Climate campaigners might hope that extreme weather events, like this summer’s wildfires, will mobilise greater public support for their solutions to save our planet. But the way they message is more likely to drive people to paralysing despair. The tendency in the climate movement is to lead with devastating facts and horrifying images, like how many football pitches worth of Amazon have been lost to logging in the last five minutes, or how many hectares of forest a burning in wildfires. This kind of messaging isn’t capable of moving anyone who is not already on the side of climate activism into action.
Campaigners seem to be waking up to the fact that they need to ditch the technical jargon and use words their audience can understand. But the general approach remains the same. Progressive activists seem to think that the reason people aren’t getting behind their causes is because they don’t know that something bad is happening, or how serious it is, or they don’t believe it’s true. We seem to think that if only people knew, they’d care. So we bombard the public with scary images and facts.
Most people don't know how to help solve the problem
But it’s not how people think. Our brains analyse facts according to ways of thinking we already have. People who already support action to tackle climate change and understand a bit about the issue might be mobilised by facts about how much damage is being caused to the environment. But that’s a minority.
Most people’s thinking on climate change is closer to something like ‘I’m worried, but I don’t see how we can solve it because a) the government isn’t acting b) corporate interests are too strong c) it’s too late d) people depend on climate-destroying behaviour for their livelihoods.’ Or they are just so scared by the constant images of the world burning that they look away.
Let's talk about the future we want to create
The good news is that there’s plenty of research out there explaining how humans think and what persuasive messages about climate change should look like. A persuasive message follows four steps. These steps are designed to overcome barriers in the minds of your audience that stop people rallying to your cause.
First, you need to remind your audience of how things should be, and how tackling climate change delivers things that they find important. Things like feeling safe in our homes, free from the dangers of extreme weather, or being healthy because we have clean air and water, or having reliable and affordable energy because it’s locally produced and renewable. We rarely paint a picture of the future we want to create. But to mobilise your audience, you need to give them a vision to fight for, not just the doom and gloom you’re fighting against.
Who is truly responsible?
Second, you need to explain to your audience why the harm you’re complaining about is happening and who is responsible. We talk so much about the harms. But rarely do we explain that these problems are the products of rules, systems and practices that have been made by governments which reward corporations for destroying the things we rely on to thrive. Unless we explain that these systems were made by people to serve certain interests, our audiences will have trouble seeing that we can make different choices and re-write the rules to put ordinary people’s interests first.
Third, we have to point to solutions. Often our messages on climate change stop short of this, or they offer technical descriptions of solutions or – worse – they tell the audience that we as individual consumers have the solution in our hands. The latter diverts your audience’s attention away from the systemic changes our societies need to make, instead focusing them on tiny changes in their behaviour like recycling or taking shorter showers. It’s not good enough. We need to put less focus on the technicalities and more on how the structural solutions you’re advancing deliver the vision of the world we want.
We should also remember that yes, we can
Fourth, we need to remind our audience that change is possible. For many people the challenge of climate change is too big – partly becausecampaigners have spent so long bombarding them exclusively with messages that inspire desperation. Your audience may agree with you, but they just think healing our planet is too difficult. A big barrier to people supporting change is that they forget that it’s possible. So, we need to trumpet every success and point to the things societies have achieved in the past that we once thought were not possible. From landing on the moon, to marriage equality, to paid parental leave. Find something that is culturally resonant with your audience to show them that ‘yes, we can’.
It's not that we don’t need to remind people of the speed or severity of the damage being caused to the planet. But if we want to bring people on side, it can’t be the dominant ingredient in our messaging – it has to become a smaller part of the mix.
Read our op-ed on Euronews