Two big things have happened recently on the climate change front. The first, of course, is Peter Gleick’s great personal sacrifice—his desperate gamble taken to expose the Heartland Institute’s planned assault on climate science in our schools, funded by the Kochs and other fossil fuel interests.(1) The second big thing is coming from the kids themselves. Back in May, 2011 seven teenagers filed a total of ten lawsuits charging the federal government with violating the public trust by failing to take action against climate change.(2) The preliminary hearing has just been moved to Washington, D.C., though not yet scheduled. Powerful as these two new initiatives are now and will be as they unfold further in the courts, something else is needed right now, and fast. Climate change deniers are still winning way too much of the time. The arguments and methods we have been using for so long have already persuaded those who do respond to them. We have to stop preaching to the choir. That means we must improve the way we frame climate change for mainstream audiences, the “swing voters” on this issue.
Here’s what I suggested recently in a talk given to a group of climate change communicators:
l. Say “climate change,” not global warming. Yes, I know the planet is warming, but for the general American public, a few degrees of warming doesn’t sound very scary. Also, if it has been snowing or freezing unseasonably where they live, some Americans find that unconvincing. People are a lot better at knowing if their “climate” is changing.
2. Talk about “carbon,” not CO2 or Greenhouse gases. This should be obvious, but here it is, spelled out: Americans like to be clean, safe, and healthy. Too much carbon is dirty, unsafe, and bad for your health. Moreover, you can see too much “carbon” in the air. Seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing are very important channels of persuasion for many Americans. Co2 just sounds like something normal or geekish, and “greenhouses” are good, right?
3. Stop using charts and graphs to convey the message. Take the information they contain and make it into serious, elegant cartoon videos like The Story of Stuff, , and get them on YouTube. Be sure to also include some video or photo coverage of real local people doing local “climate protection” projects together. A wonderful example of a local project here in California is the Climate Protection Campaign in Sonoma County, CA. Look for more like this one wherever you are.
4. Stop showing pictures of polar bears, or penguins, or even melting glaciers. Show pictures of children and people who are being or will be harmed by local climate change instead. Talk about local impacts! I mean very local, like disastrous floods, storms, weird weather, and drought in the place your audience lives. Follow this immediately with some examples of positive local action.
5. Use kids as your spokespeople; it’s their future we are wrecking. Talk about “buying insurance” for their future by taking the steps we need to now, before it is too late. Make it clear that you don’t mean insurance from some company; apparently, insurance companies have palmed off climate change damage costs to local or regional governments, another scandal that should be exposed, though not in a general public education campaign on climate change. Just mention in passing that actual climate change insurance is woefully inadequate, and that it is up to us to take preventive action ourselves—that’s the best insurance policy for our kids.
6. Talk about economic opportunities for American jobs in alternative energy development, jobs that cannot be off-shored and ones that will protect us from depending on foreign nations for our energy.
7. Point out that one reason fossil fuel prices seem lower than green energy alternatives is that the profits-rich fossil fuel industry receives 4 billion dollars of taxpayer funded subsidies.(3) That makes the cost of alternative energy seem artificially high. If doing a cartoon video for YouTube, you might try out “1% fossil fuel vampires,” (not the cute romantic ones), or “1% fossil fuel crooks.”
8. Talk about “carbon fees” and “carbon rebates,” not a “carbon tax.”“Tax” is dead on arrival. A promising new legislative approach along these lines has been pioneered by the Citizens Climate Lobby. It calls for collecting the fees from fossil fuel companies and giving the rebates to our citizens.(4)
Remember that Americans like to be the “can do” people, who can fix things, invent new stuff, find a way out, do the new thing, and act in an optimistic way. What we need now is to get mainstream Americans doing more local actions to prevent worse climate damage. If we can get enough buy-in at the local level, it will build momentum for the national programs we must have. So let’s get cracking, people, there is no time to waste. Reframing climate change is the most important thing we can do about it right now.
Susan C. Strong is the founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project, , and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How To Get America’s Ear(The Metaphor Project, 2012, 172 pp, trade paperback, $10, available on our home page). The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.
“Lapse damages reputation of climate scholar,” by Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, 2.22.12, pp.1 & 4.