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With Billions of Dollars to Invest in Clean Energy and Resilience, Here's the New Climate Communication Challenge
Climate outreach success has often been measured in clicks, likes or story counts. With resources flowing, it's time to shift gears to engagement for community impact. A famed folk singer signals how.
I'm grateful that I was invited to join a Climate Week panel on a critical question: With hundreds of billions of dollars poised to flow to clean energy and climate resilience projects in the United States, what new approaches to climate communication are needed?
The session, called "Are We Looking Up? Climate Communications at a Pivotal Moment," was organized and moderated by Josh Garrett, CEO of Redwood Climate Communications, which bills itself as "the only strategic communications firm devoted exclusively to climate progress."
The other panelists were Lina Francis, chief of communications at the Sierra Club, and Sarah Lazarovic, head of communications and brand at Rewiring America, the fabulous campaign, brain trust and resource founded by Saul Griffith and empowering the #electrifyeverything movement.
One constant theme from all of us was that it's time for those who dismiss the power of individual action to reconsider.
Another was the one I hint at above in the image of Pete Seeger (taken by David Rothenberg in 2010 when I was backing Pete up at a Hudson River event). Listen. Listen actively. Then share, both successes and failures, related to your learning journey on building a cooler relationship with energy, climate and communities. Build a chorus like Pete always did.
And perhaps the most important point we centered on, particularly with abundant resources now at hand, was to shift the balance in climate activism from no to yes.
As I put it, "There's a deep bias in how this whole community has been shaped toward very traditional models of the problem, which are all about stopping something. And we are now at a point where it's about starting a lot of things. We need more transmission lines. How do we do that in a way that's just and effective and at the scale that would be required to make renewable energy useful at grid scale? That's a real challenge. I don't know the answer yet."
If you have an answer, please weigh in with your ideas in the comments or through my feedback form.
Here's the video, followed by a few highlights and related links and content dropped in.
This was the organizing framing of the chat, with that title referencing the hit Adam McKay Netflix movie:
As more of the world experiences the intensifying impacts of the climate crisis, public communications about climate change are shifting. Following decades of under-reporting by news media, climate change and climate-influenced events appear in mainstream news reports on a daily basis.
Cultural influences like the satirical film "Don’t Look Up" have made climate change part of the global zeitgeist. After decades of inaction, the U.S. government adopted what is arguably the most ambitious and comprehensive national climate policy in history. At this turning point, the stakes for climate action have never been higher. Communications around climate solutions have a major role to play in driving unprecedented progress toward worldwide mitigation of and adaptation to the crisis.
After showing excerpts from "Don't Look Up" and a real-world British morning news program on the UK heat emergency that echoed the movie's satirical take on happy-talk media, Garrett stressed the key achievement of that film - spurring climate crosstalk:
"There are a lot of different opinions about the film 'Don't Look Up' among climate professional and interested crowds like us. But I think it's undeniable that it really did spark a lot of conversation. And I think that's one goal, that wherever you're coming from in the climate world, that's something that we we really need to be doing more of at this point."
He mentioned a sobering finding from the latest Climate Change in the American Mind survey done by researchers at Yale and George Mason University: "Two in three Americans (67%) say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends."
Garrett asked the panel and viewers to weigh this question in hopes of stimulating climate conversation: How much, in engagement with audiences, do we emphasize the urgency of the crisis or the promise of solutions?
I'd love to hear your answer in the comments or via my feedback form.
He asked Lina how the Sierra Club plans to approach communicating about the massive Inflation Reduction Act (and, implicitly, the related, and contested, push for permitting reform):
Lina Francis - "When we're thinking about communicating to the IRA, the messaging, as always, depends on the audience, right? So when we're thinking about how we want to talk about the positive aspects of this bill, how we don't necessarily want to perpetuate the doom and gloom and have folks feel paralyzed as if they can't take action to help save the planet. And this bill gives us a good anchor to really start that form of communications.
But when we're talking to folks in the Gulf, in Appalachia, in Alaska, the form of communication absolutely needs to change because we need to acknowledge the harm done to these communities by this bill. You know, there is no such thing as a completely great bill coming out of Congress, and I think the Inflation Reduction Act is another example of that. However, it definitely leads us on the right path and is a huge first step towards addressing the crisis."
She also stressed the reality that struggling communities of color face a range of wrenching challenges, so climate can be a tough sell on its own.
Lina Francis - "I'm from the Bronx and the Bronx, New York, is 100% an environmental justice community. An enormous amount of pollution, crazy rates of asthma.... And when I think of folks in the Bronx, I think of how the climate crisis actually is lower in their priority list of things that they can solve. We're thinking about minimum wage. We're thinking about child care. We're thinking about equitable access to public education, right? So really being able to incorporate those issues and saying, hey, you know, I understand the need to raise the minimum wage, but that's actually irrelevant if we don't have a plan, right? Being able to really prove that intersectionality between the issues that frontline communities are really concerned about and how that connects directly to the climate movement."
Garrett asked me and Sarah how we engage with local audiences around how climate action can offer a range of local benefits.
Andy Revkin - "I started focusing much more on risk. If you put the word risk in the foreground, climate risk, then you lose that secondary step that you have to deal with when you're trying to sell climate change. Who is at risk when you think about climate emergency? Who is in a state of emergency? Rich or poor? You quickly come to the conclusion it's people who are marginalized either by poverty, by past prejudice, by geography and the geography is a function of poverty....
Climate is changing in many ways. It is changing, but it's subtle and complicated. The two factors that are on the ground in your community that you can do something about right now are exposure and vulnerability. How many people are in harm's way? How vulnerable are they? And as soon as you switch the conversation or the framing of a story to that, you're engaging people where they are not trying to say something in the atmosphere is happening that someday is going to affect your life."
I mentioned this post: Behind Global "Climate Emergency" Rhetoric, Solvable Vulnerability Emergencies Abound.
Sarah Lazarovic - "One thing Andrew noted to is the fact that it's all about the local stories always. And within the local story, you will find the co-benefits. I don't know why we have to say co-benefits. They're just benefits.... I think my only caveat is that sometimes I call it the 'too good to be true heuristic' insomuch as we lean into all the magical benefits.... Sometimes people actually don't believe you. They think you're selling them a whole lot of malarkey when you're like, 'No, surprisingly, cutting fossil fuels out of our lives will actually make life better in 310 different ways.' So I pick the two most salient ones to the audience I'm speaking to and run with those."
I'll add that Rewiring America is also doing a great job of creating portals to usable information on household energy retrofits. If you haven't visited and shared their resources, please do so. They even have set up an "IRA Calculator" - a tool for roughly gauging how much money you might save under the provisions of the giant package of rebates and other incentives.
All hail incrementalism?
Each of us, from a different vantage point, stressed the vital role of individual distributed actions - something some climate campaigners have been dismissing in recent years because the fossil industry has co-opted that idea as a way to divert attention from its role.
Lina Francis - "The enormity of everything can be really paralyzing. When you look at the pictures coming out of Puerto Rico just from this weekend, how would you even remotely start to be able to combat an environmental disaster like what's going on? There's not really a pathway, right? There's not necessarily a universal idea as to what the first step would be to actually combat extreme weather disasters. Communicators have the responsibility not only to create actionable steps, but bite-sized steps that will lead to a bigger picture. We have millions of people taking little steps that will 100% make a huge difference, whether that's in our local politics and our federal politics or otherwise."
Andy Revkin- "I think one of the huge mistakes I've seen in in a certain chunk of the climate community recently has been demeaning and undermining the idea that individual action matters. You know, there are problems. Plastic straws were a diversion. And there is a history of industry taking advantage of this idea - recycling. But that misses the reality of what Lina just said, that this is all a journey. First of all, we don't wake up tomorrow with a new president or a new Congress and this problem goes away. So it's a journey and initial success leads to trust and engagement. In the disaster aren, I've written about too many kinds of disasters, along with my climate reporting, which is a slow disaster, too. And I've seen the same pattern. Building resilience, this whole idea of adaptation, only works if you have sustained engagement between expertise and communities." (Please revisit my post on strategies for helping communities identify and reduct vulnerabilities to extreme weather; the same process can identify clean-energy pathways.)
