Using A Change Model For Environmental Advocacy — In Depth

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How can we help skeptical individuals to become more open, aware, and receptive to discussions about the effects of global warming? How can we inform people who are resistant to the science of climate change? As our planet and earth’s citizens suffer increasing harm, climate deniers are frequently supported by leaders who refuse to acknowledge the growing climate catastrophe around us.

What can we do to alter these uninformed and irresponsible perspectives? Advocates can draw upon a change model to help reluctant audiences understand the effects of climate change.

97% of all scientists concur that climate change is real and a result of human action. Climate change has consequences for every village, town, and city in the world. But it’s easy to see why many citizens are baffled by the mixed messages that come out of their elected officials’ mouths. Too many people in positions of power continue to deny the science of climate change. They sidle up to their corporate polluter allies, standing erect and proud while blatantly and often consciously hindering the fight against climate change.

Nowhere is the topic of climate change action and rebuttal more powerful than on social media. US President Trump announces his daily rampages on Twitter and has used the platform many times to decry climate change advocacy. His comments across numerous years dismiss the scientific evidence that human-made (also known as “anthropogenic”) climate change is real, and, instead, he has labeled the data as a “con,” a “hoax,” and “bull—-.”

Like many of today’s elected officials, Trump has received enormous amounts of funding from corporations who stand to lose their way of financial life if alternative energy sources are widely adopted in the US. The oil and gas industry and its pawns have blocked US support for key global climate-change initiatives at every turn. They’ve commissioned studies that insist that climate policies would adversely affect the US economy and have gone so far to suggest that the Paris Climate Accord would be uniquely harmful to the US. They even say that efforts to reduce poverty could be jeopardized if the US were to become climate conscious.


We in the progressive world know that diffusing the monstrous oil and gas industry propaganda means following the money that funds the pseudo-science of delay. We need to expose the co-opted scholars who feed false images of debate to the public. But what is the best method to deconstruct that discourse to persuade climate deniers that climate action is necessary — and now?

There are many approaches to calling out fake science news, but applying a change model within digital spaces may be the most efficacious. A change model looks to the betterment of people’s daily existence — which speaks to the real concerns of people across political and cultural divides.

Defining a Change Model for Climate Action

What is a change model? In today’s world, new initiatives, project-based design, technology improvements, and staying ahead of the competition combine together to drive the ongoing adaptations to the way that we work together. The comparable collaboration inherent within the change model approach can alter thinking, and the new understandings that emerge can range from quite small in scale to amazingly systemic.

A change model infuses the sometimes opposite constructs of pragmatism and compromise into discussions about climate change, breaking the ‘Big Climate Picture’ into smaller, interconnected elements. Through a change model, progress can actually be achieved, because the focus shifts from doom and gloom to opportunities for positive results.

John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote a book called Leading Change (1995)While the book remains iconic in management arenas, his research has continued, and he has more recently argued that focusing on people through dynamic dialogue and co-creation is the way to take “stakeholders’ authentic feedback, reframe it, help them understand our perspective on issues, and explain how we plan to address them.”

With an 8-step approach to change, Kotter’s model opens up opportunities to guide climate advocacy, which speaks to people’s feelings as a way to change behavior. This is really different than the typical approach to climate change discussions, which emphasizes the obstacles and barriers to ecojustice.

How to Begin Using a Change Model for Climate Advocacy

Climate change advocates start by generating a sense of urgency about the issues at hand. Change comes about because the underlying climate crisis will unalterably force people’s lives in a different direction. However, focus on the crisis is subsumed by the pressing subject of how people’s lives will be affected.

Once a sense of climate action momentum is achieved, gathering the right voices together to deliver messages about transformational change is really important. Reaching people’s feelings requires bringing together a coalition whose power is derived from a variety of sources, which can be tense and difficult due to differing perspectives and ideologies. Yet, people from diverse or contradictory backgrounds can come to reach out to each other, and together they can articulate the ways that real people’s lives can be made better through an emotional and profound commitment to climate change action.

Determining the values that are central to the change is imperative. So, too, is developing a central statement, sometimes called a “vision speech,” of what the change coalition sees as the future of climate change action. The vision speech within a change model can help advocates push cultural or political consensus on climate change through joining with experts who pursue a broad portfolio of policy actions across levels of government and business. Always, though, the vision speech stays with local concerns and community values.

Applying a Change Model to Social Media

According to the Pew Research Center, social media is the way that 7-in-10 Americans connect with one another, engage with news content, share information, and entertain themselves. Since the social media user base has also grown more representative of the broader population, climate change advocates can use social media to target the values that conservatives hold dear. Those personalized climate-related messages should tend toward purity, obeying authority, and loyalty. When conservatives hear messages about how a pro-environmental agenda maintains the purity of America, for example, or how taking responsibility for yourself and the land you call home is patriotic, they are more likely to support that agenda.

Additionally, a study has shown that when climate change advocates frame issues in a way that appeals to the obligation to adhere to authority, conservative audiences may listen. If recycling is a way to join in to help the community, then increased recycling efforts tend to emerge in those conservative households.

Ultimately, a change model should use digital tools and texts to focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society by developing mutual trust.

Digital Literacy and Learning as a Way to Implement a Change Model of Environmental Activism

A really good way for advocates to incorporate a change model with environmental issues is within digital spaces. It means drawing upon electronic journalism of all types — the print newspapers-turned-online publications as well as social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and the others. It means blogs with large and small audiences. Reaching out through the digital world is imperative, because, for those who use social media and other digital sources, it has become part of their daily routine.

Scholars across many forums in recent years have been positioning digital literacy as a confluence of disruption, confrontation, and subversion. An institute in Providence, Rhode Island, however, has been taking a different approach for the last five years. Instead of assuming a “this is the right way” to think about the digital world mental model, the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy at the University of Rhode Island has helped participants to reflect within through inquiry how new wonderings and imaginings can move us together to create a collaborative future.

It’s a change model from which climate change advocates can draw.

Empowering people to think about how life and learning is changing as a result of emerging media and technologies is still a bit radical in educational and cultural spaces. Yet, when dialogical and representative forms of storytelling incorporate digital mapping, artistry, and toolkits, the results are striking. Original work with the web through social media and multimedia production brings inquiry and intentional design to new levels.

The Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (#digiURI) was recognized in the “2017 National Education Technology Plan,” published by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. The implications of the #digiURI cultural and technological shift mean that people who are less engaged with the issue of climate change are more likely to be influenced by experiential learning. Since researchers have found that the perceived personal experience of global warming leads to increased belief certainty, motivated reasoning can arise when climate change information is filtered through authentic personal experience.

Social media today has become a type of vicarious experience, in which climate change advocates can become composers of social media messages that gently and respectfully talk about what’s changed in their communities.

  • Remember when the first frost happened in New England around Labor Day?
  • Are heat waves stronger and longer than they were when we were kids?
  • Do different species of birds migrate now to our region than in the past?
  • Has storm-induced erosion reduced our favorite summer ocean beach even more?

As people learn about climate and engage in inquiry through personal experience, they are more likely to acknowledge that change is happening.

#digiURI and the Example of a Change Model in Action

“Personalized” is something human where the learner initiates and controls part or all of the learning process. It often emerges through engagement with others about personal wonderings and building relationships in the process. The Summer Institute in Digital Literacy relies on a Personal Design Inquiry (PDI) model, where mentors guide individuals to focus on learning through questions and to develop their own plans of action as a result of the questions they generate.

Importantly, community building leads to problem solving. Climate change advocates can cite conservative leaders who support climate change action as a way to make personal and ideological connections that coalesce around climate change acceptance.

Asking questions about these individuals, the reasons for their stances, and their identifications as both conservatives and climate change activists is a way to use inquiry to model how reconciliation across seemingly disparate social categories can result.

The Summer Institute in Digital Literacy is supported in part by the Media Education Lab, which offers many resources for inquiry and analysis. Climate change advocates can see the gift in Twitter as a pedagogical tool. Certainly, the confluence of social media and popular culture is essential in today’s society for a change model to be effective. What if climate change advocates and deniers alike learned to understand implicit bias through the power of reflection?


A change model that includes reliance on social media messages has the potential to incite social and political shifts. We need such transformation in the world of climate change advocacy if we want deniers are to be brought into our conversations.

We need to gain broader momentum and greater acceptance that climate change is happening, is human-caused, and does present a real threat. People do have strong motivations about the good of society, so a change model may be just the method to inspire climate change deniers, according to Nature and others, to support mitigation efforts.

Climate change advocates and deniers alike may clash when they believe that conservative ideologies and environmentalism are mutually exclusive. However, because a change model seeks commonality and community, climate change advocates have a greater likelihood of achieving positive societal effects.

Won’t conservatives act more pro-environmentally if they think that climate change action will create a society where people are more considerate and caring? What if understanding and acting upon climate action can spur greater economic and technological development?

A change model will create more positive progress and forward movement than will a frame that emphasizes the risks of climate change. We are all sensitive to issues that are brought up in the media, so, while we can work from a position that delineates the science of climate change, many people may end up not changing their minds over the newest bit of data. Instead, we climate change advocates can walk in the other side’s proverbial shoes, to try to learn about the values and perspectives that might otherwise divide us even further.

As Ed Maibach at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication has stated alliteratively, yes, while climate change is a problem for plants, penguins, and polar bears, it’s also a people problem. When climate change advocates can speak passionately and openly about the impact of climate change on human lives, the persuasion is much more compelling.

Photo credits:, Enokson via / CC BY, and

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1247 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna