With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. — Abraham Lincoln
The ultimate solutions to climate change are workable, cost-effective technologies…. yet scientific, engineering, and organizational solutions are not enough. Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes. — Jeffrey Sachs, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
The solution starts with a reframing of the problem.
Despite the dire warnings about global warming, relatively few Americans are responding with a sense of urgency. For many, this is due to the misinformation perpetrated by some politicians, fossil fuel interests, and media outlets. However, even those who understand and accept the science are too often passively waiting (or hoping) for others — politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, Elon Musk — to “fix” the problem.
Public opinion is essential because politicians won’t enact climate policies until their constituents demand it and most businesses won’t change their practices until consumers pressure them to do so. The political, social and economic changes needed to address the climate crisis require the public to understand and feel the urgency of global warming — and act accordingly.
While the transition to renewable energies is essential, this is now necessary but not sufficient. The general public needs to be engaged and concerned enough to apply pressure on elected officials, make changes in their lifestyle and consuming decisions, and work with local communities to mitigate emissions and enhance sustainability. The level of intense engagement and motivation needed has been compared to the sacrifices and commitment of Americans during WWII. The dangers from global warming are very different but just as deadly.
The problem that needs to be solved is this: How do we awaken a majority of the American public to the need for immediate and forceful action on the climate crisis?
The solution in four parts.
Part One: There have been numerous efforts to educate the public about global warming but most will not read books or articles on the topic or watch a climate-themed documentary or TV program. In addition, social media has fostered the creation of information bubbles wherein people are exposed almost exclusively to messages that conform to their currently held views. As a result, efforts to communicate the dangers have largely been preaching to the choir. The challenge is to find a way to burst the bubbles of complacency and denial and get beyond the choir.
There have been successful public education campaigns in the past that shifted public opinion. Keep America Beautiful changed attitudes about littering and The Truth campaign about the health risks of smoking cigarettes was a success, as the incidence of smoking decreased and even those choosing to continue smoking became aware of the risks in doing so.
Despite extensive and worthy efforts to communicate the dangers of global warming, the environmental movement has not used the powerful messaging tools of marketing professionals. A comprehensive mass marketing approach has never been tried. We need a Climate Truth campaign.
It is self-evident that advertising works; if not, we wouldn’t see so much of it and companies wouldn’t pay large sums for it. There’s been a massive increase in the prevalence of advertising and elections have been won or lost on the quantity and content of political ads. Advertising routinely sells the public on products that are unhealthy and unnecessary; perhaps it’s not unreasonable that it could “sell” messages about a healthy environment and sustainable future.
While public service messages might not sway some hardcore deniers, I believe that they could shift the opinions of many who are doubtful, confused, or disengaged with a range of well-crafted messages repeated across multiple media platforms.
The Climate Truth should reach its audience with visual messages and not descriptive text, as our culture has become much more visually oriented. The videos would need to be brief and the images eye-catching. If the alarming prospects of global warming are the sole focus, viewers could become numb to the message. A detached scientific tone will not work as well as a strongly emotional one and, to the degree possible, concepts should be embedded within narratives or metaphors. A wide variety of messages and tones would be needed to address the many aspects of the issue and diverse audiences. Some education will also be needed; for example, many people are not aware that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time and the warming impacts will be felt for centuries.
The ads would directly address some of the most common misconceptions about global warming: it is not a natural cycle, we know that it’s due to human activity, scientists are not political or motivated by financial self-interest, the transition will create jobs, and many of the solutions are supportive of local communities and not dictated by federal regulation.
Advertising reaches its audience where they are already present and attending: when watching TV, in theaters before the featured movie, on billboards when driving, posters on public transportation, listening to the radio, and on the internet, smartphones, and social media. To be effective, the Climate Truth messages should be repeated many times, every day, and for weeks or even months. Repetition and saturation of the messaging is essential.
This plan only works if the messages appeal to the majority of Americans, on both sides of the partisan divide. There is a recurring theme in movies and books of warring factions uniting to fight a common enemy. If framed appropriately, the changes needed to solve the climate crisis could also create a stronger sense of community, sharing and cooperation. The Climate Truth would re-brand solutions as promoting shared values, such as: slowing down the pace of daily life; maintaining a healthy lifestyle; providing insurance against future risks; supporting local communities, businesses and farmers; keeping children safe; and preserving nature as God intended.
Even those who understand and accept the scientific facts prefer not to think about the climate crisis because it can lead to despair or depression. And many of the pleasures of modern life (e.g., travel, eating meat, shopping) can generate feelings of guilt because they contribute to global warming, and most everyone tries to avoid those feelings.
But whatever it is that keeps people from facing the reality of the climate crisis; denial, confusion, guilt, impotence or overwhelming despair; a comprehensive and wide-ranging public education campaign would make the awful and inconvenient truth difficult to repress, deny, or ignore.
Part Two: Advertising messages are of necessity brief but a deeper understanding of the crisis and the responses necessary for mitigation and adaptation requires more detailed information. All of the Climate Truth ads should direct viewers to a companion Climate Truth website.
It’s not helpful to alert people to a crisis without providing recommendations for appropriate responses; just as you wouldn’t sound a fire alarm unless people knew how to exit. When faced with an overwhelming problem about which the individual has little or no personal control, a natural response is to put it on a mental backburner, which has been one of the problems with previous climate messages. But the public is more likely to face the facts when their actions are seen as important, which they are.
In addition to explaining the basic facts of global warming, the website would provide suggestions for realistic and appropriate responses. These could be broken into categories of political, individual, and local/community actions.
Part Three: While the money needed to accomplish what I am describing is significant, this is minuscule compared with the costs of global catastrophe. Who will pay for this? Some combination of the following is possible:
1. Our modern economy has generated enormous wealth for some individuals and companies. A few have already spent generously to combat the climate crisis but many others could be doing the same or more.
2. The 10 universities with the largest endowments collectively have over 165 billion dollars. Scientific research in universities is a major source of the information about the climate crisis; perhaps they should fund the dissemination of that knowledge.
3. The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders demonstrated what is possible with small donations. A similar, crowd-source funding approach could be used.
4. The insurance industry is vulnerable, given the enormous risks to property from climate-related catastrophes. Funding of the Climate Truth could provide some insurance to those companies.
5. Tobacco companies funded the anti-smoking Truth Campaign after they lost millions in lawsuits. Perhaps the oil companies should fund the Climate Truth campaign.There are currently a number of lawsuits pending for their role in causing climate disruption and disinformation. In our current political climate of partisan divisiveness, wouldn’t it be a positive sign if these two apparent and historical adversaries, the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists, work cooperatively to preserve a positive future?
Part Four: There is a large body of research by social scientists about the problems with previous climate messaging and their studies have identified some of the elements needed for more effective communication. The Climate Truth will apply those findings using the expertise of marketing professionals and the tools of mass media.
There are many brilliant, creative, committed and skilled people who are strongly invested in solving this problem. We just need a unified approach, organizational structure, and clearly defined goals to unleash those energies. I feel certain that teams of such individuals could generate compelling, informative and persuasive ads, as well as a website that clearly describes the actions that individuals and communities should take to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and start drawing down what is already in the atmosphere.
This is obviously a “big picture” solution, which is appropriate because no problem has ever been bigger. It will not work unless it is done well; I do not believe a half-measure is worth the effort. But this moon-shot of an idea requires that individuals with power and influence decide to take it on.
If you think this idea has merit, please help make it a thing that gets shared, discussed, and improved. And maybe, just maybe, it will capture the attention of those who can, in the words of Jean-Luc Picard, Make-It-So.
Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not. -Robert Kennedy