Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why is global warming such a conversation Killer?

Sometimes, you get this sensation that everything around you is made of the stuff dreams are made of. Can't be touched, can't be budged, can't be changed. This seems to be the case with global warming. Whatever you do, whatever you say, whatever you try, everything seems to move slowly and ponderously as in a dream; in the wrong direction.

Why is Global Warming Such A Conversation Killer?!!

Posted on January 24, 2014 by Joe Brewer in Cultural Tipping Points, Design for Action

The first thing we want to acknowledge is the bravery and generosity of all the people who have already engaged in the conversation and were moved to donate to the campaign. We know how busy life gets and how much generosity and effort it takes to stand behind something.  Thank you.
We would also like to share something strange that happened earlier this week.  We launched a crowdfunding campaign that fell completely flat.  Our friends — wonderful people who care so much about making a difference in the world — responded to the announcement by, with… silence.


We were surprised to discover that people who normally write back to emails didn’t write back.  People who like content on our Facebook walls didn’t engage.  People who support climate action didn’t support the campaign with pledges of support. It was as if we called out from our front porch with a “Y’all come for good food and great conversation!” and no one showed up. Building on the research study we conducted last year, we realized that this campaign got right down to the difficult and provoking conversation that causes most of the world to shut down or walk away. This was fascinating!

We saw a similar pattern in our mailing list.  Lots of people open our emails (typically 35-40%) and many of them click through to the offerings we provide (somewhere around 15-20%).  And yet when we launched ClimateMeme2 there was a tepid 4% rate click-through.

The question we are grappling with now is: Why is global warming such a buzz kill? Climate change clearly is not a trendy topic right now.  The total lack of buzz among our highly engaged passionista community earlier this week was a clear message and wake up call. We are also asking ourselves: Where did we mess up or poorly communicate? We really want to know!  Human-induced climate change is a planetary threat to the entire human tribe.  And yet most members of the human tribe manage to deny it, have a cynical opinion and avoid thinking about it (or acting upon it) in their daily lives.  There is something larger going on, and we want to observe and play with this.
And so we are shifting our focus from the horizon where we planned to conduct another detailed study on the memes that people have in their heads instead of global warming.  Now what we want to dig further into what are the belief systems in place that are blocking the climate change conversation from happening.

We would love to engage in a conversation with you about this.  We welcome your candid and honest feedback in the comments below.

Some inquiries we would like to pose to the group:
  1. If you were engaged and clicked through or donated, what about our project engaged your passions?
  2. If you weren’t, why not?  What was it about the project that turned you off?
  3. Is there some other topic that would have gotten you engaged?  What would you rather see us doing right now?
  4. What will it take to transform global warming into a trendy and important topic that people want to talk about? What examples of empowering climate change conversations have you seen or been a part of? What about it gave you power and hope?
We would love your participation and perspective. It’s only fun when people participate. This is important for learning deeper about this topic, and we are excited to explore and learn with you all. We really appreciate your contribution, perspective, spirit and generosity. Let’s work together to create a better future on this Planet.

Joe, Lazlo and Ting


  1. Most people want to know and to talk only about positive issues, the late motive is “think positive” and this would be indeed positive if this wouldn’t be used unfortunately to guide people toward the consumption of any thing that can produce immediate profit to specifically only few smart criminal. We have to find the way of turning Global Warming and Climate Change to something positive and maybe the only way is to convince people that only by knowing the truth and the reality they can thing positive and get something concrete in return, something positive they can dream of, something positive that they can actually do and be gratified for.
    We should turn this economical system based on consuming the planet into something that is saving the planet. In fact this economy has nothing to do with the eco-system what so ever , in the contrary it has only to do with “consumology” a stupid ideology which is clearly leading humanity to its extinction . Quite a challenge…but I do not see any other way out.

  2. Well, it ruins parties. Nobody wants to do that to the hostess.

  3. My commiserations to the three of you - I know how you feel.
    not having seen your output the best i can offer is in response to what you've posted above.

    people's will to engage with an issue in my experience depends on their confidence of success in resolving it. This is why every campaign against destructive industrial developments I've worked on since '86 has faced the primary propaganda that the development WILL go ahead - it is inevitable. Break that propaganda, and the campaign has a chance of attracting the critical mass of popular support and the crucial specialists with inside contacts and leverage.

    The stakes in the climate issue are widely seen as existential by scientists and activists, but every bit of climate porn that doesn;t offer a plausible "confidence of success" plays into the hands of apathy, and the general unwillingness to engage with downer subjects. Our opponents are not merely some corporation but a very substantial power that has long employed psychologists to help maximize their impact on public opinion - specifically to suppress dissent against the ongoing policy of letting AGW rip.

