At a time when public opinion on climate change is shifting in some “pretty positive ways”, climate communicators’ goal should be to make the reality of the climate crisis “understandable and relatable” in peoples’ daily lives, engagement specialist Cara Pike told a February 21 webinar hosted by Antioch University.
Pike, founder and director of the California-based non-profit Climate Access, said the surest way to break down barriers to climate action is to open conversations and form partnerships on the aspects of the issue that matter most to different communities of interest.
For some time, a key challenge was the majority of Americans who acknowledged climate change as a problem but didn’t see its relevance to their own lives. Pike said those attitudes are shifting, with 46% of the U.S. population now saying they’ve had personal experience with climate impacts—a 15% increase since 2015. And 48% say they’re being harmed by climate change right now, a 16% jump in four years. While climate change still ranks low on a list of priority public policy issues, she said it’s seen “some upward movement” since 2011.
She added that many climate communicators have been shocked by the resonance and impact of the October 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which set a tough but achievable, 12-year deadline to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 45%. “It creates that focus on the now that is so important,” she said. “As much as we talk about the solutions, we need to be very clear about the threat, as well.”
In the aftermath of the IPCC report, she said it’s been encouraging to see municipalities begin declaring climate emergencies and school strikes quickly gaining momentum around the world. Both of those initiatives respond to climate science “in a very clear, yet emotional and compelling way,” she said, and “the combination of those things is really impressive”.
Polarization remains a major concern in U.S. public attitudes to climate change, with perception of a serious problem driven by the 90% of Democrats who think Donald Trump should be doing more about the issue. But Republicans’ views are shifting, as well, with 32% expressing concern today compared to 20% in 2014. Pike singled out Millennials as a demographic group where the polarization breaks down, with nearly 60% saying climate change is having an effect on the United States and 45% pointing to impacts in their own communities.
Among Americans as a whole, 69% say they are somewhat worried and 29% are very worried about climate change, the highest levels since the question first showed up in an opinion survey in 2008. But Pike cautioned that there’s a fine line between being hopeful and helpless, “and that’s a problem. Because if people feel there’s no hope, no path forward, it’s easy to check out.”
Survey respondents are generally positive about climate solutions like renewable and clean energy, she said. “On the other hand, they’re often viewed as being in the future or very expensive,” with people assuming that climate action will hit their pocketbooks through mechanisms like carbon pricing. And there’s still no social norm around climate action: only 20% of Americans say it’s important to their family and friends that they take action.
Polling shows that people of colour in the United States tend to be much more concerned about climate change, supportive of climate and energy policy, and more apt to connect climate to issues of job creation, transportation, housing, and the impact of fossil fuels on certain communities. For climate advocates, that finding underscores the need to “think through who’s invested and needs to be at the table”.
With the opinion data as a starting point, Pike suggested five rules of thumb for opening and framing a wider conversation on climate change: meet people where they are, explain what makes it relevant to them rather than emphasizing technical details, position the issue in the present, bridge from impacts to solutions, and illustrate the benefits of climate action.
“For most people, this is really about communicating the relevance of the issue to their lives and making it understandable and relatable,” she said. With the impacts of climate change already making themselves felt across the United States, there’s ample opportunity to connect the issue to peoples’ everyday experience, rather than positioning it 50 or 60 years out. But it only creates dissonance when a message about climate impacts leaves an audience hanging, with no solutions in sight. Illustrating the benefits to communities of reducing their carbon footprints and building climate resilience means “really breaking it down to meaningful examples that people can understand”.
Effective framing also means connecting with people around shared values, recognizing that the best messaging varies by audience: depending on who’s in the room, the right framing might be about stewardship, energy efficiency, energy affordability, jobs, health and equity, security, profitability, innovation, or being on the cutting edge. Pike cited the 100% Renewable Energy campaigns sweeping the U.S. as a useful example of a frame that doesn’t get bogged down in the details right away, but builds public excitement around a goal that is on the scale of the problem it sets out to solve.
But there’s no such thing as a single framing for all occasions. Some communities might focus on 100% RE as an economic opportunity, particularly if a large percentage of the population skews conservative. In Georgia, the context is health and equity, connecting the renewable energy transition to air quality and job creation. In a community that depends on the fossil fuel industry for employment and tax revenue, the narrative might be about affordability, jobs, and the transition to energy forms that will benefit the community. In states like Minnesota and Oregon, it makes sense to frame a campaign around the climate crisis. But even there, researchers found “limited understanding of the solutions that are available and the degree to which renewable energy is even realistic in those communities.”
Whatever the community and whatever the framing, Pike stressed that the message has to be realistic, include examples of how solutions can work, and avoid over-promising. Climate communicators can deliver on that expectation by identifying and taking the time to understand the stakeholders they’re trying to reach, laying out a clear challenge, choice, and opportunity without shying away from talking about the actual climate crisis. “Even if you don’t lead with climate, if that’s not what the folks you’re trying to connect with care about, it’s still critical to weave it into the conversation,” emphasizing the 12-year deadline in the IPCC report.
