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

When it Comes to Climate and Cities, Trees Keep Giving

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City leaders are constantly on the lookout for programs that can be implemented to improve the lives of residents in their communities. While cost restrictions, political considerations, and logistical constraints are always limiting factors, there is one simple climate solution that seems to bypass all such obstacles: trees. Increasing tree canopy coverage is a simple, low-cost solution that improves communities by enlisting residents to green their neighborhoods, while bringing health, economic, and environmental benefits to cities.

Why Trees

Trees are a simple way to improve city life in a number of important and unexpected ways. Research has shown that cities that have adopted tree-planting programs have seen coorelation linking more trees to decreases in crime. Tree-lined streets increase property values for residents, and communities with green spaces, gardens, and parks have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety—increasing the happiness and quality of life for residents.

There are also important health benefits. Trees help filter pollutants out of the air we breathe. Studies have found that trees, especially old growth canopies, can affect both local air quality and the quality of air throughout the region. There are also economic benefits to be had, such as decreased energy bills. Shadier cities can reduce the cooling costs for residents and business owners—especially in hot, arid regions where energy costs may be burdensome.

And perhaps most importantly, increasing tree canopy in cities is an effective climate solution. Lower electricity use due to increased shade, cooler temperatures, and less of a need to run an A/C drives down the amount of fossil fuel consumption. Trees, vegetation, and urban green zones help to catch rainfall and prevent rainwater runoff that can damage city infrastructure and clog storm drains. This is increasingly a concern as weather patterns change, and severe weather events become more common. Recent flooding in Louisiana provides an insight into just what the future may hold as the consequences of climate change become more pronounced.

To reap these benefits, cities must beef up their commitment to urban canopies. Research now suggests that nearly half of urban areas must be covered to enjoy the full scope of what trees can bring to communities. Fortunately, many cities are already pursuing bold new initiatives to increase the number of trees in their communities.

What Cities Can Do

For many cities, simply preserving their local forests and urban canopy can bring much-needed dollars to city coffers. In Oregon, for instance, the city of Astoria pledged to protect a 3,700-acre watershed as part of a statewide carbon credit program. By preserving the local forest//trees/…, the city was able to receive over $350,000 in their first year, and $130,000 for the next nine as part of the carbon credit program. These are dollars that can be put to use reinvesting in community development, infrastructure, and city services.

“Together, we’re building our better neighborhoods, and projects like this are how we do it.” Mayor Faulconer, San Diego

Cities can also promote and facilitate the greening of communities. The city of Seattle this year is relaunching its reLeaf program, which aims to increase the canopy cover from 23 to 30% over the next two decades. Already successful in planting 6,300 trees, the program also offers information on tree maintenance, care, pruning, and free trees and mulch for participants. Such programs are a relatively cheap and effective way to bring communities together with the shared purpose of beautifying their neighborhoods while implementing effective climate solutions.

Like Seattle, in Los Angeles, several public-private partnerships have sprouted to continue a program launched nearly a decade ago, Million Trees LA. Now, in an effort to bring the benefits of trees to low-canopy communities, groups like City Plants provide free fruit and shade trees to neighborhoods throughout the city. Educational opportunities including tree care, mulching and planting techniques are being provided by groups like Tree People—who focus on increasing green spaces and urban forests. Organizations like the LA Conservation Corps are training young Angelinos to be the next climate leaders through tree planting and more. These efforts enlist the help of residents, students, businesses, and nonprofits—reflecting the importance of community-based solutions to community problems.

Tree planting programs are simple climate solutions for any city. Whether run entirely by a city department, facilitated through public-private partnerships, or entirely left to the nonprofit sector, they bring countless benefits for residents. As a mayor or community leader, you can encourage and implement these programs by effectively communicating the benefits of increased canopy coverage in your city. You can begin by checking out the well-researched and tested climate communication techniques at ecoAmerica, or our 15 step guide at Path to Positive Communities.

This story was originally posted on the Path to Positive Communities blog on August 19, 2016

Posted on Thursday, August 18th, 2016
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