Climate Change: Deeper Than Messaging

Humanitarianism, orienting values, and helping Americans find the path forward

by ecoAmerica director Lisa Renstrom


Environmentalists have been trying to get people to understand, believe, and absorb the reality of climate change for decades. Americans have resisted. Why? Because an unstable climate is damn scary and to think that it is our fault is even scarier. The threat confronts us with disturbing questions and difficult choices.


According to Ron Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership, to address the problem would mean that we would have to change, adaptively and “adaptive change stimulates resistance, challenges people’s habits, beliefs and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to their people and cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty and feeling incompetent: That’s a lot to ask. No wonder people resist.”(1)


Resistance to the message has manifested as denial, diversion tactics like Climategate, the marginalization of the environmental movement, the slaying of messenger’s like Al Gore. All these reactions serve an important purpose. They reduce the disequilibrium that would be generated if we addressed the issue. They help maintain the familiar, restore order, postpone loss and protect us from the work that needs to be done.


The environmental movement has tried purely technical fixes such as Kyoto Protocol and Cap and Trade but climate change will not be “solved” by powers on high. The challenge requires people, people to change their hearts as well as their behavior.


It is time for the movement to hold steady and take the heat of people’s anger as they slowly recognize that neutralizing Al Gore or environmentalists will not make climate change go away.


We know that at some point a dramatic event or events will accelerate understanding, acceptance and willingness to change. By better understanding and connecting with Americans now, we can orchestrate awareness such that a lesser, rather than greater dramatic event will be sufficient to open peoples hearts and minds. How do we do this?


We must prepare ourselves so that when a crisis occurs we can turn it into a teachable event, a turning point – not a shopping experience. We need to do a much better job of empathy – of listening to the song beneath people’s words – their true fears and motivations. We can then draw attention to the false association between consumption and happiness, relate climate to fundamental concerns and engage respected surrogates to reach out to various ‘tribes’.


Finally, we sustain momentum by reminding Americans of an orienting value, a positive vision that makes the journey worthwhile, even if that might be a vision of a lesser evil.


This goes beyond environmentalists. It is as humanitarians that we can lead Americans through these challenging times. We understand the consequences; it is up to us. Our leadership must engage American’s in the work of climate mitigation and adaptation. I told you so, is not an acceptable refrain.


1. This entire blog, quotes and proposals are ALL extrapolated from Ronald A Heifetz & Marty Linsky’s book Leadership on the Line and anyone who’s interest is even slightly piqued should read the book. There is much to be gleaned.

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