How to Talk About [Whatever It's Called]

futurelab default header

Do people care about the climate?

It’s an open question these days, and opinion polls offer little help. Some show that climate ranks fairly low among public concerns, while others indicate a high level of concern among the populace. And in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit, now a mere six weeks away, those opinions count for something, particularly in the United States, where lawmakers are looking to be swayed one way or another.

Here’s a sampling of the hodgepodge of public opinion.

  • The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last week reported that "There has been a sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. And fewer also see global warming as a very serious problem — 35% say that today, down from 44% in April 2008."
  • The World Wide Views on Global Warming, a global opinion poll released on the same day, reported that "90% of U.S. participants say it is urgent to reach a tough, new agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December and not punt to subsequent meetings," and that "69% believe the price of fossil fuels should be increased."

It’s not just Americans who seem to be schizophrenic on this topic. Polls from Canada, Australia, Japan, Egypt — you name it — all seem to have conflicting results. Much of this, of course, depends on exactly what questions were asked, and by whom: the pollsters’ agendas, when they have them, can steer answers in a certain direction. I’m not suggesting that Pew and the World Wide Views folks have done this. I’m just saying.

It’s in this context that I recently spoke with my friend Cara Pike. Pike heads the Social Capital Project, a project spun out of the nonprofit Earthjustice, aimed at "building the base of public support for environmental protection." Pike — whose meaty and insightful "Ecological Roadmap" of Americans’ environmental attitudes is the appendix of my book, Strategies for the Green Economy — has for years been combining research tools and storytelling techniques to build some of the most important national environmental campaigns of the past decade.

Pike’s latest effort is a new report, Climate Crossroads: A Research-Based Framing Guide for Global Warming Advocates to Global Warming Advocates. The report is described as

a first step towards a unified conversation on global warming. It is a summary of what is known to date about the most effective communications approaches, developed by drawing on more than 25 advocacy organizations’ experiences in the field, the body of research they built over the years, and new research conducted specifically for this project. This document identifies the ideas and values that will lead to public support for global warming advocates’ shared objectives over the long term, and suggests ways to bridge from specific policy concerns to the broader, shared narrative.

The idea, says Pike, is to create a "Common Message Platform" that will provide organizations with "a shared set of key points and perspectives that will lead to both more effective communications on their own particular issues, and a more engaged and constructive national conversation on the topic with sympathetic groups."

In other words, it aims to answer the question: How do you talk about climate change?

Actually, that wasn’t stated quite right, based on Pike’s work. Her research led her to prefer the term is "global warming" over "climate change," not to mention "climate crisis," "global weirding," and any of the several other monikers that have been inflicted on this global malady. However, Pike acknowledge, global warming "is not a perfect term for a number of reasons. Scientifically, it’s not as accurate, for example, but it is the term that’s most familiar with the public." Accurate or not, it’s what people seem to respond to.

(You can listen to a podcast of our recent conversation here.)

Pike pointed out just how far we have to go in educating the public. "What we found even in talking to people who are members of environmental organizations or who identify themselves as environmentalists is they often thought global warming had to do with the problem with ozone holes."

It’s that bad, folks.

She continued. "The other thing that you find is that most people don’t really have a sense of the connection between energy, the economy, and climate. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell you, for example, that their energy or great majority of their energy might come from coal, for example."

Part of the problem, she said, is that the media — both the mainstream media and the niche environmental media — "has leaped ahead into this somewhat elite conversation. But even those who are trying to follow that conversation very actively are missing some fundamental information. So what we found is that you have to go back and fill in some of those holes."

Another problem has to do with identifying solutions that are meaningful to people, and that they’re actually willing to do. "I think a growing number of Americans really do want to engage and do things that will make a difference," says Pike. But she adds, "I think that it’s very confusing what really will make that difference and in particular, given how busy people are, how pressed they feel financially, they really want to know ‘If I only have time to do a handful of things, what are the things that are really going to have the biggest payback and biggest impact on solving the problem?’ I think there’s been a bit of a scale issue around solutions where many of the things that the public are being asked to do don’t seem to match the scale of the challenge. How can you really solve a global complex issue by changing light bulbs?"

Short answer: You can’t.

It’s a good question, though, and one that seems to have flummoxed marketers, public agencies, activist groups, and pretty much everyone else aiming to educate, motivate, and activate the public on global warming/climate change. Do you scare people, inspire them, threaten them, or bribe them? Are people more motivated by fear or greed? Do they care more about the future of their children or their day-to-day quality of life? Do they see this looming crisis as an inevitable calamity or an empty, sky-is-falling warning? Is it a crisis or an opportunity?

These all remain open questions.

I’ll let you wade through Pike’s report to find the nuggets of her research that are of greatest value to you in your work. And I’d love to hear your thoughts about what works, what doesn’t, and how best to change the conversation, and the climate for action.

Original Post: