August 16, 2021

Communicating Climate Efforts in the Wake of the IPCC Report

*Cartoon by Joel Pett
One of my favorite cartoons appeared in USA Today before the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. It shows a presenter on stage listing the benefits of a carbon-free future – green jobs, livable cities, clean air – and a man interjecting from the crowd: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Media about the IPCC report this week made clear the challenges, many unavoidable at this point, that we’ll face as a planet in the years ahead due to climate change. The report also made clear that our actions right now will make the critical difference between turning the tide or continuing to careen into a future of total climate chaos.

So how can communicators at businesses, nonprofits, and other institutions build on the report to frame actions you might be taking in support of the environment?

  • Tie the report findings into action-language research shows is persuasive. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication sponsors public polling, focus groups, and other strategies to take a data-driven approach to climate messaging, including a recent project testing tailored themes and messengers to persuade Republicans. The UMass Boston Sustainable Solutions Lab studies the intersection of climate and racial justice and recently released a poll focusing on climate change views across racial groups throughout Greater Boston. Get on these and other groups’ email lists to keep a finger on the pulse of good messaging as the conversation evolves.

  • Include stories from people being impacted by climate today. While the IPCC report talks about 2050 and 2100, climate change is not theoretical or a future state. In the Boston region, asthma, heat-related illnesses, volatile utility costs, and work and transportation disruptions are all climate consequences happening to people today. These effects are not equitable, with communities of color being hit the hardest. Decisions around public transportation and land use, building efficiency and electrification, and other climate mitigation measures should be framed in the context of improving people’s lives now, not as a planning exercise for later.

  • Give examples of progress on which we can build. Though the challenges seem overwhelming, we DO have examples of bright spots. We’re seeing these among Denterlein partners: from Samuels & Associates constructing new Back Bay office and hotel space that is net zero; to Encore and Boston Harbor spearheading a cleanup of the Mystic River and developing a resilient, ecological shoreline designed by GZA GeoEnvironmental; to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy leading a new campaign to support bicycling around the world. Organizations across industries are seeking ways to lead on climate, and communications plays a key role in ensuring success.

  • Paint a picture of how good it could be. Back to the USA Today cartoon. Transitioning away from fossil fuels creates jobs and innovation and is a historic opportunity to lift up different knowledges, repair past harms, and ultimately live more connected and empathetic lives. But also: create a practical story about how a carbon-neutral world will look, sound, and feel. Many people commented that the pandemic was the first time they heard birds on their street. Why? Because very few people were driving cars, a huge noise (and carbon) pollutant. Consider the everyday experience of your key audiences if we achieve our major climate goals.

By Katherine Adam, Denterlein Vice President