Beyond facts: from climate awareness to climate action

January 23, 2013

One cardinal sin of communications strategy is to assume that two different people given the same set of facts will reach the same conclusion. The environmental community has been as guilty of this sin as any social change sector…beating people senseless with facts and recoiling in frustration when their targets still “don’t get it.”

Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of communicating the grim facts about climate change. There is still an obsession with the well-orchestrated junk science campaign such as the preposterous postulation that sunspots, not carbon pollution, are causing our planet to stew. You might as well wave a red cape in front of a wounded bull. The logic goes…”If we could just discredit the lunatic fringe once and for all, then…..”

Then what?

Consider this finding from a survey of climate science communications published last year by Resolve. The report’s authors interviewed more than 40 decision makers in business and government, including many that have opposed anything resembling bold action to reduce carbon emissions. The report found:

“For virtually all the decision makers we interviewed in business and government, causal climate science-the fact that it’s happening and that it’s at least significantly human-induced-is accepted.”

The same survey found that acceptance far less solid among the general public. But there too, polling shows an increased understanding that the world’s weather is out of whack. In both cases “getting it” and “doing something about it” are two radically different things.

Which brings us to the big elephant in the room. Those who follow the facts know that climate scientists are now telling us that world is getting warmer, faster that they had anticipated and that the leading edge of climate change impacts are already here.  Translated, regardless of how many coal plants we shutter and Priuses we drive, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

There’s a realistic fear among climate activists that if we play up that message people will abandon hope that reducing carbon emissions will do any good, thereby dooming future generations to an even hotter Hades of a planet. Yet watering down that information (as if we have water to spare) seems disingenuous at best.  The challenge ahead of us for 2013 and beyond is to create a narrative that weaves both the need to adapt for today and the need to reduce our carbon footprint for tomorrow. It is a tricky, a needle President Obama tried to thread in his inaugural address.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path to posterity is fraught with peril. Add the President to the long list of those who “get it” but have yet to prove they have a proactive response to a growing list of facts as oppressive as last summer’s heat.

As communicators, we need to constantly remind ourselves, facts alone won’t guarantee the response we are seeking. What do we want our audience to do with those facts? How can we empower, not just browbeat, them to act? What is the narrative that encompasses both a response to a troubling today and a commitment to a better tomorrow? The answer is perhaps more art than science. But we do offer some recommendations based on opinion research in this recent post.