Cause, Effect, and the Power of “We”: Motivating People to Act on Climate
According to a recent Gallup poll, concern about climate change is at its highest level in eight years. This is very encouraging. However, there is still some confusion about how climate change actually works, and to what degree humans are responsible.
This became apparent to me during a recent webinar I attended, called Making Climate Communication Stick With Framing. Hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Stewards Education Project, it featured insights from the FrameWorks Institute, an organization that helps craft effective communications on social issues.
In their research, FrameWorks found that many people are aware climate change is happening, but are unclear on the causes. A number said they thought it was caused by holes in the ozone layer. Others knew it was caused by pollution, but were less certain about what type of pollution or where it came from.
This poses a challenge for climate communicators. In order for people to support the key solution to climate change (cutting carbon emissions), they first need to understand the true cause.
The power of metaphor
To teach the basic mechanisms of climate change, FrameWorks suggests talking about “fossil fuels,” not “carbon.” They also advocate using the metaphor of a “heat-trapping blanket” – for example, “When we burn fossil fuels for energy, it creates a buildup of carbon dioxide, which acts like a blanket around the earth, trapping heat.”
This metaphor is effective because it’s simple and visually powerful. The cause-and-effect message also has the advantage of pointing to human causation. If people think that climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon, they are less likely to worry or take action because they feel it’s beyond their control. But, as a recent study by researchers at ETH Zürich and the University of Michigan discovered, people who understand that climate change is caused by human activity show higher levels of concern about its effects.
Amplifying the power of “we”
While it’s necessary for people to recognize the role humans have played in damaging the climate, overemphasis on blame is counterproductive and can make people defensive. Once people are clear on the cause, communicators should move quickly to solutions – but it’s important that those solutions match the scale of the challenge.
As we know, climate change is a very large problem, truly global in scope. Fighting it in a serious way requires wide-scale, policy-level actions. This may be why a new study out of UC San Diego found that framing climate change in collective terms was more effective than framing it in terms of personal responsibility. This echoes our own messaging research, which revealed that people are more likely to believe “we can” or “we need” to take action on climate change, rather than “I can” or “I need” to do these things.
Individual actions such as recycling and installing solar panels do matter, and should never be discouraged. To feel empowered to take action, people need to feel they can make a tangible difference. But the presenters in the NOAA webinar urged communicators to focus on collective, broad-scale solutions. For example, we can reframe an individual solution like “Ride your bike” as a collective solution like “Support bike-sharing programs.” In doing so, we can help change the public conversation from one that’s about individual actions (which can imply sacrifices) to one that’s about citizenship.
We are all in this together, after all. Climate change is a problem we created, but it’s also one we have the power to solve. Through collective action, we can take care of one another and create a healthier, safer world for ourselves and future generations.