How do we engage people in climate? Merge our stories.
Updated: Aug 28
I've been studying how people teach and learn about climate change for about 10 years. It wasn't until about three years ago, though, where I really began delving into the intricacies of communicating the climate crisis and what we can do about it to the general public.
I'm embarrassed to admit the number of times I slammed my audiences with scary data, especially when I was new to giving presentations to audiences beyond the ivory tower. I'm sure it left most in the crowd feeling dejected and overwhelmed, not to mention that I always left the engagement feeling gross. What's worse is that I knew the efficacy of doom and gloom approaches was, and remains, very much an open question. But I still took that approach. Maybe I needed to experience just how bad this approach felt first-hand?
This experience led to much reflection and a complete revision of how I approach my work and presentations. I've found that, instead of scaring the be-jeezus out of people, I have much more engagement and success when people "think the world together," as Parker Palmer would say. In other words, I help connect the dots between what people care about, the actions they take, and how that advances or impedes our ability to bring about a thriving communities for all. Most importantly to me, I want people to connect with the bigger story of climate change in a way that feels authentic to them. We all have a role in this bigger narrative, and I challenge audiences to understand theirs.
In a recent piece published in The Conversation, Ezra Markowitz and Adam Corner arrive at the same conclusion, albeit they write about it much more beautifully than I. The authors argue that climate change communications remain challenging, despite 20 years of trying, because people still perceive it to be largely an "environmental" issue rather than the social, economic, and political reality that it is.
Mitigating and adapting to climate change brings with it a slew of co-benefits ranging from improving health to decreasing global inequity to dampening geopolitical instability. And it's aspects of these issues, not climate change per say, that rise to the top of what people care about most.
As Markowitz and Corner suggest, climate communicators need to "flip the script on its head" and rethink which benefit drives the story:
"Maybe 'addressing climate change' should be treated as the co-benefit rather than the leading motivation for action that could materially help billions of people, today and in the future.
Ultimately, the most effective long-term approach to getting diverse audiences to engage deeply with climate change may require that advocates stop treating it as a standalone problem that could benefit from being linked to other topics many people care more about. Instead, advocates may need to fundamentally rethink and alter the way they talk about and position climate change as an issue in the first place."
Where I may fall short in my approach, though, is that I tend to prioritize the climate crisis as the issue, using it as the umbrella under which all other problems fall. And while that may be a useful frame as the climate crisis is exacerbating many of the issues we face today, it still holds up mitigating climate change as a standalone problem, rather than truly allowing it to merge with other concerns so that they are one and the same.
"Perhaps the best strategy," according to the authors, "is to simply say that climate change is a health risk, a risk to peace and prosperity, a risk to humanity’s survival– that the climate change story is our story as a species."
I couldn't have said it any better.