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Climate messages may be all wrong

Adriene Hill Feb 7, 2011
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Kai Ryssdal: I’m gonna say a couple of things now, by way of setting up this next story, that I can only hope won’t make you turn off the radio: Global warming, greenhouse gas emissions.

If you’re still with me, first of all, thanks. And second, the tendency to tune out when people start talking about climate change is pretty widespread. A report from Pew shows only about a quarter of Americans think global warming is a top priority. Lobbying, financial regulation and moral decline all rank higher. Which has environmental and climate groups scrambling to get people to care.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Adriene Hill reports.


Adriene Hill: It’s hard to sex up a topic as science-y and scary as billions of tons of pollution causing our world to heat up — not that some groups haven’t tried.

Commercial: Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, dry places have droughts. We need to cool off.

And to cool off, the ads features hot models stripping down — way down. Compelling? I’ll leave that to you. But coming up with a message that resonates with people and makes them care about our warming planet can be tough, especially because it’s so complicated.

Jamie Henn: Talking about any scientific issue and doing it in a way that motivates people to take action will be a challenge.

Jamie Henn is the co-founder of 350.org, an activist group focused on the climate. He says to really get people thinking about the environment, you’ve gotta tie it to issues like jobs and the economy that are more top of mind.

Henn: Finding a way to take this global problem and bring it back down to a human scale as much as possible.

One strategy that doesn’t seem to have worked so far, focusing on all the horrible things that might happen if we don’t act. Consider one of the environmental movements biggest ad failures, from the climate group 1010UK. In it, kids who don’t want to participate in a plan to reduce pollution get blown up.

Sounds of explosions and screams

1010UK ad: Now everyone please remember to read chapters five and six on volcanoes and glaciation, except for Phillip and Tracey, of course.

It’s not just the grossness that makes messages like this fail. There are psychological and social reasons that doomy-gloomy-end-of-the-world messages don’t work.

Rob Willer is a sociology professor at UC Berkeley.

Rob Willer: There is this general tendency of people, and Americans especially, to believe in the world as just and fair and orderly.

Willer says apocalyptic climate messages can challenge that core belief.

Willer: And when information arises that threatens that view of the world, people tend to disregard that information.

Willer’s study found people’s strong senses of a just world were less likely to believe the climate is changing when it was presented in really dire ways. His advice for organizations working on campaigns: Be honest, but be positive.

Tom Bowman is the president of Bowman Global Change. He works with scientists on coming up with ways to talk about their work. He says the conversation needs to move away from the problems to solutions.

Tom Bowman: I would move beyond that conversation and talk about: How are we going to solve this? What does it mean to us to solve it?

Bowman says it’s time to re-brand climate change: Dump the downer-impending-environmental-catastrophe image. And instead, come up with something more inspiring, a promising, new way forward for the country.

Bowman: It could be about a new patriotism, it could be about transforming ourselves to be the world leader in the new economy.

Perhaps visions that would garner attention without the addition of nearly nude models.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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