselves had as children. Climate change will disproportionately impact future generations. Clean air, clean water, and spending time outdoors are all resonant messages, and particularly effective when delivered by young people.

Occupations

Individuals drawn to various professions have different interests and trust different messengers. Among scientists, for instance, scientific arguments from other scientists are by far the most effective, but the same can’t be said of politicians—they want to hear from their constituents worried about our warming planet. American workers are most interested in keeping and creating jobs here, so a solar installer talking about the benefits of installing solar and the great jobs it provides would be most effective.

Many more examples exist of effective messages and messengers to reach different audiences. How have you talked about climate change? Why? What did you say, and what was the reaction of the audience? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Posted by Sarah Ganong, media coordinator at CFE/Save the Sound

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