The climate crisis is complicated. And it’s hard to talk about. Never-ending headlines with bad news. Some form of extreme weather is happening somewhere in the world at any given time. Glaciers and polar ice are rapidly melting, and that crack in the ice shelf? Yeah it’s still getting bigger. On top of it all, the “Merchants of Doubt” are spreading misinformation about how climate change isn’t even happening.
Which begs the questions. How do you talk to people about how serious the issue is? All while still maintaining hope that we can still make a difference?
Fortunately for all of us, Professor Ed Maibach has some tips.
At our recent Climate and Health Meeting, Maibach, a trained Climate Reality Leader as well as a university professor and the director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, shared a research-backed strategy for effectively communicating about climate change. His presentation was geared towards health professionals, but his tips are universal enough for anyone to use.
“Every major public health victory of the last century has had effective communication at its heart.”
– Dr. Ed Maibach
As you know, the climate crisis is a public health issue. But when the average American hears “climate change,” chances are he or she visualizes polar bears or penguins. And that’s a problem.
According to Maibach, through audience research, we know that most Americans:
- Are unable – off the top of their heads – to name a single way that climate change harms our health, or identify which groups of people are most at risk.
- See climate change as a distant problem – distant in space (not here), time (not now) and species (not us).
- See climate change as an “environmental” problem and/or a “scientific” problem but much less so as a “people” problem. (Think plants, penguins, polar bears)
We need to change how we communicate about the climate crisis and talk about how it’s happening right now, how it’s harming our health, and how it’s something we can solve if we act now. Here’s how.
The Five Climate Change Beliefs that Lead to Action
First, the research. Maibach has found that people who hold these five beliefs are much more likely to support action to solve the climate crisis:
1. Experts agree: human-caused climate change is happening. There is a consensus among scientists.
2. It’s real.
3. It’s us (human-caused).
4. It’s bad (for people).
5. It’s solvable.
And to communicate these five things, he’s created a one-sentence mantra for anyone talking about the crisis to follow: Simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.
Simple, Clear Messages…
To begin with, your message must be as simple and clear as possible. That’s because the less you say, the more you’re heard. Saying less means you’re only choosing to verbalize – and audiences will only hear – the most valuable parts of your message. Which means your message is more likely to stick. And you can learn what the most valuable things to say are by using audience research to determine what resonates with people. (Or skip to the end of this post if you simply can’t wait any longer.)
Repeated Often …
Once you have your clear simple message, press repeat. Again and again. Repetition is the mother of learning (and liking, and trust.) And you don’t need to repeat the exact same words over and over – adapt the message, elaborate it, but no matter what, find ways to say it early and often. Then find ways to further reinforce your message with visuals and metaphors to add color and make it memorable.
By a Variety of Trusted Voices
Finally – communication is only effective in a context of trust. Doctors, nurses, and health professionals are among the most-trusted voices in America on all sorts of issues – including on climate and health. For those outside the healthcare industry, focus your conversations on audiences who already know or trust you. The result: if your messages are simple and clear, other trusted voices – even members of your target audience – will start repeating them to their friends and families, co-workers, and others.
Use This Research-Backed Message to Talk About Climate Change and Health with Anyone
Based on his research, here’s a suggested formula Maibach shared for effectively discussing climate change, that anyone can use and adapt for their needs:
1. More than 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. This one key sentence addresses the three key beliefs for climate action: it’s real, it’s us, and that experts agree.
2. The climate crisis is harming our health now. All of us can be affected, but some of us are more likely to be harmed: children, pregnant women, student athletes, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
This topic emphasizes the fourth key belief by communicating how the crisis is bad – for us, right here, right now.
3. The most important actions we can take are to reduce energy waste and fully embrace clean energy. When we do that, we clean our air and our water, and we all immediately enjoy better health.
Finally, end by reinforcing the fact that the crisis is solvable and there are solutions available today that anyone can support. This way, you speak to the fifth key belief.
BECOME A CLIMATE REALITY LEADER
Join us for an upcoming Climate Reality Leadership Corps training and learn from former US Vice President Al Gore and renowned climate scientists and communicators about what’s happening to our planet and how you can use social media, powerful storytelling, and personal outreach to inspire audiences to take action. Give us three days. We’ll give you the tools to change the world. Learn more.
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