Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Communicating Climate Change: A Research Based Framing Guide

It's hard enough to get people to believe in climate change, let alone to become a part of solutions.

Heck, even my parents haven't replaced all their incandescent light bulbs with efficient CFL's.  If I can't convince THEM, who can I convince??  On the bright side, they've made good progress and are doing a lot better than most Americans at reducing their carbon footprint.

As Eban Goodstein recently stated in the Washington Post, climate change is a political problem.  We have the scientific understanding and technological know-how to solve it.  At this point, it's a problem of motivating people.

In this week's GreenBiz Radio segment, Joel Makower gets into the issue of motivation with the author of a new report, "Climate Crossroads: A Research-Based Framing Guide for Global Warming", which aims to offer a first step towards a unified conversation on global warming. The study is a summary of what is known to date about the most effective communications approaches, what works and what won't work to move people to get involved in global warming solutions.

What's really interesting is that the lead author of the study, Cara Pike, says that the media is a huge part of the problem -- that they have jumped ahead of the public and failed to fill in some key pieces of information that people need to just understand how the problem of global warming works:

What we found is that even with segments of the public who are highly educated and very aware of global warming, there is a very low understanding of what the problem really is.

So what we found even in talking to people who are members of environmental organizations or who identify themselves as environmentalists, is they often thought global warming had to do with the problem with ozone holes.

The other thing that you find is that most people don't really have a sense of the connection between energy, the economy, and climate, and so most people wouldn't be able to tell you, for example, that their energy or great majority of their energy might come from coal, for example.

So a lot of the discussion and in particular, in the media, has leaped ahead into this somewhat elite conversation, but even those who are trying to follow that conversation very actively are missing some fundamental information. So what we really found is that you have to go back and fill in some of those holes.

So for example, "green energy" doesn't mean anything to anyone. "Alternative energy" sounds too marginal. Or even needing to make sure that people need to understand that in many ways, we're dealing with the problem with too much carbon building up in the atmosphere.

You have to go back and fill in some of these more...

That's very interesting, and points to a greater need for educating the public on the details of warming than I'd have imagined is still necessary.  What of talking solutions?

CP: I think a growing number of Americans really do want to engage and do things that will make a difference. I think that it's very confusing what really will make that difference and in particular, given how busy people are, how pressed the feel financially, they really want to know if I only have time to do a handful of things, what are the things that are really going to have the biggest payback and biggest impact on solving the problem? I think there's been a bit of a scale issue around solutions where many of the things that the public are being asked to do, don't seem to match the scale of the challenge. So, you know, how can you really solve a global complex issue by changing light bulbs?

So once again, back to those feedback mechanisms and really ensuring that we're connecting those individual choices up to the kind of systemic and larger scale change people are interested in, the better.

In sum, be careful not to come at your audience from too high of a level (remind them of the basics), and provide them with specific ways that they can get involved, as well as information on the benefits.

Something I'd like to add: don't overpromise and pretend that little individual solutions are all people need to do to feel like they've done their part.  Remind them that it doesn't take much time to take the VERY important step of giving their policymakers the support they need to enact the bold solutions we realistically need to solve this problem at the societal scale.

On that note, those of you in swing states, especially, please call your Senators and encourage them to support -- and strengthen -- the Boxer/Kerry Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act: 202-224-3121

Listen to the full GreenBiz radio segment>>

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