    What we are presented with is the appearance of corporations as a class opposing climate action - and how could we successfully oppose corporations as a class ? The result is growing apathy and defeatism (see Holmgren's shameful post on Resilience for an example of this outlook being propagandized).

    As to what we need to change course in winning public engagement, the best I can suggest is re-examining just who is the opponent and what are his objectives.

    Compare, for a start the conduct of EU and US corporations - massively different approaches, Why is that ?
    Then compare the GOP conduct before and after 2008. Remember McCain & La Clinton on a Climate fact-finding mission to Alaska ? So why did swathes of the GOP flip into providing rabid opposition to climate action ?
    Then compare Obama's conduct before March 2009 and after. I guess you'll has seen Ryan lizza's forensic article detailing his serial sabotage of the senate climate bill (New Yorker: "While the world burns", So why did he do that ? And why did he set a 'pledge' of just 3.67% CO2 cut by 2020 off the legal 1990 baseline (while selling Joe public the line that it was 17% - but don't mention the 2005 baseline he adopted from Cheney). And why, at Copenhagen, did he demand a 'deal' whereby each American would have three times the emission rights of each Chinese in 2050 ??? It was an insult, not a deal.


  4. Continued

    And meanwhile the US public is gulled into its tribal loyalty of blaming the deniers, the GOP, the Corporations - anyone but him - for America's inaction on climate. Which of course means he is free to continue pursuing the 'Brinkmanship of Inaction' on climate with China that he adopted from Cheney, with no groundswell of public outrage.

    To be blunt, Washington's paramount bipartisan policy priority since WW2 has been the maintenance of its global economic dominance. Chine directly threatens that dominance, but unlike Russia it declines to enter an arms race. Instead, America has imposed the game of who can ignore climate destabilization the longest . . . . And with the looming threat of droughts and floods in China intensifying to cause food shortages and civil unrest, the prospects of regime change and an end to its bid for hegemony are rising.

    In terms of just what is needed for people to engage with climate, I'd suggest providing a far more carefully identified enemy - with a very specific objective - that is certainly within the American people's ability to prevent.

    But the black joke is - that I've laid out this analysis many times to people of all degrees of commitment, and while it gets traction in a UK audience, with Americans I can count on my fingers the number willing, briefly, to discuss it. Maybe it is the fact that it starts from the premis that people are being conned as to just why action on climate is obstructed ? The best I can say is that I've yet to hear an even vaguely coherent refutation of this analysis.

    It may be what we need, but who gives enough of a damn to be willing to discuss it ?

    All the best to you - with my compliments on your efforts.



  5. I dedicated a great deal of time to GW back in 2006/2008. The more I learnt about it the more vocal I became, but that had consequences. Some friends distanced, at work things got difficult, some even doubted my sanity. By late 2009 I was no longer writing on the matter, much less entailing on conversations about it. I now mostly listen and collect data, thoroughly comparing the discourse with the trends in the real world.

    The debate is over. If you want to apply for funding there is a very narrow road to go about. The millions poured into environmental research every year are subject to a pre-concept of reality that can't possibly be countered. Most researchers understand that by trying outside that road they not only risk funding but also their reputations.

    My only hope is that data itself comes to settle the matter on a quiet way, without drama. And I hope that can still happen in my lifetime.

  6. Dave Cohen has explained it all in detail on Decline of the Empire.

  7. Hi,

    I missed your campaign, entirely, and only stumbled on this post. Personally, we're in abandon-ship mode (not a promising strategy, I admit, but at least under our control). So, I wish you well and sympathize.

    Here's a communication idea that's been beyond my means, you're welcome to it, if you like it:

    Develop a flip-book (pocket sized and/or virtual (app?)) of polar sea ice extents, preferably using pictures from space, each page spaced by a given time period (months? quarters?), covering the years from, say, 1970 to the present. Flip through to watch the shrinkage.

    In a physical flip-book, one side could be the N polar cap and the other the S (the S cap may be better with a thickness change indicator).

    I met a guy who'd just come through the NW passage in his expensive yacht. I said, "Well, looks like climate change is good for SOMETHING."

    He immediately stiffened, and his eyes actually narrowed.

    "Well," he snorted, "if you BELIEVE in that propaganda."

    Asleep at the wheel, I must assume.

    Thanks for your good work; I wish you well!

    Dave Z

    1. Very funny story, Dave, thanks. If it weren't that the whole humankind is asleep at the wheel, unfortunately.......