“Ultimately, framing is about opening up a conversation and starting to build relationships,” she said. “That’s what the engagement piece is about.”
Pike emphasized that communities and stakeholders respond well to climate messaging when they’re invited to “co-explore” the issue and share their own insights on what’s relevant to their communities, businesses, and lives.
“We don’t want to talk at people,” she said. “We don’t want to prescribe the plan, come in with a plan for what the community is going to do, and sell them on that.” Real climate solutions depend on everyone’s creativity, incorporate local concerns, respect communities’ knowledge, and tap into their innovation. “I really see it as a partnership model, where you want to connect with the public and engage to be co-creators of resilience,” she said.
The approach is particularly valuable for local governments that can’t succeed by trying to go it alone. Even with limited resources for public engagement, it’s essential for cities to recognize that community members already understand neighbourhood issues, are tapped into local networks, and are quite often willing to participate.
But working in partnership with those networks depends on eliminating the barriers to their participation. That will often mean offering transit for people to get to meetings, providing resources to local partners to help them spread the word, “and actually paying them for their time,” she said. “It’s important to think about where people are at and how you design your engagement to overcome the barriers,” and extend the conversation beyond people who have the time and money to participate.
Ultimately, climate outreach must focus on equitable solutions that address local needs and deliver tangible benefits, building on the ideas and sparks of innovation that help communities prepare for climate change while meeting a range of other needs and priorities. “That’s where you get the win-win, and where the benefits become tangible for people,” she said.
Pike summarized her strategy in a short list of engagement reminders that began with “designing for inclusivity, really thinking through who needs to be at the table and how you think of those most at risk,” recognizing that those key communities are often not involved in decision-making. She pointed to experiential approaches to community dialogue, including games and role-playing exercises that can draw out different experiences with climate risk and vulnerability, get people out of their normal contexts, and help them “strategize to create that sense of possibility and solvability”.
She encouraged participants to place individual and community action in a wider context, always pointing out how small steps contribute to a bigger, wider target, and to be attentive to what’s working and what isn’t in any engagement process.
In her presentation and the Q&A that followed, Pike cited several examples of successful climate outreach and discussed options for adapting climate messaging in specific circumstances.
• The Greenovate Boston Leaders Program that Climate Access helped developed is a risk awareness and climate action initiative that engages community networks in municipal climate planning efforts and programs. Greenovate Leaders has trained more than 140 community leaders who have gone on to engage more than 1,300 friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues across eight neighbourhoods. Participants ultimately said they wanted to hear more about what the city was doing about climate change and how to get involved. So Greenovate organized a myriad of local programs into five action pathways community members could follow to increase their personal and community resilience to climate change.
• Pike worked on the Vital Communities initiative, which made the business case for carbon-neutral communities in British Columbia. To illustrate how municipalities could take action on a huge, global, scientific threat, the program aligned with local priorities like affordability, quality of life, job creation, and cost savings, all of which would be served by a push toward carbon neutrality. A key strategy was to tap into community leaders who could act as conduits and messengers within their own constituencies and peers—from the municipal sustainability director who convinced colleagues and elected officials to support the plan, to homebuilders, big developers, and construction companies.
• The Harlem Heat Project, organized by We-Act for Environmental Justice, was an example of “an experiential outreach approach” for communities, which can be particularly effective with stakeholders “not yet connected with the climate issue,” Pike told participants. The project involved community members in citizen science to measure the impact of a local heat wave in apartments with and without air conditioning, then convey the results in a series of soundscapes. In the homes without cooling, “the sound was really uncomfortable,” she said. “It went up in intensity and range and volume as the heat rose,” and “when you heard it you could just imagine how it would be very unpleasant to be in that context.” The soundscapes reached a wide public audience through the local public radio station.
• In communities like Miami and Cambridge, Massachusetts, both seeing the early effects of sea level rise, she suggested shifting the focus from the science to flood risk. In Miami, where sunny day flooding is already a regular occurrence, “visual experiences can be every effective, but not if they leave people with, ‘wow, you’re going to be up to your waist in water,’” she said. “You have to visualize solutions, as well.” Cambridge introduced a new program that helps homeowners and businesses audit their flood risk and points them toward services to help them respond.
• A project in Montana, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists with local partner One Montana and Climate Access, trained climate scientists to listen first, then ground their conversations in shared values. The result was a dialogue with a group of agricultural leaders that started with their concerns about water supply and availability, addressed climate risk by referring to the historical record rather than future projections, created space for peer dialogue, and ended with participants spontaneously identifying carbon pricing as a policy tool to address the challenges they were facing. “It’s really about respect,” Pike said. “People do care. They just have reasons they may not be able to come to the table yet. So it’s about understanding where people are coming from and shaping things from there.”
Click here for the full webinar.