There is evidence that a number of American citizens know we have a climate change problem. But many of them experience it as something we can’t fix technically, socially or politically. So they ignore it to keep going day by day. Among the already convinced, that’s where the issue is stuck. But we also have fellow citizens who haven’t heard or thought much about the issue, and of course, we’ve got the fossil fuel gang still funding denial. Recent research shows that the public is primarily focused on jobs, the economy, and D.C. gridlock instead.(1) So, to make any headway on this issue, we will have to get a lot smarter about framing climate change problems and their solutions. For too long climate change activists and professionals have been talking to each other and to the sympathetic. It’s time to get serious about framing the issue in a way that reaches mainstream America.
Let’s start with educating the convinced about possible fixes. Years of research have shown that trying to motivate people on this issue by scaring them fails. Up-to-date framing research proves that people respond better to a “prevent damage” message than to an “avoid risk” one.(2) So, the real focus of our framing on this issue should be action to prevent more damage to our economy: who can do what, who is doing what, what is working now.(3) Americans are pragmatic, action-oriented optimists. We need to pose the climate change problem as a challenge we can all meet.
Along these lines, some language picks I’d make from the Metaphor Project’s “American Story” lists include these: being prosperous, saving money, being clean, safe, and healthy, being free, and doing it ourselves. Big political change in this country always starts with the grassroots. That bottom-up path calls on our most prized national traits –doing things in our own communities, being part of a grassroots groundswell, being innovative, pragmatic, showing can-do, rolling-up-our sleeves, helping to reinvent a new, healthier economy from the ground up.
So much for educating the convinced about solutions. What about convincing more of our fellow citizens that the problem is real? First, we need to bear in mind the fact that most Americans are primarily extroverted sensing types—they require proof about the reality of a problem from their five senses. Climate change is a bit like cancer—it’s silent, and it’s been happening somewhere else. The warning signs are easy to miss for the average American. So be understanding of anyone who honestly seems to be unaware or incredulous. Start by talking about how much we all want a prosperous new economy. Then describe climate change as the “growing climate crisis that threatens our economy and our way of life,” because for some it may not seem like a full-fledged “crisis” yet. When we get to the moment for going into detail, we need to use stories about what’s already been happening to other Americans lately: increasing drought, mega-storms, floods, fire storms beyond anything we’ve seen before, rising sea levels, bad changes in local weather patterns and their costs. Once you get people’s ear this way, you can quickly move on to talking about suggestions for positive action. (If you encounter a Fox News denial fan, just laugh, and say, “Oh, you’ve been watching Fox News!” and then walk away laughing. Don’t stay to argue. Especially don’t argue about what the majority of scientists say. Don’t waste your energy on hardcore deniers.)
If you need to give a cause for the climate change problem, describe it as the result of too much carbon getting into our air. (To learn more about natural ways to get carbon back where it belongs in plants and in the soil, see Note 4.) Pollution is something everyone knows is dirty and bad for your health And please avoid talking about “greenhouse gases.” To the general public, greenhouses are good things that help you grow more food! (It would be nice if even the experts stopped saying “greenhouse gases” to each other too. That unfortunate metaphor inevitably slips out in public and harms the cause of reform. I like “hothouse gases” better, because it sounds more like the real thing and nasty too. Also please avoid using any evidence that relies on pictures of or references to the fate of the “environment,” or of other species of all kinds such as polar bears, penguins, etc. Avoid talking about polar and glacier melts, using charts or graphs, and talking about CO2!” Everyone who can be convinced by the means I’m criticizing here is already on board.
Now it’s time to consider our third task, which is actually quite separate from the two previous ones above. As Bill McKibben and others have pointed out, we do have to hold the carbon crooks and climate crisis deniers up for public shaming. But even when your project is shaming the fossil fuel gang, it’s vital to start and conclude with a positive vision of the clean energy world and prosperous economy we could have instead. In between these two positive notes there are a number of classic American negatives you can sound: the deniers are “telling lies and betraying the public trust.” They are on the take, they are stealing subsidy money from the taxpayers, they are sabotaging our clean energy future, they are blocking progress, they are holding our country and our economy back or hostage, and they are profiting from damaging our health, our economy, and our country. Their CEOs are blocking the dawn of a new energy age, they are criminal cons, they have gone too far, they are corrupt, and as for their ‘wait and see” strategy—do you wait until your house burns down to buy insurance? They are costing us too much. You can also warn people that everyone will soon be selling their fossil fuel stocks and moving their money into alternative energy investments, because “the carbon bubble is going to burst.” (For more about this “divestment” strategy, see what’s new about it on http://www.350.org/.)
So much for going negative. Always, whatever our messages or audiences might be, we must start and end by returning to the positive: “We can do it, it will be good for us, it will prevent new damage, it will save/make money/jobs, save our health, our economy, our communities. We can improve our economy by meeting the climate change challenge!
Let’s put powerful new American Story energy into all of our campaigns now and get the massive liftoff we so desperately need!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
1.This fact has recently been noted in “U.S. Energy Policy: A Bridge to Nowhere,” by Bob Burnett, on Huffington Post.
2. The following links provide details about the new research on framing climate change action:
3. Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.)