Climate Communications: Conflicts and Opportunities

(published in Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, March 2010 Vol. 4, Issue 1, page 66)

One of the most essential roles of the ecologist is to create the language in which a true sense of reality, of value, and of progress can be communicated to society.
Thomas Berry (1914-2009)

Right wing political pundits in America review the New York Times on a daily basis seeking grist to rouse the rancor of their rabid followers. When ‘‘Struggling to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus’’ hit the front page, there was bound to be a maelstrom. In America, global warming is first a political issue. Economics, morality, and science follow in its wake.

The Times article was about a communication research study, ‘‘Climate Truths: Making the Necessary Connections,’’ conducted by our organization, ecoAmerica, to bridge the massive conceptual, temporal, and spatial distance between the accelerating climate crisis and American’s everyday lives. Operating with elitist strategies, alarmist messages and levels of abstraction beyond practical comprehension,
American climate solutions advocates have alienated many mainstream citizens. ‘‘Climate Truths’’ was one of a number of research studies attempting to bridge the gap.

The ‘‘Big Three’’ in American right wing media*Fox TV, Rush Limbaugh on radio, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page*jumped all over ‘‘Climate Truths’’ the following week. With no more information than what was reported in the Times, they expanded on the rationale and the results to blast ‘‘Climate Truths’’ as another hapless effort to cram global warming down the throat of America. From there, ‘‘Climate Truths’’ oscillated through the right wing and progressive blogospheres and truly took on a life of its own. The practical information and guidance provided by ‘‘Climate Truths’’ has proven to be useful to the climate solutions community, but the widespread reaction to the research has been perhaps even more effective in furthering effective action.

Polls consistently indicate that Americans place a low priority on the environment and an even lower priority on global warming. In both of the most publicized polls* Pew’s annual public policy poll conducted each January and Gallup’s annual environmental poll conducted each March*global warming comes in last among all surveyed issues. For many climate solutions advocates, it is hard to understand, much less accept, this reality, much less the fact that global warming continues to decline as a public priority in spite of the increasing salience of the issue, the best efforts of climate activists, and the increased publicity surrounding the issue.

In addition to all the polls on climate, in the first half of 2009, at least a half dozen climate communication research projects were publicly released, and at least that many were commissioned and kept confidential. The general takeaway from these surveys is that climate solutions advocates should be talking in terms of the economy, jobs, and national security instead of rising sea levels, cap and trade, or polar bears, if they truly seek to engage and motivate Americans in climate solutions.

‘‘Climate Truths’’ broke through all this clutter and was featured not only in the New York Times, the radical right media, and the blogosphere, but also in other mainstream, business, and environmental media. Amidst the plethora of polls and studies on global warming in America, it is reasonable to ask both why we would conduct the ‘‘Climate Truths’’ project and why it would garner so much attention.

ecoAmerica is not primarily a research organization. We are marketers. In a results driven manner, we ‘‘start with people’’ and develop leveraged, large-scale engagement marketing programs designed to shift the awareness, attitudes, and behaviors of environmentally agnostic Americans. We conduct research to understand their underlying motivations in a broad and causal sense. We need to know why people act

the way they do and how we might change those behaviors.

Most polls and public policy communication studies on global warming do not provide the kind of information marketers need. They may be tainted with bias in the selection and wording of questions as well as respondents’ tendency to answer questions appropriately instead of accurately. More importantly, polls are designed to provide descriptive information while the contemporaneous batch of climate

communication research provided mostly generalized themes. For our marketing work, we seek predictive information and specific, market-tested language.


We need to know why Americans believe what they believe, and where they get their information. We need to know, in terms of public policy and personal behaviors, which groups of Americans are more or less favorably disposed to behavior changes as well as the practical leverage points and obstacles involved in motivating them.


We ask and answer the strategic aspects of these questions using psychographic consumer research techniques. In particular, in the American Environmental Values Survey (October 2006) and the American Climate Values Survey (2008), we used the Values and Lifestyles (VALS) methodology from SRI Consulting Business Intelligence (a spin-off from the former Stanford Research Institute) to learn which segments of Americans to target and how best to message them. Summaries of these studies, as well as the ‘‘Climate Truths’’ report, are available online at:


ecoAmerica turns those strategies into specific programs with research like ‘‘Climate Truths’’ that provide more specific framing and word choices that will best motivate targeted audiences. ‘‘Climate Truths’’ consisted of meta-research of other publicly available major communications research projects followed by a series of focus groups, then rounds of dial tests and phone surveys involving over 2000 American voters. The scope, rigor, and specificity of ‘‘Climate Truths’’ make it more useful for our purposes. For instance, when talking about sources of energy, should we call them ‘‘new,’’ ‘‘clean,’’ ‘‘green,’’ ‘‘alternative,’’ ‘‘renewable,’’ some combination of these or something else all together? Writing about our deteriorating atmosphere and its consequences, should one call it ‘‘global warming,’’ ‘‘climate crisis,’’ or ‘‘climate change’’? How should we talk about ‘‘carbon’’? On a higher level, when framing all this, in what order and how should we present the problem, the consequences, the solutions, and the benefits, to which audience?


The environmental, political, and economic stakes involved in selecting the public policy solutions for global warming are immense, which makes the answers to those questions unusually valuable. In addition to briefings for environmental and communications staffers in the US House, Senate and administration, representatives from over 200 non-governmental organizations, corporations, and foundations attended ‘‘Climate Truths’’ presentations in the weeks following its release. The findings have been used to refine and enhance the communications of these organizations.


The other major impact of ‘‘Climate Truths’’ has been the debate it has helped ignite on the importance of engaging the American public in climate solutions. Is global warming too abstract and remote for them to comprehend? If so, engag
ing mainstream Americans on climate may not be productive. If, however, we need to engage them in their role as voters to sway American politicians and therefore public policy, we better find new ways of generating their support for effective climate action.


As this is written, the immediate future for truly effective domestic and international action on climate does not look promising. We have the technology to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change as well as the policy frameworks necessary to employ it. There are obstacles though, and chief among them is lack of public support. As prospects grow more dire, climate solutions advocates need to take a step back and question their strategies and tactics. The discussion on the importance of and strategies for engaging mainstream Americans in climate solutions needs to evolve.

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