Communicating climate change: research and recommendations

January 15, 2013

Our super-smart friends at Climate Nexus just put together a climate change polling synthesis that features good news, more good news, and some very good advice. Here’s the headline: Americans are really starting to get it, even Republicans. That’s what Hurricane Sandy, epic wildfires, insane drought and the hottest summer on record will do for you. Many folks know, in their bones, that climate change is here, and it’s hurting Americans.

A few choice tidbits:

  • More than half of Americans believe that people are causing climate change, for the first time since 2008;
  • The number of Americans who say global warming isn’t happening has declined nearly by half – from 20% in Jan 2010 to 12% in Jan 2012;
  • 60% of Americans agree that global warming made Hurricane Sandy worse;
  • And 70% agree that it made drought in the Midwest and Great Plains worse.

Now that we know public understanding is shifting, the bigger question is, how do we leverage that change to move policy? And Climate Nexus has some guidance on that too – much in line with what many savvy climate communicators have been shouting from the rooftops.

First off, connect the dots. Talk local. Talk extreme weather. Talk real people with real stories who are really hurting. Then, pivot to protection. Lose the wonky “adaptation” language. Safeguarding and preparing our communities is something that big majorities of Americans know we need to do. But don’t leave “mitigation” in the dust just yet. Just don’t use the word! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes, and that goes in spades for climate change.

As always, describe the way forward. Clean energy and reducing carbon pollution are both immensely popular. Americans intuitively get the multiple benefits we all reap from climate solutions, and that helps nip fatalism and disengagement in the bud. Finally, remember the villains in this story. Big Oil has our government in a stranglehold, and breaking the political headlock is a must. Don’t be afraid to call out the bad guys.

That all sounds pretty simple, right? Yes and no. We have a lot of work to do. The Obama administration is downright lackadaisical on climate right now, fossil fuel money continues to flood elections, and the scientists tell us we’re running out of time. It’s going to take immense public pressure to break Big Oil’s death grip on climate policy, and most Americans are a lot more fired up about things other than global warming.

One bright spot we’ve been admiring:’s “Go Fossil Free” divestment campaign. A great example of putting Big Oil in the crosshairs while telling the human stories of climate disasters, while at the same time building a strong, inspired base of organizers to force institutional change.