Mashup Messaging: How To Create Effective Climate Change Communication

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As climate change advocates, we know how important it is to connect with our audiences through effective messaging. Training and technical assistance for environmental decision-makers is typical, but many of these leaders crave communications management. They understand communication challenges and recognize the importance of the “mindset” in framing our climate change communications.

But what are the best approaches to designing constructive, persuasive messages about climate change? What works to convince resistant audiences? What do deliberate climate change communications look like? These are important questions that need answers, because by understanding climate interpretation, we can change the national discourse and focus on meaningful solutions that bring divergent groups together toward collaborative solutions to climate change.

climate change communications

Climate Change Communications Must Target Mental & Cultural Models

Jennifer West, coastal training program coordinator at the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, spoke at the Land & Water Conservation Summit at the University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston on March 10, 2018. She started out by outlining what climate change advocates need to know prior to composing climate change communications.

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What does your audience know and think?
  • What would you like your audience to know, think, and do?

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Understanding the prior knowledge that an audience brings to the controversies within climate change is crucial as a beginning step to effective messaging. We need to start by recognizing the mental and cultural models that audiences bring to climate change conversations.

If “culture” is a system of shared beliefs, then “mental models” are ways of thinking about the world. That world in which we live seems “normal,” as if our life experiences are so typical that everyone else must also have these same ways of looking at life and the world.

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Of course, when you think about it closely, each of our own life experiences is singular and rare. And nowhere is that more evident than in climate change discussions. When individuals talk about typical climate change topics, such as science, oceans, pollution, consumerism, public affairs, or nature, we each draw upon different cultural models and domains. Sometimes this is known in climate change studies as a “swamp.”

This “swamp” is a problem because many of the cultural models contained within it aren’t consistent with the science of anthropogenic climate change nor the behaviors necessary to protect the planet from additional greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, instead of arguing with people who deny or resist climate change as a reality, we need to recognize that cultural models are widely shared and durable. Cultural models structure everyday thinking and actions.

For example, when people think about “water” as a way to provide human enjoyment and activities, it makes it hard to get them to think about “ecosystems.” So, instead, when we discuss climate change, we should chat about the multiple resources that our ponds, lakes, and oceans provide for humans. Bringing the message to the human level makes it easier for individuals with mental and cultural models that conflict with climate change to think about our water systems in new ways.

Cultural models are activated by associated networks of information, so we need to recognize what to advance and what to avoid. The goal of effective climate change communication is to focus on how nature supports humans, and it’s not new. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his treatise called “Nature,” says,

“One after another, victorious thought comes up with and reduces all things, until the world becomes, at last, only a realized will — the double of the human.”*

How to Get Your Climate Change Message Across: Strategic Framing

Climate change interpreters make intentional, research-based choices about how to communicate climate change information. The research behind these choices draws from interdisciplinary fields like anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, and linguistics. This approach diffuses the science of climate change by using the science of “strategic framing.”

By using an evidence-based approach, climate interpretation is being built into more institutions across the US. Advocates in the climate change movement need to find bridges to address our audiences. Strategic framing unpacks complex scientific and social issues to more effectively communicate ocean and climate change.

climate change communication

Strategic framing begins with composing a story with a down-to-earth (pun intended) story that connects explicitly to climate change. Bill McKibben of starts out Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist with a compelling story about a beekeeper who tries to live simply while a changing climate sets up barriers. It works because within the story he has defined, “Why does climate change matter to society?” It targets audience values and make conversations productive and focused.

Two values seem to come out frequently in research as commonly-held values within climate change conversations: “protection” and “responsible management.” Protection matters because people feel that we have a duty to safeguard the wellbeing of people and places. Responsible management is important because taking common-sense steps today is in the interest of future generations. We need to remember and target these two commonly-held values in climate change communication as ways to tell our stories and to establish common ground.

Explanatory chains and metaphors are also very effective, as they’re “sticky” — they capture and hold people’s attention.

For example, the metaphor of a “heat-trapping blanket” is a way to describe a basic mechanism of climate change. When buildup acts like a blanket that traps heat around the world, it disrupts the climate. People retain such metaphors and translate them as a way of making meaning of their worlds. Metaphors make an abstract idea concrete and help people understand mechanisms at work. They get people thinking about solutions.

Things to Avoid in Climate Change Communications

We in the climate change movement have learned a lot through making communicative mistakes with our audiences. There are also some common appeals to avoid, which are called “rogue values.” Scientific authority (“research says”), utility (human needs), consumerism (class systems/ we vs. me), and intrinsic value/ right to exist (polar bears are failing) have been pinpointed in climate change studies as approaches that do not sway oppositional points of view.

climate change communication

It’s important to create a common language and shared themes, and that involves knowing what not to say, too.

  • Not penguins, but the birds that come to your home feeder.
  • Not watershed management, but land and water conservation.
  • Not nonpoint source pollution, but polluted runoff.
  • Not water quality, but clean water.
  • Not biodiversity, but plants, animals, and wildlife.
  • Not ecosystem services, but nature’s benefits.
  • Not green infrastructure, but nature-based solutions.
  • Not resilient, but healthy and safe.
  • Not sprawl, but overdevelopment.
  • Not conservation easement, but voluntary land preservation agreement.
  • Not sustainable, but responsible/ planning ahead/ environmentally healthy.

Always avoid jargon and acronyms, or at least always remember to initially define acronyms.

Also, remember to consider a readability index as you design print text. Match your text to your audience’ literacy levels.

Understanding Climate Change Communication Takes Lots of Perseverance

Yes, quality climate change communications take lots of time. Sometimes the extent and depth of climate change conversations seem daunting, as they involve policy-based strategies and real-world applications. But there are some basic principles that bring together different texts and modalities (i.e. mashups) that can help you to design effective climate change messages.

  • Put your idea into simplified, synthesize, colorful visuals.
  • Photos get you far! Make sure you include people’s faces, as they are proverbially windows to the soul. Before/ after photos really work.
  • Make sure that your visuals are contextually-based, not just convenient.
  • Show conceptual diagrams, maps, photos, and tables/ figures.
  • Use colors and symbols alongside visuals in flow charts to attract not distract your audience.
  • Consciously review formatting.

Climate change advocates are increasingly recognizing that they have a mandate to discuss climate change with deniers. Want some additional information about creating effective climate change communication? The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation offers lots of information from the studies they’ve conducted. Their materials can help you get grounded in the way people in the US think about climate change and can introduce you to the communications tools at your disposal.  Check them out.

Persevere. Be patient. And be self-reflective about the ways you use your knowledge through language each time you discuss climate change.

climate change communication

*Note: Archaic text references have been updated for gender neutral pronouns.

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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 Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1278 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna