Messaging Climate Change

August 9th, 2013 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Messaging Climate Change

childWithAsthmaCourtney Subramanian wrote an excellent piece for Time Magazine yesterday, focusing on rebranding climate change as a public health issue rather than an environmental issue. As she writes:

To most people, climate change means melting snowcaps and helpless polar bears sweltering under escalating temperatures. But most of the world’s populations aren’t likely to see an iceberg in their lifetimes, much less a stranded polar bear in the wild. Which explains why the dangers of these environmental changes haven’t exactly earned high priority on most people’s list of attention-worthy crises. The politicization of climate change — the never-ending debate over whether it exists, for example, and the ensuing back-and-forth over its causes, its implications and potential solutions — further discourages the public from action.

But what if climate change were instead about an increase in childhood asthma, or a surge in infectious diseases, or even an influx of heat-induced heart attacks? Would that hold more resonance for the average citizen of the world?

She asks an excellent question and her point is well made and indeed accurate. The way we typically frame the issue of climate change seems very distant and removed from people’s lives. It needs to become more personal, more relevant, and more emotionally compelling – all of which can lead to more engagement and concern. So far, most of our conversation about global warming or climate change has been in the realm of the environment and focusing on the political ramifications of the issue. The more political the issue becomes, the less engagement we will see – as people will simply view the entire matter as another Washington hullaballoo. The communication strategy for climate change must be rebranded and brought into the lives of people in a way that they can relate to. And it seems like the framing of the issue that best resonates with people personally and emotionally is that of public health. That becomes an immediate and engaging concern and one that everyone can immediately feel and understand in their own lives.

To become engaged in an issue, people much be able to relate to it personally. According to a 2012 study:

Social scientists have long understood that the way an issue is framed has important consequences. Framing—whether intentional or not—involves selectively emphasizing certain dimensions of an issue over others, setting the context for perception and discussion around specific causes, risks, policy actions, and costs/benefits that might result from these actions.

Research on a public health frame, for example, suggests that when climate change is introduced as a human health issue, a broad cross-section of audiences—even segments otherwise skeptical of climate science—find the information to be compelling and useful. The study found that messages emphasizing catastrophic, dire consequences or threats that are geographically remote can result in less concern and more hopelessness among audiences.

Communication is important with any issue, and a large part of communication goes beyond simply disseminating accurate information. It’s about sharing information in a way that can be effectively heard. Key to becoming effective messengers of climate change will rest with how well we connect. We must find our voice… but we must also find our message.