What you need to know about the changing climate conversation

What you need to know about the changing climate conversation

The conversation about climate change is is evolving in four key areas. Here’s what research and practice are telling us about this shift and emerging ways to tackle barriers and leverage opportunities for action. This blog is based on a recent Climate Access webinar.


What the research says

The debate over the science of climate change is changing as new insights emerge around how Exxon and others in the fossil fuel industry have manufactured uncertainty. These efforts play into an “echo chamber” effect where conservative media amplify the uncertainty debate among likeminded audiences, capitalizing on our tendency to form opinions based on cues from elites and peers – especially on complex issues where we fear being wrong.

Despite this, the majority of Americans accept there is a challenge, are concerned, and have been for some time (unfortunately, understanding of human causation is not as strong and Americans remain unclear that scientists agree). While political polarization remains a problem, a growing number of Republicans recognize climate change as a critical issue. Support for the idea of preparing for impacts (i.e. extreme weather events) continues to poll well and offers opportunities to open climate conversations around related concerns, versus leading with the issue directly.

Emerging best practices

The Exxon Knew campaign and local organizing efforts at gas stations  are building a drumbeat around more accountability and transparency from those perpetuating uncertainty. At the same time, it’s important to consider how to leverage this outrage into action instead of deeper cynicism, and head off similar misinformation campaigns related to climate solutions.

The arrival of new messengers beyond scientific and political elites is helping expand and strengthen the story about why we must act on climate change. Pope Francis has helped build awareness by delivering a moral call to action that emphasizes the importance of justice and equity. Meanwhile the intersection between climate change and systemic justice has become part of the broader discourse as it becomes clearer that minority and low income communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change. From this, practitioners are learning the importance of letting faith and justice groups lead, and where there are opportunities to incorporate moral and equity frames across a range of efforts.


What the research says

Climate disruption may be largely accepted yet it is still a low priority for most Americans, making it difficult to build support for action. Many Americans don’t see it as a near-term threat that will cause them personal harm; instead, they perceive climate change a problem for future generations and plants and animals.

The way we process risks contributes to this barrier. For example, people tend to discount future risks compared to current, more obvious challenges, and have an optimism bias where it is common to think of oneself or one’s community at less risk than others. When it comes to extreme weather events, there is evidence that optimism may rise when storm events are successfully weathered (i.e. “I made it through the last storm so I will be fine.”). Having an attachment to a place can drive concern over climate impacts, but also the desire to get “back to normal” as quickly as possible after a disruption, which may hinder our interest in adaptive responses. 

Emerging best practices

Driven in large part by cities, efforts are underway to build support for climate action and solutions using a handful of novel engagement approaches. Rather than being prescriptive about climate impacts and relying on science to compel people, these approaches invite stakeholders into exploratory conversations that center around the diverse interests, needs and ideas of a community. Visualizations and scenarios are used to illustrate how climate change is impacting communities, now and in the future, and facilitate discussion about potential solutions. Art projects can creatively highlight impacts in communities, such as where sea levels will rise to, while games engage community members in exploring impacts and generating creative adaptation and mitigation strategies. These approaches have real potential to open up climate conversations, particularly with those less concerned.

Meanwhile, where climate change remains a polarizing issue, it’s being addressed indirectly through existing planning, policy and communications approaches related to energy, water or hazards management.


What the research says

Accepting the reality of climate impacts can be overwhelming. While most recognize it as a problem, fewer are sure that it can or will be solved. Only 4% of American say we can and will successfully reduce global warming

Social science points to the fact that fear alone inhibits constructive action. People need to feel a degree of tension or threat to prompt change but this has to be balanced with an equal sense of efficacy – the belief that you’re capable of taking beneficial action – in order to be mobilized. That said, bringing hope into the climate narrative must be balanced against the risk of sounding unrealistically optimistic; for some audiences, it could be useful to promote “active skepticism” where a threat is addressed despite the odds.

Emerging best practices

Conversation campaigns that allow people to explore what they know about climate change, how it makes them feel and the resources they can draw on to address it offer valuable insights into how to help people overcome climate fatalism. This includes creating an opportunity for audiences to acknowledge and connect with their intellectual and emotional responses.

Meanwhile, outreach that leads with what people want in their communities (i.e. what they hope for), rather than with the problem, are reaching new audiences by linking climate change with other issues. Communities such as Boston and Seattle are leading community visioning sessions that explore the specific ways climate action creates healthier, stronger local communities and economies.


What the research says

Perhaps the biggest change in the climate conversation is the shift from denial to response. Americans are largely supportive of solutions such as energy efficiency and renewables, including Independents and Republicans. 68% of African-Americans see renewable energy as a way to create new jobs and 59% of Latinos don’t see the need for tradeoffs between economic growth and the environment.

Most people want to move away from fossil fuels, yet enthusiasm for alternatives may be tempered by the perception that fossil fuels are inevitable or renewable energy sources are distant, expensive or unreliable. While economic benefits poll well, the idea of “green jobs” can be unclear and raise important concerns about a just transition for those working in the fossil fuel industry. What’s needed is a solutions narrative that outlines the benefits of action and connects economic wellbeing to clean energy innovation, health, equity and wildness.

Emerging best practices

Setting a bold vision with clear and beneficial steps that can be taken now is an approach that is gaining traction in places like Vancouver, B.C. and others aiming to be global climate leaders. Organizing efforts around the Clean Power Plan resulted in the inclusion of an environmental justice planning component and incentives for low-income and minority communities to become more efficient and move to clean renewable energy. Campaigns addressing fossil fuel infrastructure expansion are having some success linking the “no” to the “yes” by arguing in favour of clean energy investments and innovations, rather than just against pipelines, export terminals, etc.


  1. Address uncertainty. Understand your audiences’ concerns and values. Hold corporate and other deniers accountable, while promoting leadership where it exists. Amplify the moral and justice calls to action.
  2. Make it relevant. Localize the issue. Co-explore climate risks and possible responses using dialogue, visualizations, scenarios and games.
  3. Overcome fatalism. Balance threats with solutions. Move beyond a broadcast strategy to deeper engagement approaches. Provide peer-to-peer support.
  4. Build the solutions story. Establish a clear vision, followed by achievable goals, immediate actions and desired benefits. Use storytelling to show how others are already benefitting.


Learn more by viewing the Climate Attitudes and Actions webinar recording and the resource collection.