Overcoming the Opposition: my short list of suggested approaches

Overcoming the Opposition: my short list of suggested approaches

I learned lessons about overcoming the opposition to environmental and climate progress the hard way. Those lessons are coming in handy now as I look at ways to address the intensifying resistance to climate progress on the part of the oil and gas industries and others with status quo interests to protect.

Prior to starting the Social Capital Project and subsequently Climate Access, I spent almost a decade as the vice president of communications for Earthjustice, a leading public interest environmental litigation group in the U.S. (sister organization Ecojustice is based in Canada). Litigation is an extremely powerful tool because it has the power to halt or significantly adjust activities that are destructive to people and the ecosystems we rely on. When enforcement gets in the way of major economic interests, the opposition can be formidable. I discovered this when I was new on the job and still honing my skills and found myself thrown into numerous crisis communications situations.

Our scrappy little team faced up against slick, expensive PR campaigns aimed at rolling back the legal victories, painting those who care about the environment as being out of touch with core American values, and reinforcing negatives frames such as “jobs versus the environment.” My own David and Goliath moment was realizing we could not overcome the opposition by trying to play their game. We would never have the resources to buy sufficient exposure in the media or access to people’s homes. As a result, we had to rethink our approaches, our assumptions about environmental concern, and the ways in which we would accomplish change. Fortunately, we had some success turning the crises around.

Along the way, we identified the five barriers to environmental engagement and developed a number of effective approaches for overcoming the opposition. 

Here’s the short list:

1. Advance communications planning. Focus on setting the frame of debate from the outset. So often, communications planning is an afterthought, done at the last minute when little can be done and not on scale with the nature of the challenge. Start planning well before public debate and media coverage start on an issue. The role of the public in change should be considered at the very outset of a planning process and efforts made to develop a deep understanding of the cultural context you are operating in before settling on a strategy.
2. Limit the energy that goes into responding to attacks. If your opposition is well funded (such as the oil and gas and coal industries), you have to make the choice to not use all of your limited time and money responding to attacks.  While it’s not wise to completely ignore them, it is critical to focus on carving out the space for more proactive efforts aimed at reaching and creating relationships with key constituencies. Typically dedicating 30% to response and 70% to proactive efforts is a good balance.
3. Build and conduct the choir. Take the time to understand the range of interests that will be impacted if environmental protection is achieved or upheld. Determine where there may be common ground and build relationships with key stakeholders from there with the goal of adding a range of voices to the debate. Avoid environmental identity traps (there go those white, overly educated, liberal urbanites) by reaching out beyond the obvious allies.
4. Stories, not just the facts. It doesn’t matter if the evidence is on your side if you fail to embed the facts within a values-based narrative. Emphasize the big things that are at stake  (fairness, accountability, innovation, prosperity, etc.), speak from the heart, and don’t get lost in the technical and policy details.
5. Save the people, not the planet. Most Americans, even those who care about the environment and global warming, do not prioritize these concerns above those that directly impact people (economy, health, education, etc.). Avoid arguing just about the impacts of climate change on natural systems and expand your frame to always include people. When painting a picture of what a low-carbon lifestyle can look like, think about what people will be doing in the scenario, how people will be included in creating and benefitting from the shifts, and what people will believe about themselves and the world around them.
6. Emphasize benefits. Don’t repeat the messages of the opposition even when trying to dispel myths, or else the message will sink in. Focus rather on emphasizing the benefits of taking action and frame them in ways that are relevant to target audiences. To most people, ensuring that sea level rise is mitigated or carbon emissions are reduced to a certain percentage are not motivating benefits. Instead, promote things such as spending less time stuck in traffic, ensuring homes and communities are safe and healthy, having a chance to contribute to something meaningful and important to society, etc.
7. Avoid thinking of the opposition as “other.” Start with the premise that most people care about the environment and the majority accept that global warming is real. Work to understand the motivations and worldviews of the opposition and build toward common ground around solutions.

For further insights into overcoming the opposition, please see our collection of resources.

Cara Pike is the director of Climate Access and the founder and director of TRIG’s Social Capital Project

Photo via (cc) Flickr user LAGreenGrounds