According to Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the of the Yale Project of Climate Communication, “We are in a propaganda war with the fossil fuel industry, but we aren’t even on the battlefield.” To which I will add, that we don’t even know we’re in a war, or if we do, which war, and our reaction, if typical, is likely to be tactics that are out of date.
This is occurring during a time of extreme heat, deadly flooding and the hottest month every recorded on earth. Places like Phoenix are becoming uninhabitable, and the oceans off Florida are dying due to water temperatures as high as a hot tub. As many as 72% of Americans are now “at least a little” worried about extreme heat harming their local area.
Yet here are a few recent headlines that show what we are facing on the communications front against Republican efforts is as big as fighting global warming itself (Google the headlines for citations):
1. Not even a single republican voted for the climate bill (IRA)
2. Three-quarters of republicans prioritize the economy over climate change
3. US republicans challenge more fund managers on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance)
4. The fossil fuel industry is paying the GOP handsomely to deny climate change
5. US republicans oppose climate funding as millions suffer in extreme heat
6. Conservatives have already written a climate plan for Trump’s second term – to purge climate action from the federal government
7. Republicans in Battery Belt are seeking to block EV mandates
8. Ohio (republican) higher-ed bill would require instructors to teach “ both sides” on climate change
9. How decades of disinformation about fossil fuels halted U.S. climate policy
10. Hundreds of US localities restrict renewables siting, with 293 projects currently contested
Ok, if you’ve read this far, please excuse the political polemic, it has a purpose. I need to get your attention.
The process of how we got here is fairly straightforward. Fossil fuel companies, seeing a threat to the use of their products, launched a major protracted disinformation campaign to throw doubt on global warming. Part of this campaign was to funnel money to right wing politicians to block climate action that would reduce the use of their products and hurt their profits. One party, US republicans, bought into greed and power over supporting our health and future. This extremist position seeks to block all climate efforts by our government. To take this one critical step further, climate change is now part of the culture wars.
In the culture wars, we do not decide our positions based on logic or facts, we decide them on the basis of our identity. A position on an issue doesn’t determine identity. i.e. I support fossil fuels, therefore I am a Republican. Identity precedes political issues and determines one’s position. i.e. I am Republican, therefore I support fossil fuels. Ridiculing them for their beliefs or trying to reason with them doesn’t work. It actually has the opposite effect.
Overall, this right wing approach is working, despite the fact that their ideas and approach are bankrupt. It doesn’t matter that their ideas are bankrupt. That’s the point. Governor Abbott of Texas signed a bill to rescind water breaks for workers in certain Texas cities during killer heat waves typifying this approach. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense. Their loyalty to the hierarchy creates their identity and their identity supports whatever absurd policy right wing leaders feel like on any particular day.
On the Left, the typical response has been to believe that facts and policy can win the day. The IRA does represent good policy and is having a positive effect on the economy, and soon on the climate, but it is insufficient by itself. The sin of climate activists is that we believe that this is enough. One big omission is the idea that marketing, PR and coordinated communications are beneath us. As a result, our communications are fact and fear-based, fragmented, and don’t address identity. This is one reason why we are losing the climate war.
The question is less about why the Republicans are doing what they’re doing and more about what can we do about it. The solutions to the climate crisis overall need to be a holistic approach to economic, political, and physical systems. They also need to be at a federal, state and local level. This is beyond the discussion of one post. But one key to effectiveness across this spectrum is effective communications. Regardless of our brilliant job at policy, or our anger at those blocking progress, we need to be better at our communications. These answers are not complete, but here are a few ideas for changing how we approach our communications.
- Begin by stopping focus on issues and policy only.
Good policy and legislation are needed and required. But we will not change hearts and minds by talking about policy. Policy is boring! On the one year anniversary of the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) 71% of Americans said they know little or nothing about the law! (Washington Post- University of Maryland poll) Please avoid policy speak.
- Tell a story that connects to the heart
Never cite a fact or throw out a reason when a story will do. Our audiences would rather hear how closing down a coal plant and replacing it with clean renewable energy reduced heart attacks and ER visits than about the economic benefits of solar over coal. More than that, they’d like to hear your personal story about how you love your grandfather, and how your grandfather’s health improved when the coal plant was shut down. Stories need to have a personal touch. (Here’s a story.)
- Create a positive identity to which others aspire
Where are our heroes? The climate movement often seems like it is apologizing for its heroes. We are too modest. So, let me ask, who are the heroes in your story? What universal values do they exemplify. If we can take a horse, a cowboy and the theme from the Magnificent Seven and sell hundreds of millions of dollars of cigarettes that kill us, we can sure as hell do a better job of creating an identity around climate action. We need to invest in creating identity.
- Connect the dots between our vision and what we will achieve
Instead of policy, we must talk about the what the policy will achieve. What we stand for rather than what we are against. We stand for clean air, water and a livable planet. So our kids and families can have a healthy future. The IRA will help kids breathe easy. Republicans take this approach all the time. i.e. Tax cuts will lead to more jobs. People get it. Make the message simple. Allow people to see where we are leading.
- Give people a choice by naming the villains and saying why they do what they do
In all of the headlines above, there is a general referral to the villain. But naming villains needs to be specific not general. Most republicans are not bad! So rather than “republicans” let’s use, “MAGA extremists,” and then let’s use specific names. Most importantly, we must say why they are violating our values. For example: We believe our kids have the right to breathe clean air and have a healthy future (our shared values), but Senator Joe Manchin (villain) is holding up clean energy legislation because (why) he’s in the pocket of dirty coal companies. We want leaders that serve us not themselves. Remember we feed what we fight so we must be careful of casting a wide net.
- Switch to our narratives rather than arguing in the opposition narrative.
Republicans say drilling for oil and gas creates jobs. It does. Dirty polluting jobs. This is the economic narrative that anything that supports the economy is good (i.e. tax cuts, low wages, no regulations etc.) regardless of our health, safety, and future. We could say clean renewable energy is creating 10 times the jobs of oil and gas. But we would be supporting the conservative narrative that jobs and the economy are the most important issues we face. An example switching the narrative sounds like this: Drilling for oil and gas leads to killer heat, deadly floods and a horrible future for our families. Renewable clean energy is healthy, clean and safe.
- Coordination of messaging
We need a national organization focused on climate and environmental strategy, message development, and coordination. We have 400+ organizations, all developing their own messages. It sounds like noise. Many of the messages are fear-based (repent the world is ending) or still trying to prove climate change is real and manmade. This approach is not working. More on this soon.
This isn’t going to be easy. It requires recognition of the strategy and tactics of those seeking to block climate action for their own power and profit. We can’t be successful with our policies if we hold no power. Power is developed from the identity of the people and how we attract them. We do this by sharing our stories and our values and our vision.
Thanks for all you do.