Sarah Lazarovic - "Individual actions that are worthwhile and constructed with a thoughtfulness toward the end goal are so important. And then even the ones that are lighthearted and don't result in that much emissions reductions we know behaviorally make a ton of sense because, as Cialdini shows us, as a bunch of behavioral scientists show us, once people do one thing, they identify as a person who cares about climate, and then they'll do the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, and those things will be bigger and they'll be force multiplier effect. So a huge part of our climate comms should be recognizing the power of the individual because it is vast." [Robert Cialdini is an expert on persuasion.]
Garrett asked me about my self-described big pivot - from storyteller to conversation shaper. He asked, why holding better conversations is more important than telling stories at this moment.
Andy Revkin: "The blog I started at the New York Times in 2007 [Dot Earth] was... fundamentally about listening as much as typing. I did 2,810 posts. I moderated almost every one of 100,000 comments, some of which were really bad. But I started to understand the value of conversation.
[So] when I look at something like the IRA, and I talked to Jigar Shah, who is the successful solar entrepreneur who now runs the Energy Department's gigantic loan program ... and he says ... 19,500 municipalities in America are all eligible for these loans, if people there know about them, know how to choose the decider for school busses or municipal busses. How do you actually apply for a loan? And that's there's a huge injustice barrier there, too - communities that are not on the gravy train. I think it's more valuable to think what can I do, if I'm a journalist or an organization like Sierra Club, or or any other kind of organization focused on community empowerment, what can I do to create access at the local level to critical information and partnerships that can really drive change, whether it's putting in more heat pumps or creating more entrepreneurial capacity for better battery technology or reducing risk from inevitable climate hazards. All of that's about shaping connectivity and conversations. It's not about doing more of what I spent the first 30 years of my career doing."
The new climate activism is local
Here's the distilled call to action from Jigar Shah, who's essentially asking climate activists to turn some of their focus to a yes activism from the activism of stopping things.
Watch the full Sustain What chat here.
There is much, much more in the full communication brainstorm, and I hope you can take the time to listen, to share it, and to weigh in with questions, concerns or ideas.
The new climate activism is also online
The famed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, one of the most analog people I’ve ever known, recognized the immense power of this online communication environment to connect people across disciplines, practices and geography in pursuit of solutions to tough challenges. I lenjoy sharing this moment when I joined Andrew Blechman visiting Pete at his Beacon, N.Y.. home in 2012 to interview him for the 30th anniversary issue of Orion Magazine. Blechman asked, “What gives you hope when you think of the future?” You’ll love the answer. (Here’s the longer interview on YouTube.)
Heat pump progress
On Monday, a great team from Mac Heat Pumps installed a Samsung ductless heat pump system in the 1970s-vintage log home in Maine that we now call home. I didn't want to wait for the new federal rebates given that winter is quickly coming. What's heating and cooling your home? I'll be sharing our learning curve here going forward, building on my post on our earlier retrofitting efforts.
“We are the asteroid”
There are different ways art and other visual communication can help propel climate and energy progress. A traditional approach is to engage the emotions and intellect, as here through surprise and curiosity.
This was an installation by Justice Brice Guariglia, an artist and photographer using solar-powered flashing road signs showing phrases inspired by Timothy Morton's hyperobject concept including "We Are the Asteroid" - here installed on Chicago's Navy Pier (video).
But for a shift from story to action and response, I still see vast untapped potential in models like MyHeat.ca, a project mapping solar installations and wasted household heat in a way that can boost community buy-in for efficiency and carbon-free distributed electricity. (Read my first retrofitting post for more.)
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