August 10, 2012

Face it. The terms “climate change” or “conservation” don’t usually inspire positive feelings nor do they galvanize people to action. To the contrary, communication of environmental issues can often provoke feelings of anxiety, guilt, and a sense of helplessness in their audience. Although there is a multitude of complex reasons behind this unintentional inertia, this blog will explore why communicating the truth and the facts behind climate change is not enough to engage people.

Messaging Failure #1: Inaccessibility of the material.
The scientific jargon behind the environmental issues at hand can be difficult to access by the average Joe Shmoe. The science itself is also divisive, at times causing conflicting schools of thought within the research community.
Who’s Doing It Right: David Suzuki Foundation

While they maintain their science-based, critical voice in various environmental campaigns, the DSF’s strength lies in the ability to translate scientific research and policy advocacy into digestible, accessible actions for the average citizen. A great example is Lindsay Coulter’s Queen of Green blog, a goldmine of DIY tips and advice on how to lighten your individual ecological footprint and adopt a green lifestyle.

Messaging Failure #2: Messaging exclusive to specific groups.
Communicating campaigns solely based on a western ideology of what sustainability means excludes all sorts of voices and perspectives, and more importantly, fails to take into account how issues may affect certain ethnic demographics differently than others.

Who’s Doing This Right: Shark Truth

With the mission of spreading awareness around shark and marine conservation, Shark Truth does outreach to the Chinese community in Vancouver in order to reduce the consumption of shark-fin soup. Shark Truth’s strength stems from the fact that the organization takes a culturally informed approach to communicating the issue, a topic that is often sensitive when broached from a culturally external position. Their fun, community-building initiatives include encouraging fin-free Chinese weddings through their “Happy Hearts Love Sharks Wedding Contest” and promoting shark fin alternatives among Chinese restaurants.

Messaging Failure #3: Using fear in order to instill a sense of urgency.
The psychology behind the inefficacy of fear-based messaging is quite simple: people have a finite capacity to worry. The doom and gloom tone conveyed in the communication of topics like climate change and over-consumption provoke feelings of anxiety, guilt, often to the point of disempowerment and paralysis. Consequently, as a coping mechanism, our brain disengages from the topic.
Who’s Doing It Right: bases their work on a simple scientific fact: in order to ensure climate safety we need to reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere to below 350 parts-per-million. Their decentralized, social media campaigns are a breath of fresh air to the environmental movement, having facilitated huge offline actions around the world, growing a global movement that now spans 188 countries. Their action-oriented campaigns rally and mobilize people to respond to the climate challengetogether, creating an opportunity for participants to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves. Check out 350’s “International Day of Climate Action” in 2009 or their “Moving Planet” campaign of 2011 for an inspiring glimpse of the grassroots global impetus for climate action.