Climate Engagement: 3 Creative Ways to Make People Care

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Why is talking about climate change so daunting? Many reasons. It’s vast and scary, while also seeming abstract, impersonal, and remote. When the average person’s frame of reference is their neighborhood, community, or state, it’s difficult to scale up one’s thoughts and concerns to 196.9 million square miles of planet. (That number itself is essentially meaningless to most people.) Even if people agree that climate change is real and something to worry about, it’s still an issue that’s hard to fully grasp or see as an urgent priority.

To address this challenge, climate scientists and communicators have come up with a number of innovative approaches that help make climate change relevant and real. Here are the few of the best recent examples.

Mesmerizing Visuals That Make Data Resonate

The scientific consensus supporting climate change is enormous. Climate scientists have mountains of data at their disposal, but just showing the numbers makes most people glaze over. Charts and graphs (typical ones, at least) are not only boring, but open to misinterpretation.

spiral2016-2Climate scientist Ed Hawkins, of the UK’s University of Reading, is known for designing visualizations that help make science communications more engaging. Improved web technologies have made it easier to create interactive, animated graphics that show data in understandable and convincing ways. Some months back, Hawkins released an animated, circular graph showing the increase in global temperatures between 1850 and 2016. Watching the temperatures spiral ever higher as the years progressed, the meaning was as unmistakable as the visual was beautiful.

Hawkins’ spiral graph was widely praised within the climate community, but the acclaim didn’t stop there. Those same visuals were featured (much to Hawkins’ surprise) in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, during a segment intended to raise awareness of climate impacts.

Image courtesy of Ed Hawkins

Image courtesy of Ed Hawkins

Last week, Hawkins released a new visualizationwhich shows the same temperature trend in the form of an infographic. The image features global temperature maps for each of the 167 years, placed side by side in what is known as a “small multiples” technique. Seen as a whole, the change from blue (representing cooler temperatures) to mostly red (representing warmer temperatures) is striking, as well as instantly obvious.

By turning numbers into visuals that are clear, straightforward, and arresting, these types of communications make the data resonate and penetrate more effectively than any pie chart or bar graph could.

A Relatable Metaphor to Help Explain a Complicated Concept

The online version of my power bill has a nifty feature that lets me compare how many kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity I use month to month. It’s pretty cool, and does make me think more closely about how I use energy. But what is a kWh, anyway? According to Wikipedia, a kWh is “a derived unit of energy equal to 3.6 megajoules.” Huh? What do those numbers actually mean to people who aren’t physicists or engineers?

Australian inventor and entrepreneur Saul Griffith has come up with an innovative way to help explain this type of data. He and his team have created a highly detailed and visually gorgeous interactive chart that displays how much energy the U.S. consumes in a variety of sectors – transportation, manufacturing, residential, etc. The usage amounts are displayed as BTUs (British thermal units, otherwise known as quads). OK – but what is a quad, exactly?

CheeseburgerGriffith gets that this is not a unit of energy most people understand. So in a recent talk, he compared the energy in a quad to the calories in a cheeseburger. (For his purposes, this hypothetical cheeseburger contained 210 calories). By this measure, the average American consumes the equivalent of 1,000 cheeseburgers every day. Suddenly, our energy use goes from abstract to, frankly, gluttonous.

Human Stories That Make Climate Impacts Personal

Even when people are concerned about the impacts of climate change, the need for action isn’t a top priority for most. Climate predictions usually describe impacts over a 20, 50, or 100 year period, which doesn’t inspire much urgency in the here and now. This online project helps to change that by giving people a highly personal way of thinking about the future. DearTomorrowasks people to submit messages, videos, and photos that will be opened in the years 2030 and 2050. The messages are meant to be addressed to a young person the author cares deeply about – their own child, grandchild, niece or nephew, a student.

Image courtesy of DearTomorrow

Image courtesy of DearTomorrow

Creating the message requires really imagining what that young person’s world will look like in 14 or 34 years. Will we have done enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change? Or will that generation wonder why we didn’t do more to protect their future? The award-winning campaign moves climate action away from something we “should do” and turns it into something we must do for the sake of our loved ones and future generations.

So far, over 200 letters and 83 photos have been submitted, including one from ecoAmerica founder Bob Perkowitz, addressed to his granddaughter Ellie.

Keeping It Real

These various approaches use a number of proven techniques: Avoid jargon. Use visuals and metaphors to communicate more clearly. Don’t get mired down in numbers and data. Make a personal connection. Appeal to shared values such as the desire to protect our families.

What they all have in common is an ability to move the climate issue from abstract and remote to something relevant, personal, and urgent.


This story was originally posted on the ecoAffect blog by Ellen Hall on September 1, 2016

Posted on Monday, September 5th, 2016

Climate Change Communications: On Feeling Affected and Effectual

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On a Monday morning, I scanned the headlines to see news stories about record smog days in Southern California, the Zika virus, and the extended wildfire season we’re facing. Climate change was noted as a factor in each story.

Then I saw a post on a new study about the effectiveness of climate news coverage (The Influence of Climate Change Efficacy Messages and Efficacy Beliefs on Intended Political Participation”). This led me to find another recent study on how Americans feel powerless in the face of the climate crisis (“Social norms and efficacy beliefs drive the Alarmed segment’s public-sphere climate actions”).

No real surprise there. I read a lot of climate news and the gloom and doom can get you down. When it comes to climate change, reality sometimes bites. The impacts of climate change are far-reaching and can be catastrophic. Is this the end of the world as we know it? How are we supposed to feel fine?

More to the point: How do we help empower people to fight climate change?

When I first started working at Climate Resolve, I was given valuable direction from our Executive Director, Jonathan Parfrey: “It’s not about icebergs and polar bears,” he said. Yes, melting icebergs and endangered polar bears represent impacts of climate change. The point he was making was these problems are remote and do not personally resonate with us. We don’t have icebergs or polar bears in our backyard.

