Part of: Communicating climate change
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Time to rethink how we talk about climate change

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 12 April 2013 08:53 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Persuading people of the need to act on climate change has been challenging, but new ideas - from using popular media to having enemies lead the political charge - could make a difference

Why is climate change so difficult an issue to rally people around? Why have other thorny and politically sensitive issues - such as gay marriage - managed to eventually find traction while climate change has not?

It’s largely a problem not of science or politics, but of misjudged communication, climate experts argued at a Skoll World Forum session this week in Oxford, England.

UN climate talks may remain mired in inaction, but efforts to persuade most people of the need to be concerned about and act on climate change have arguably achieved even less. After decades of climate change research by scientists, advocacy by NGOs and reporting by journalists, few people outside an existing tribe of the concerned have been persuaded that there is a need to act urgently to deal with climate change - or even that it particularly matters to them.

“We haven’t actually been able to build a narrative… and affect culture,” says Maggie Fox, president of the Climate Reality Project, a U.S.-based effort to create new kinds of conversations about climate change. “There’s a lot of us, and (we’re) still not producing anything of consequence.”


One problem, she believes, is that climate change hasn’t made it into popular culture in any way likely to promote action.  In the U.S., for instance, many believe the hit television series “Modern Family,” which features a gay couple with an adopted daughter, has contributed to softening views against gay marriage and parenthood. Climate change has no such vehicle.

In fact, when it has crept into popular culture, at least in the United States, it has often produced a kind of cultural whiplash, with views ranging from outright denial to capitulation to climate doom in rapid succession. Fox points to the late-night talk show host David Letterman, who, when hosting guests that mention climate change, regularly throws himself back in his chair, tosses his arms up and declares, “We’re cooked!” A range of climate change disaster films carry much the same message.

“The cultural conversation is devastating,” says Fox. “It shifts from ‘it’s not happening and I don’t have to pay attention’ to “it’s over, we’re doomed.”


So how can that be changed? Fox and others at the Skoll World Forum say they believe answers may be to reframe climate change as a much more personal problem for people, make taking action on it appealing, and engage the enemy - those most opposed to action today - to deliver the messages.

What does that look like? It might mean reaching out to mothers worried about rising rates of asthma in their children - a problem scientists say is growing worse with climate change. That parent might not fight climate change to protect the environment, but they might well fight it to protect the health of their children. Similarly, as owners of homes at risk from worsening floods or storm surges have greater difficulty getting insurance, their personal stories could begin to resonate.

“You begin with what matters, and move from that space,” Fox says.


More positive messages on taking action on climate change are also needed. Creating indexes of clean energy uptake in cities or countries, and the benefits that produces, should replace indexes of fossil fuel declines, some suggested. Similarly, climate-friendly products should be advertised not as being green but simply as being good, in the same way that apples are sold for their taste and not for their health benefits.

When it comes to climate change, “most people are disempowered by the threat. Our job is to turn the conversation to the solutions,” Fox says.

Finally, finding ways to lower political antagonism and win over old enemies will be key. Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina Republican Congressman who remains a U.S. conservative, is participating at the Skoll conference and noted how irritated and defensive he had become at dinner the previous night when a man in the next chair belittled him for not buying carbon credits to offset the fossil fuels used in his flight to the conference.

Inglis, who supports action on climate change, said he knew he probably should have done that - but was never going to admit that to his tormentor.

“When you know you’re wrong, sometimes you fight harder,” he said. “You don’t want people to tell you that.”

That suggests that a better way to win over political opponents in the fight against climate change may be to quietly approach those who harbor some mixed feelings on the issue, and persuade them to lead the charge - and take the credit.

Leadership, inspiration and quiet diplomacy, participants at the Skoll conference suggested, may work where shame and confrontation has not.

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