In Defense of the Wrong Message


I’ve been hearing a lot lately that we in the environmental community consistently employ the wrong messaging to advance the cause of climate change mitigation, and that we need to change tactics in order to broaden our appeal and ultimately realize the ends we seek. Recent polling, focus group, and other public opinion and consumer studies have apparently revealed that, while most people (in the U.S.) will say they support environmental protection and are generally aware of environmentally responsible options, they do not respond to words like “climate change,” nor are they moved by the list of current biophysical impacts like shrinking glaciers, loss of sea ice, extreme weather events, changes to water and food availability, shifting migration and mating patterns, spread of disease, groundwater salinization, and more. The same studies also apparently reveal that for most people no amount of information about increasing emissions, temperatures, and the number and severity of future impacts will move respondents to change their opinion or behaviors related to climate change.

After they tell me that I’m out of touch and what I care about is “boring,” the messaging consultants usually recommend tailoring messaging to “different personal values.” To define these, their studies usually break the world down into oversimplified archetypes of people and worldviews that usually consist of the elitist choir, the apathetic middle class, the callous rich, and remaining crazies, with most of the world falling into the latter three camps. The message, they say, should appeal to the audience’s existing conception of happiness or the life they want to live, which can of course have little to nothing to do with the matter of concern—the environment. The messaging should not employ guilt, fear, or too much information. And it should avoid controversial or complicated terms like “climate change.” They want us to sell climate mitigation like it’s some kind of new toaster thing that people don’t really need. Except it’s more important than that. It’s our lives. If you listen, the messaging consultants are not saying communicate the message more effectively, or be more specific. They’re saying communicate something else; change the content; make it about something other than climate change.

There’s a difference between knowing your audience and being patronizing and manipulative. Climate change is the issue I care about. That’s the substance of what I’m selling. So, it comes down to this: am I willing to sacrifice a message I believe in for one that “works?” The answer depends on two things: 1) what will a new non-climate change message in fact do—what will the actual outcomes be—and 2) can I live with it—is it a matter of principle that’s worth standing by?

What will selling mitigation as happiness, as opposed to as mitigation, produce? Will it actually lead to climate change mitigation, and give us a foot in the door with people who would otherwise be unreceptive? Or on the other hand, will this sort of message achieve something substantively different? Will the absence of climate change in the message have an effect on the outcomes? Will there be unanticipated consequences to removing climate change from discussions and activities aimed at addressing climate change? Discourse is important, as any poll, focus group administrator, or public opinion consultant knows. If we change the discourse away from “green” and “climate change,” at what point do we actually get something other than green and climate change mitigation as outcomes? And can we change the discourse without changing the outcome? Historically, the answer is no. Change the terms of the discussion and the outcomes will tend to follow—he who controls the discourse has the power. Such a deletion of the matter of concern—climate change—therefore represents not just a dilution of the message, but an appropriation of the cause by those we are meant to convince and on behalf of opponents of environmentalism.

The other part is that it matters to me that I don’t get lost in the messaging. I care about the means, not just the ends. I’m not selling toasters. I want real, lasting change. And that’s more than a marketing campaign with a limited time horizon can deliver. It comes from an informed society, not one that’s been sold climate change mitigation under the guise or in the shadow of something more appealing or comfortable. I want people to help mitigate climate change on purpose, because they’re aware of and care about the real consequences of their actions, and because climate change threatens everyone’s vision of a world in which our children can grow free and strong. That’s not moralistic; it’s empirical.

I’m not a politician or an advertising executive and I can’t talk to people like one. So here’s the truth: people are not just morons, crazies, or jerks. They’re much smarter than the messaging police and political consultants give them credit for. They’ll smell a fraud. We can’t trick people into caring, or doing, for that long. So I’m going to run on what I believe in. I deal in facts. Beware happiness.