The climate is again taking center stage for Climate Week New York in what will hopefully be a consistent and persuasive drumbeat of media attention leading up to the 2015 Paris summit. As a relative newcomer to Twitter, I was thrilled by the vibrant community the climate movement has built on the microblogging platform. This will, of course, come as no surprise to those of you actively working to strengthen and maintain this community, but as someone studying climate change from a social sciences and media perspective, the explosion of messaging is tremendously exciting.
It’s exciting because this type of messaging is critical to actively targeting the climate crisis. Communicating climate change effectively is one of the most challenging tasks activists and public intellectuals can undertake. In terms of getting the type of media coverage that encourages mobilization, climate change inherently has a few strikes against it. First, as scholar Maxwell Boykoff has extensively documented, climate change coverage can struggle in a media environment that demands “balance” (see: a debate between climate scientists and climate skeptics) and dramatization. Second, climate change is overwhelming, so even when coverage does reach receptive audiences, people may feel so frightened and disempowered that they tune it out.
Fortunately, social science researchers have been working to decode the factors that influence whether or not a climate message is accepted by its audience. Several recent studies have found that, in addition to sharing scientific knowledge about the causes and threats of climate change, media messages that use emotion can influence how we view the problem and even how much we support potential solutions. This research can give us hints as to how to communicate effectively for action. Happily, many social media activists are already using these strategies.
Here’s my list of who’s doing it right:
Communication Goal: Worry us
Who’s doing it right: the World Metrological Organization
Twitter Handle: @WMOnews
Worry is the strongest prediction of support for climate action, according to Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz in a new publication out in the journal Risk Analysis. “Worry tends to motivate, not short-circuit, more intense cognition and analytical processing of risk information,” they write. Rather than frightening people into a state of panic, worry encourages planning and action. The World Meteorological Organization’s 2050 Weather Forecasts give viewers a taste of what the weather around could be like midway this century if we don’t take action now on climate change. The forecasts are upsetting enough to make us worry, but not so terror-drenched as to paralyze viewers with fear.
Communication Goal: Create curiosity
Who’s doing it right: John Cook at Skeptical Science
Twitter Handle: @skepticscience
Smith and Leiserowitz found that another emotion related to higher support was curiosity. Enter Skeptical Science’ 97 Hours of Consensus, a project launched on September 7th (9/7). The project highlights the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change. Once an hour for 97 hours, Skeptical Science released a cartoon caricature of a new climate scientist along with quote by that scientist. The project is quirky, fun, and full of great information for those seeking to learn more about climate change. Seeing a crowd of cartoon scientists eager to share their knowledge definitely sparks curiosity. The images are up here and Cook encourages you to share them widely.
Communication Goal: Give us hope
Who’s doing it right: Climate Reality
Twitter Handle: @ClimateReality
Hope can be a powerful motivator in creating support for climate policies. Climate Reality’s 24 Hours of Reality online campaign, which wrapped up on September 17th, promised participants 24 “reasons to be hopeful about our future.” As Al Gore points out, a message of hope is sorely needed as each new day brings us more dire stories about the climate and deteriorating ecosystems. Feeling hopeful when confronted with a problem can help build social movements by giving activists a common cause, and may also crystallize support around potential solutions. After all, it’s hard to get excited about a political or technological breakthrough, if you don’t believe the problem can be solved. To avoid descending into fatalism and disengagement, the climate movement needs to emphasize the many hopeful developments we’re seeing today.
Communication Goal: A plan for action
Who’s doing it right: Climate Mobilization
Twitter Handle: @MobilizeClimate
Environmental sociologists examining the link between attitudes and action have long suspected that feelings of efficacy – the sense that a person’s actions can make a difference – are important in translating a desire to help with a problem into activism. Climate change presents a massive challenge, and when people feel that they cannot impact the outcome, they’re less likely to engage in action. That’s why organizations like Climate Mobilization are so important.
Climate Mobilization provides participants with a Pledge to Mobilize that contains concrete steps individuals can take to create political change. These actions increase environmental efficacy by emphasizing real-world actions individuals can take to influence the political system and frames these actions as part of a larger movement to dissolve the gridlock on climate.
There are, of course, countless other individuals and groups doing wonderful work communicating the issue of climate change – more than could reasonably be discussed in a single post. But getting the message right on climate change helps ensure that the climate movement has a strong social foundation, an important and worthwhile task.