Should Climate Communicators Get “On Message”?

Last week I went to a talk by Joe Romm—a really excellent evening discussing climate communication with a guy who has a fair amount of experience doing it right.  We got to see the trailer for Years of Living Dangerously, which looks pretty awesome.  You often hear complaints that climate evangelists spend too much time talking about glaciers and polar bears—this is going to be on-the-ground stories about individual human beings in every part of the globe.

Joe offered up another complaint that I’ve heard a lot, which is that climate deniers are always on message when they talk.  They offer up a few sound bites, over and over, and get a lot of air time for it.  Meanwhile, advocates of action are all over the place, saying whatever they think will be most effective at any given time, and frequently failing to get their points across.

There’s some truth to this complaint—repetition really is persuasive, and a well-organized campaign with one or two key messages is a lot more effective than a bunch of disconnected voices.

I don’t think we can complain any more that climate advocates are entirely disconnected.  I got to see the community dialogue in person at ScienceOnline Climate last year, and people are talking to each other, making plans, and building on each other’s work.  It just happens that when you’re talking about 99.99mumble percent of the scientific results, you end up with a lot more detail than if you’ve made up a few basic “facts.”

Also, scientists get trained from a young age to make their work stand out from everyone else’s—most especially from everyone else whose findings agree with theirs.  Sounding just like everyone else is great if you’re essentially working on one advertising campaign together (or quoting said campaign).  It’s terrible for a scientific career.

But what I actually thought about this time—and you can tell I’m a scientist because it took me six paragraphs to get here—is what on-message climate advocacy would actually look like.  If we had to pick one message, what would it be?  Some possibilities:

  • The “grand trio” of climate attitudes: “Climate change exists, it’s caused by human activity, and we can do something about it.”
  • Make it personal: “Climate change is going to make things harder for you, your town, your family—be prepared.”
  • Focus on solutions: “We need to do X, Y, & Z”
  • Focus on the findings: “99 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, and the 1 remaining guy is actually a biologist.”
  • Think of the children: “Today’s children will grow up in a world with less food, less security, and worse weather—if we don’t do something now.”

There are probably dozens of other possibilities.  And I can immediately see why no one has settled on one—all of these may be appropriate with different audiences, at different times.  If you’re trying to persuade skeptics, you’ll say different things than if you’re trying to energize existing allies to act.

What’s your “one message”?  And how can we get our point(s) across without actually herding all the cats into a single corral?

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