Should We Tell It Like It Is?: Experts Weigh In on How Much to Talk about Climate in Public Messaging

Should We Tell It Like It Is?: Experts Weigh In on How Much to Talk about Climate in Public Messaging

In his recent blog post for us (What Happens When the Choir Won’t Sing), KC Golden calls for “climate” to become a greater focus in public messaging. Because this goes against the trend for climate communicators to be very tactical and thus word-selective in communicating to various audiences, we decided to query some other climate communications experts to find out what they have to say on the issue.

As you can see from the responses, and probably know from your work, deciding what to say to whom is a vexing challenge. For some, it’s all about meeting people where they’re at, while for others this is trumped by a moral obligation to tell it like it is. And for still others, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Where do you stand? We encourage Climate Access members (only members can view and post comments) to share what has and hasn’t worked for you.


Tom Bowman, president of Bowman Global Change and Climate Access advisory board member:

KC expresses a very familiar frustration. But I come back to this: communications is always about the audience and the circumstances. Climate change encompasses a very wide range of values and interests, and the words themselves can trigger associations that close doors. I once watched people storm out of a green business presentation because I mentioned global warming. They never got to the substance because they reacted so strongly to the framing.

The lesson was that creating a context for climate change communications can be crucial. Communications research suggests that requiring listeners to adopt one’s own values in order to embrace the issue can create insurmountable barriers. Indeed, climate change is fundamentally a practical problem, not an ideological contest, and finding long-term solutions forces us to accommodate many different values and interests.

The good news, according to polls, is that people are generally savvy enough to know when climate change is the underlying issue. But we talk about climate change in many different contexts—political, business, community, religious, economic, moral, scientific, etc.—and each presents its own terrain. The question isn’t so much whether to talk about climate, but how to engage with people. I’m not convinced that the political context should provide the overall guide to climate communications.


Kevin Curtis, program director, The Climate Reality Project:

At my organization, we’ve made a conscious and strategic decision to make climate change central to all our public communication. This strategic focus is reflected in our name: The Climate Reality Project. Our programs help reveal the truth about climate change and connect the dots between the science and the day-to-day impacts on people’s lives.

Our reason for this strategy is simple: Wining this battle requires naming the crisis. We believe that by directly speaking about the reality of the climate crisis, we will build the moral urgency behind a movement that will grow in strength and numbers and ultimately force our leaders to adopt solutions at the scale and in the timeframe required.

Last fall, for example, we hosted 24 Hours of Reality: A worldwide event that broadcast the facts about our warming planet and our increased risk of extreme weather. We took this event across 24 time zones and acquired millions of views in a single day. We helped teach people around the world how to win the conversation and share the truth about the most important issue of our time.

Certainly, there is room for many different voices and approaches to winning this fight. Labor unions and business leaders should still talk about the economic security that comes with a transition to clean energy. Military leaders should still highlight the benefits to our national security. And among these voices, we need those who are committed to talking about the climate. There is plenty of room in the choir.


We asked Meg Bostrom, co-founder of the Topos Partnership, and she sent a response from the entire Topos team:

KC is right that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

This conversation needs to be happening at two levels.  One level is the tactical conversation to advance a particular policy outcome in the short term. Often, climate can be a helpful part of that conversation, but it may not ensure success as the driving frame.  We need to be agile enough to use the frames that win over the audiences we need for the critical, immediate outcomes we seek – as long as we don’t undermine climate support in the process.

But as KC points out there is another level, that frankly, doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Ultimately, we need to change the culture so that dealing with the climate problem itself is a high priority and even a no-brainer. This will only happen when people have a grasp of what climate change is and the role of carbon and energy production in creating it. Changing the culture will require sustained, ongoing public education, outside the political battlefield, delivered by a variety of messengers.

Environmentalists beating the drum won’t be enough; we need allies to beat the drum alongside us.  And the heat of a political battle, with two sides pre-determined, isn’t the optimal context for public education, and can even lead some of the public to harden their skeptical stance.  We need to put more energy toward climate curriculum in schools, teachable moments in the media, examples of green business, architecture, urban planning, etc., to explain the issue, and unexpected messengers like insurance companies, urban planners, and so on. Change will require sustained education coming from a number of fronts, using opportunities when people are open to listening.


Rev. Earl W. Koteen, consulting minister for climate justice, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry California:

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote that free speech did not extend to falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater.  But what if there is a fire, but it simply hasn’t reached our seats yet?  Do we just quietly go to the safest part of the theater and hope that others won’t notice before it’s too late for them? I believe we have a moral obligation to announce that there is a fire.  That being said, it’s time to get very curious when so many of the other patrons remain in their seats.

My own experience is that it is best to tell the truth as I understand it.  Yet when people fail to act upon hearing the truth it is wise to inquire about their understanding and their motives before assuming that raising my voice will provoke a different reaction.  Thus we have an obligation to tell the truth, yet it is wise and to be compassionate and diplomatic in helping lead others to action.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Takver