Are We Using The Wrong Message On Climate?

Are We Using The Wrong Message On Climate?

Majorities of Americans are concerned about climate change, yet we’ve arrived at another Earth Day with insufficient action at the federal and local level to address the severity of the climate crisis. 

Perhaps the messengers are carrying the wrong message by largely leaving out morals and values.

A single point of agreement stands out amongst a slew of climate change opinion polls: an astounding 93% of respondents to a National League of Conservation Voters poll agreed that, “Americans have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged.” Yet two issues have dominated the public debate about climate disruption: science and economics. Opponents of action claim that the science is uncertain and that emission reductions will harm the economy and destroy jobs; proponents of engagement assert that the science is clear and that addressing climate disruption will be good for the economy and create jobs.  Missing from these frames is the moral dimensions of the issue.

The consequences of uncontrolled climate disruption wreak socio-economic and ecological devastation with moral implications in terms of the death and suffering imposed on current and future generations as well as the impact to life-sustaining earth systems. In addition, the decisions about how to respond to the crisis will ultimately be based on moral and ethical values, whether or not they are acknowledged as such. For example, every allocation of funding for preparation and resilience leaves other needs unfunded. Any effective carbon-pricing scheme will favor low-carbon sectors of the economy over carbon-intensive economic activity, along with the accompanying job losses and gains. These points underscore the fact that climate disruption is a deeply moral issue; when this point is included, the public dialogue on climate disruption takes on a very different perspective.

Organizations that help Americans grasp the moral implications of the emergency can therefore make a major contribution to shifting the nation’s mindset about climate disruption and to implementing solutions. Yet to date, little has been known about the strengths, limitations, needs, and opportunities for improved effectiveness of organizations that are making a moral call to action on climate disruption.

A recent report provides an assessment of many of these organizations and offers recommendations to increase their effectiveness and grow the size and impact of the movement. The assessment is a project of the National Climate Ethics Campaign, which is coordinated by The Resource Innovation Group (TRIG), in partnership with a 15-person national advisory committee and a five-person social-science committee.

The findings paint a portrait of a movement that includes a wide variety of small and large, faith and secular organizations located across the nation that are making a moral call to action on climate. There were many commonalities amongst the organizations. However, they tend to have different goals and use different strategies and tactics that could be broken down into two different groupings, which we call clusters.

The first cluster, made up largely of lower-budget religious organizations with smaller membership, emphasizes personal awareness and engagement, with a moral imperative for action being the primary frame they use. The second cluster, which mainly includes larger-budget non-religious organizations, measures their success based primarily on new policies enacted or implemented and employs a moral call to action as merely one of a number of communications frames.

The membership and constituencies of most organizations within both clusters on average include more people with liberal perspectives, yet the first cluster had a lower percentage of politically liberal members than the second cluster.

Organizations within both clusters attributed their effectiveness to clarity of purpose, effective framing and messaging, partnerships with like-minded organizations, effective leadership, and touching people on an emotional level.

The most common reasons for difficulties or failures were lack of funding, ineffective messaging, and lack of clear purpose and goals.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations for organizations making a moral call to action on climate disruption and for funders wanting to support such organizations. The most important factors needed to increase these organizations’ effectiveness include additional staffing and funding, followed by assistance with framing and messaging, goal and strategy development, and evaluation and measurement.

On this Earth Day, consider what might be the greatest opportunity identified in this report: a crossover in skills and fostering of partnerships between the organizations in each cluster, thereby creating a more effective climate movement. A melding of these worlds could provide an opportunity for broader impact for the genuinely engaged members of the smaller and largely religious organizations, while these grassroots movement builders could provide the population and the skills for building a more active constituency for the policy-focused organizations.

Either way, there’s something to learn here: these organizations have achieved many successes by talking about morals and values. Perhaps by shifting the tenor of the conversation on climate change to include our values, we can have even more successes to count when Earth Day rolls around again next year.

Sarah Mazze is community energy program manager with The Resource Innovation Group.