We need to understand we’re impacted. We need to feel affected.
Good communication on any subject starts with making connections. Our friends at ecoAmerica offer good points on how to engage people on the subject, including the fact that we need to start with people. How are people affected by climate change?

At Climate Resolve, we focus on local impacts. It’s why we teamed up with the City of Los Angeles and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) in 2012 to publish a series of climate studies that localized data from global climate models. The study shows how climate change will directly affect us here in Los Angeles, so you can see impacts on your neighborhood, including how hot it will be and how much precipitation we expect — with or without climate mitigation. Understanding how we expect to be impacted, and seeing that climate action can make a difference is powerful.

We need to understand there are solutions. We need to feel effectual.
It’s not enough to feel impacted — we have to also feel empowered to make a difference. You can read a story about local climate impacts — say, a story about the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and smog and asthma. A news story might hit close to home, but you have to know you can do something. You have to know there are solutions.

After those gloomy, doomy headlines on that Monday morning, a tweet by NASA caught my eye. “We’re over being bummed about climate change and ready for solutions.”

nasa climate tweet1Yes, solutions! It’s why I’m proud of our work at Climate Resolve to find local climate solutions that improve people’s lives. That connection is key. There is a problem and we are working on solutions.

On Tuesday, good news came. California lawmakers passed climate change legislation that will safeguard Californians for years to come. Here’s the empowerment we’re looking for — and the solutions.

It’s an election year. Yale’s Program on Climate Communication has studied American views on climate change, and they report a majority of Americans now understand climate change is an issue we need to face. Still, the issue remains a low priority for voters. There is work to be done here, in making people see the connection between good policies and outcomes. We need to show how Californians have already been helped by climate policies that have cleaned our air and created jobs. This is how we can be effective — by voting for lawmakers who support climate solutions and by celebrating good climate news.


This story was originally posted on the Climate Resolve blog by Stef McDonald on August 26, 2016

Posted on Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

With Climate Action, Shout Success From the (Solar) Rooftop!

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Thirty miles east of Downtown Los Angeles is the city where I was raised and currently live, La Verne. A small community hugging the foothills, it has a long history in Southern California for its orchards of orange trees. Where the city once relied on the sun for its agricultural economy, it is now harnessing the plentiful resource with a host of new solar developments.

Most recently, the School District, Bonita Unified, which covers both La Verne and the neighboring San Dimas, moved forward on a project to install solar facilities at 12 schools throughout the district. With construction already underway, the project is slated to be complete at most schools prior to the beginning of the school year.

The aim of the program is simple: to provide a renewable source of energy that will decrease electricity costs and increase energy efficiency.  Funded through a local measurepassed by voters in 2008, in addition to numerous alternative sources, the project represents how communities can shape local policy and successfully implement climate solutions.

What they got right

Large-scale solar projects represent the best of how communities can work to bring climate solutions to their city. Local funding, approved through a countywide vote by residents in a local election, was able to transform uncovered school parking lots into hubs for renewable energy generation. These types of bold climate initiatives are exactly what allow cities to be cutting edge leaders when it comes to climate solutions.

What’s missing?

The developments in La Verne and countless cities like it often fall short when it comes to simple communications. For many in La Verne, the first time that they became aware of the program was when visible signs of construction began popping up around each of the schools. And still, the nature, reason, and benefits of the project were left unclear for most. No fliers were sent out to residents explaining the project and there was no information clearly identifying the solar initiative on the city website.

I am a lifelong resident in the city. I write professionally on environmental matters in addition to being an adjunct professor teaching government, environmental politics, and even a course on cities. I am fairly plugged in to events going on in the community, yet the project was a complete surprise to me. When mayors and city leaders act, especially at the behest of residents and voters, it is incumbent upon them to relay their progress to the community. This can be done in a number of simple ways:

  • Signage can be a simple, low-cost solution to promoting climate action. Throughout drought stricken Southern California, countless cities have adopted a policy of reducing or entirely turning off irrigation for city parks, medians, and city landscaping—these actions should be communicated to the public. In Beverly Hills, for example, city property was lined with signs reading: “please pardon our lawns”- and educated residents about the city’s efforts to conserve water. Signage can be used to explain what the city is doing and why, to ask residents and businesses to take part, and to announce progress.
  • Flyers and mailers can be used to target neighborhoods and communities that may be uniquely affected by a specific piece of climate action. In La Verne, those living near schools were sent mailers informing them about the solar project and what they might expect as construction progressed.
  • Local newspapers and press releases can be used to reach the broader public. Contacting reporters and promoting city actions this way allows mayors and community leaders to share and take pride in their climate accomplishments. Public recognition also lets the community feel pride and ownership, especially if it’s an initiative that they voted for, helped fund and participated in.
  • City websites and social media accounts like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are free and effective tools for communication. Simply keeping these platforms up to date can help spread the word about climate action, update residents on city works, gain valuable feedback on existing projects, and even solicit ideas for future ones.

Mayors and community leaders need to act, but they also need to ensure that they communicating the “what” and the “why” of their climate action plans. If city lawns are dead—be sure residents know that it is by design, that it is saving water and their tax dollars. When bold new solar projects are installed—residents should know that the panels will shade parked cars, generate power, and reduce the tax and power burden for the local school district, allowing more money to be spend on their children rather than electricity.

There are multiple avenues for getting the word out, but equally important is how leaders craft their message. Fortunately, there is a simple, 15-step process that has been well researched and tested that can be followed to craft effective climate message. Check them out at ecoAmerica, and be sure to join with other climate leaders at Path to Positive Communitiestoday!

Posted on Friday, August 26th, 2016
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