Why groups need to be ready for climate crisis events like the Deepwater spill

Why groups need to be ready for climate crisis events like the Deepwater spill

I worked at one of Canada’s leading environmental organizations, the David Suzuki Foundation, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded five years ago. The phones began ringing while we were still absorbing the shock of seeing thousands of gallons of thick crude spreading across the tide. Media outlets, concerned citizens, even other environmental organizations wanted to know what we thought of the disaster. What did it mean? How bad would the damage be? What should we do to respond? The questions were filled with anger, confusion and grief.

Those who work on environmental and climate issues find ourselves in this position more often than we’d hope. Super storms, massive pipeline spills and other catastrophic events force many organizations to drop whatever they are working on to respond to disasters they’re unprepared for. But amidst the chaos and tragedy, these events create opportunities to shape the resulting narrative in ways that can help (or hinder) long-term efforts to build support for climate action.

Sometimes described as teachable moments, catastrophic events disturb public consciousness and enable new ways of understanding a situation or problem. While it’s true that those with deeply held beliefs about climate change are likely to be galvanized by an event like the Deepwater spill, there are many cautious and concerned individuals still evaluating the risks and costs involved with energy extraction and deciding how the dots connect to climate change. That’s why it’s important for advocacy groups to take steps to prepare for these crisis events, including by developing a framework for communicating a fast response that places the events within a larger issue and solution.

Creating space to react
The early hours after a major event like the Deepwater spill or Superstorm Sandy are filled with chaos and confusion. Individuals, entire communities and ecosystems are at risk and emergency efforts to protect them are still in full effect. Environmental groups bearing witness to these events (as opposed to those responding on the ground) can use this time to huddle internally, track latest developments, and develop an initial response that establishes solidarity with those impacted. Social media is a powerful channel for reaching individuals and media outlets that are trying to make sense of the event and establishing that your organization is following it and preparing to respond.

Connecting with allies
Getting your own response in order sometimes takes up much of an organization’s resources in times of crisis. In that rush, though, is a missed opportunity to connect with allies who are also developing a communications strategy that connects this single event to a larger problem – in the case of the Deepwater spill, the risks of fossil fuel extraction and its contribution to climate change. Research has shown public opinion is influenced by simple, clear messages that are repeated often by a variety of trusted sources. Organizations that take time to connect as a climate crisis is unfolding can establish shared messages or frames that reinforce the same problem, and the same solution. They can work together to identify other trusted and allied messengers – including local community leaders, faith-based organizations or those in the private sector – and plan outreach efforts to ensure they’re equipped with similar messaging.

Putting the event in context
Two of the most important things environmental groups can do in response to a climate crisis is put it into context and identify solutions to the broader problem it represents. Sometimes, this means connecting the event to climate change by pointing to trends or patterns. Other times, making a direct connection to climate change is not strategic or timely and can reinforce an already polarized debate. What’s critical in either case is to encourage audiences not to dismiss the event as a one-off to be addressed by corporations, government or environmental organizations alone. Figure out what the larger problem the event speaks to and clearly and simply lay out the connections.

Identifying solutions and a call-to-action
Putting catastrophic events or teachable moments into context by connecting them to bigger problems (including climate change) runs the risk of feeding people’s sense of fear, hopelessness and ultimately inertia if the message doesn’t include a clear solution and call to action. The key to utilizing a teachable moment is to help the public connect the event to a larger trend or problem and then pivoting to the opportunity we have to make a different choice – one that protects us from future catastrophic events and ensures a safer, cleaner future for all. This solution, whether it’s a policy, technology or community-level approach, should have clear benefits that are available now and be followed by a call-to-action that can play a meaningful role in moving it forward.

Amplifying the voices of others
For people to make an authentic and enduring connection between a catastrophic event and climate change that inspires them to act, they must view it as relevant to their lives see how their own future – as well as the fates of others – is tied to the choices we’re facing. In this way, communicating about major events isn’t just about delivering the right message but about building constituencies. By amplifying the voices of those impacted by crisis events and pushing for solutions, organizations can step out of the frame and let the human stories of the event propel momentum and support.

Related resources:

A Year Later: Assessing the Lasting Impact of Hurricane Sandy and Other Extreme Weather Events on Climate Engagement

Lessons from the Field: Lasting Impact of Extreme Weather Events on Climate Engagement

Lessons from the Field: Making the Climate Connection with Sandy

Image via U.S. Coast Guard