The Climate Truth: What’s Needed to Bring Action on Global Warming

With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Abraham Lincoln

(T)he American people have to feel the same urgency that I do …. the average American right now, even if they’ve got past climate denial, is still much more concerned about gas prices, getting back and forth from work, than they are about climate changing. Barack Obama

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

I’ll spare you the usual litany of catastrophes from human-caused climate change. If you’re reading this, you’re probably well aware of those risks. The clock is ticking on efforts to stabilize the climate but many Americans have hit the snooze button, and the gap between the severity of consequences from unchecked global warming and the casual, business-as-usual response of many Americans is truly alarming.

As the above quotes indicate, the necessary political, social and economic changes are contingent upon the public’s understanding and feeling the urgency of the climate crisis — and acting accordingly. While recent polling shows an increase in the percentage of Americans who believe that the climate is changing, most do not think that it will affect them personally, is caused by human activity or that scientists agree on the essential facts. Even among those who understand and accept the science, many are waiting for others — politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, or Elon Musk — to “fix” the problem. And as the recent election showed, yet again, action on the climate crisis is a low priority for voters.

What will it take to awaken the American public to the need for immediate and forceful action on the climate crisis?

The Climate Truth

There have been many high-quality efforts to educate the public through informative documentaries; articles in journals, newspapers and magazines; letters and opinion pieces; TV and radio programs; public statements by scientists; speeches in Congress; well-attended marches; petitions and more. These have helped “move the needle” — but something different is needed.

For the most part, the target audience for those messages do not read books or articles about climate change, buy a ticket for a climate-themed documentary, watch a TV program or attend a lecture on the topic. As a result, efforts to communicate the dangers have largely been preaching to the choir. 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. The challenge then is to find a way to burst the bubbles of complacency and denial and get beyond the choir.

Most of the messaging on climate change has been educational, which assumes that if people are better informed about the science, their opinions will change accordingly. This assumption has not been effective in motivating and engaging the general public; however, altering the medium and mode of that messaging might be the difference-maker.

A model for this could be the advertising campaign, called The Truth, about the health risks of smoking cigarettes. The Truth was a success, as the incidence of smoking decreased and even those choosing to continue became aware of the risks in doing so. The Truth campaign also shifted public attitudes such that bans on smoking in public places and a hefty tax on cigarettes were approved.

The core message of the anti-smoking Truth campaign was simple: don’t start smoking and, if you already do, stop. In a sense, the solution to the Climate Crisis is also simple. We need to stop, as quickly as possible, emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While the goal is clear, the changes needed to accomplish it are multifaceted and complex. However, those changes will occur, to the extent required to reverse the warming trend, only when the public recognizes their vital necessity. And so, the solution to the climate crisis is: 1) a different kind of public education, messaging campaign that, 2) elicits the public’s motivation, 3) for making behavioral changes.

We need a Climate Truth Campaign.

The Power of Advertising

I am well aware of the surveys showing that climate change is the most partisan of issues in this divisive political environment. However, I also know that many aspects of the climate crisis have not been communicated effectively — and the facts and evidence are on our side. Despite all the worthy efforts to communicate the dangers of global warming, a comprehensive mass marketing approach has never been attempted.

There’s now a considerable body of research by social scientists describing the climate messages that are more likely to be positively received. In addition, the messaging on climate has been fragmented with numerous individuals and organizations trying to accomplish the same goal; however, success has been elusive, in part, because it has lacked a unified approach.

While many hardcore denialists are too rigid in their beliefs to be swayed, I believe that we can shift the opinions of those who are doubtful, confused, or disengaged with a range of well-crafted messages repeated across multiple media platforms. In many cases, it isn’t what you say but how you say it that determines whether your message is heard.

There have been bursts of media attention after a dramatic event, such as a major hurricane, but advertising can provide daily exposure to messages that would stimulate more and ongoing conversations. When people pay attention and start talking about a problem, good things can happen.

It should be self-evident that advertising works; if not, we wouldn’t see so much of it and companies wouldn’t pay handsomely for it. There’s been a massive increase in the prevalence of advertising, as ads now appear where previously there were few or none (e.g., sporting events, movie theaters) and in places that are themselves relatively new (e.g., the internet, social media). Elections have been won or lost based on the quantity and content of political ads. And advertising routinely sells the public on a number of unhealthy and unnecessary products, so perhaps it’s not unreasonable that it could “sell” messages about a healthy environment and sustainable future.

Reaching the Target Audience

The Climate Truth should reach its audience with messages that are seen and not read, as our culture has become largely oriented to visual content. In addition, the ads would need to be seen multiple times, in a variety of settings, with a range of messages, and without the viewer choosing to see it. That last element is a critical factor that will require some creativity to accomplish.

The Climate Truth messages could appear on popular TV shows, especially those watched regularly by hard-to-reach voters (e.g., Fox News). In addition, the ads could be placed on popular radio stations, billboards on highways, in movie theaters before the feature, in magazines, and posters on public buildings. Targeted postings on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media would also be essential, as well as pop-up ads on the Internet. To be effective, the Climate Truth mesages should be seen multiple times, every day, and for weeks or even months. Repetition is essential for impact.

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. For many, an awareness of the crisis implies an uncomfortable sense of personal responsibility, as many of the pleasures of modern life (e.g., travel, shopping) generate guilt with the recognition that these contribute to global warming. 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. But the public is more likely to face the facts when their actions are seen as important, which I believe they are.

An marketing approach to a public education campaign would present the facts of global warming and available solutions in ways that would make the awful and inconvenient truth difficult to repress, deny, or ignore.


For many Americans, climate change has already been negatively branded as: only a concern to those on the left, an extension of an environmental movement that favors preserving obscure animals over people, a hoax created for the purpose of increasing governmental regulations and expanding the federal bureaucracy, and leading to higher taxes and the elimination of jobs.

The Climate Truth Campaign could re-brand the issue by identifying themes that promote values shared across the partisan divide, such as: slowing down the pace of daily life; maintaining a healthy lifestyle; providing insurance against future risks; supporting local communities, stores, and farmers; keeping children safe; or preserving nature as God intended.

A common theme in movies and books is when warring factions unite 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 transformation to a carbon-free economy would also unleash American initiative and ingenuity to reshape America society in a manner that is life affirming and satisfying.

A study on values among conservative voters found that they long for a return to a simpler time in the past when “things were better.” Caring for the planet could be viewed as an extension of conservative philosophy. Conservation in preserving nature and being conservative in one’s consumption, use of energy, and personal habits are consistent with both traditional conservatism and solutions to the climate crisis.

The essence of advertising is that the messages are brief but the climate crisis requires more detailed information. All of the Climate Truth ads should direct viewers to a companion website, as raising awareness of a problem of this magnitude is not helpful unless accompanied by suggestions for realistic and appropriate responses. These recommendations could be broken into categories: political, individual, community and organization.

·Political: This is the most straightforward but probably the most important. Every citizen should let their elected representatives, at all levels of government, know that they are concerned about the climate crisis and they expect the politicians to take appropriate steps to address it. Support for a carbon fee and dividend would be a very helpful first step (e.g., see

· Individual Actions: Actions to reduce one’s carbon footprint is much more complicated, as the ways to do so are virtually limitless. There are many websites that the Climate Truth could link to for suggestions of individual actions. I like the approach of Planet Vision, which has a downloadable Action Guide on their website.

· Community/Social Responses: Many of the actions needed to address climate change are not political or even individual, but local and community. The differences among communities, even within the same states, make it difficult for governments to mandate a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing carbon. Community efforts could start with conversations among neighbors, friends and local officials about: local transportation, ride sharing, community gardens, recycling and composting, microgrids for neighborhoods, reducing food waste, planting trees, supporting local farmers, co-housing, and more.

· Social change often occurs through mass social movements; such as civil rights, labor rights, and the right to vote. There is strength in numbers. The website should encourage viewers to connect with one of the many environmental groups that are working on the climate crisis.

The Climate Truth Campaign

A steering committee will be needed to direct this campaign, including decisions about what ads to show, when and where. The following are my thoughts regarding the form and content of the messages:


· Given the limited attention span of many viewers, and the costs of TV advertising, the video content will need to be brief,

· Images (or memes) should be interesting and eye-catching.

· Dense or lengthy text should be avoided, as the ads need to showand not explain concepts — to the degree possible.

· The appearance of the ads should vary. If the viewer is able to quickly identify them as “one of those ads about climate change,” much of our target audience will quickly tune them out.


· The content of ads should also vary, addressing the many different aspects of the crisis and the misconceptions about it.

· If the alarming prospects of global warming are the sole focus of the ads, our audience could become numb to the message. A range of tones will work best with a mix of worrisome, informative and hopeful messages.

· A detached scientific tone will not work as well as a strongly emotional one.

· Fear and anger are very powerful motivators for action. There is much to fear about a warming planet and anger at those who have prevented appropriate action is justified. The Climate Truth should not shy away from tapping into these emotions.

· The dangers of notacting should also be shown. The right-wing media have taken to labeling, in a mocking fashion, greens as “alarmists.” The ads need to show why being alarmed is an appropriate response.

Science, not Politics

· The objective, data-driven and non-political nature of climate science will need to be directly addressed, as well as the overwhelming consensus among scientists.

· Scientific concepts should be, to be the degree possible, embedded within narratives or explained using metaphors.

· The ads should be tailored for the specific locations where they appear.

· The partisan opposition to climate change is driven largely by an intense distrust of governmental control and regulation. This issue would need to be addressed directly.

Trusted Messengers

· People are more open to information that comes from a trusted messenger.

· Most Americans trust and like their personal doctor or health provider. Posters describing the health impacts of global warming could be placed in doctors’ waiting rooms. Ads could feature local doctors discussing climate and health.

· The climate message might be positively received when featuring NASA scientists and astronauts.

· The public hears about the science of climate change but rarely from scientists themselves. In brief videos of scientists, the public would see that they are honest, intelligent, concerned and sincere.


· Many Americans are religious and their faith is a factor that contributes to a lack of trust in scientific evidence. The messages should include faith-based reasons for responding to the climate crisis.

· The Climate Truth messages should appeal to a sense of fairness, morality, and personal responsibility.

Clarifying Common Misconceptions

· For those who have not paid much attention to the science, global warming is only about weather. The impacts of the climate crisis on oceans, food production, and health should also be illustrated.

· Many people do not know that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for very long periods of time. Our actions now (and inaction) will have consequences in the future. “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging:” Will Rogers

The Transition to Renewable Energy

· The ads should acknowledge that a drastic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels would necessitate significant changes. If not, it would be easy to dismiss the campaign as unrealistic.

· While acknowledging the challenging transition, the long-term advantages and economic benefits of renewable energy need to be shown.

· The ads should show communities that are successfully adopting climate-mitigation strategies.

Creating the Climate Truth Messages

The media have not adequately presented the facts about global warming. The Climate Truth ads, crafted to correct misconceptions, are likely to provide the first exposure to the facts about global warming for many. If funding becomes available (see below), a team approach will be needed to coordinate The Climate Truth campaign, ideally composed of climate scientists, social scientists who understand the pitfalls and possibilities of climate messaging, and advertising professionals.

It will be a challenge to craft ads that weave The Climate Truth messages into visually compelling pieces with interesting stories to tell. This will require some artistry and creativity. If environmental organizations were to embrace the Climate Truth approach, they could tap into a rich source of creative energy from climate activists and artists, many of who are looking for a way to get involved and make a difference.

A source of ads could be the many excellent documentaries, books, YouTube videos, TV productions, and websites that contain elements to be modified, re-packaged and re-purposed for this effort.

Funding of Climate Truth

If this proposal sounds promising, an obvious question is: who will pay for it? Some combination of the following seem possible:

1. Our modern economy has generated enormous wealth for some individuals and companies. Apple is worth over a trillion dollars and Jeff Bezos earns a quarter of a million dollars every day. Some wealthy individuals have already spent generously to combat the climate crisis but many others could be doing the same or more.

2. According to 2016 data, the 10 universities with the largest endowments have collectively over 165 billion dollars. Scientific research in universities is a major source of the information about this crisis, so perhaps they should fund The Climate Truth to disseminate 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. The last idea is what I call the Master Climate Settlement. This requires further explanation:

The Master Climate Settlement

Tobacco companies funded the anti-smoking Truth Campaign as a condition of the Tobacco Master Settlement,which came after the companies lost lawsuits and further suits were pending.

Perhaps the oil companies should fund the Climate Truth campaign.

There are currently a number of lawsuits pending against the fossil fuel industry for their role in causing climate disruption. A Climate Master Settlement that funds The Climate Truth would have to be part of a much larger agreement, as the only realsolution to the climate crisis is to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and if funding of Climate Truth is accompanied by an increase in extraction and use, then we will have gained nothing.

The facts regarding the climate crisis are clearly against the oil companies and they know this. Time is running out for them to be part of the solution rather than the cause of global catastrophe. And, if the oil companies were sponsors of the Climate Truth ads, the messages would carry credibility and weight that they would not have otherwise.

Monetary settlements from lawsuits could help with adaptations to the impacts of global warming but that will not solve the root cause and, at some point, even adaptations will be insufficient. On the other hand, I believe that enthusiastic public support and engagement could have a significant impact on both prevention and adaptation.

In our current political climate of partisan divisiveness, which many have described as alarming and anti-democratic, wouldn’t it be a positive sign that two apparent and historical adversaries, the fossil fuel companies and environmentalists, can work cooperatively to preserve a positive future?

Making it Real

When I cut down my work hours as a psychologist about 2 years ago, I started spending more time on the issue of climate change. I wanted to “think big” and figure out what could make a significant difference in the intransigence that has dominated the response to this looming crisis. With inspiration and ideas borrowed from many, The Climate Truth is what I’ve come up with.

This moon-shot of an idea will not happen unless the movers and shakers in the environmental, political, and/or financial communities decide to take it on. Unfortunately, I don’t have connections with any of the above.

If you think this idea has merit, let’s make it a thing that gets shared, talked about, debated, 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