It's a Communication Challenge, Not a Scientific Challenge

Why anyone was surprised that Congress failed to enact climate change legislation is shocking to me. Similarly (though the data is mixed), why so many Americans refuse to believe the scientific consensus about global warming is extremely frustrating but hardly surprising.

I don't blame Americans for their misguided views about climate change. I also don't blame the environmental and scientific communities or the politicians that favor an environmental agenda for failing to convince Americans that global warming is real and solutions are needed now.

The way to overcome this dismal situation is not with more science but with more effective communication.

Even if you're Al Gore (and maybe especially if you're Al Gore), I caution you against arguing the science of climate change. You cannot change the mind of a global warming skeptic by citing scientific facts. The reason is simple; resistance isn't grounded in facts. Instead, it's grounded in emotion, political ideology and perceived financial self-interest. Let's examine each one:

One of my closest friends once said to me, "How do you expect me to believe in global warming if I don't even know how I'm going to put my five-year old kid through college?" My friend is a successful lawyer who runs his own firm. In most areas of his life he's very rational. However, when it comes to global warming, his rationality is superseded by fear. Like many Americans, fear also leads my friend to invoke layman's evidence to counter climate science. Before this summer's heat wave hit, he said to me, "Dude, do you feel how cold it is outside? How could it be this cold if global warming were real?" Naturally, I felt like saying, "How can you can be such an idiot?" but I know it won't do any good. Emotions have the better of him.

Political Ideology
It amazes me how many Americans I encounter who still think environmentalism is somehow sort of Communist and therefore un-American. On top of that, in today's political culture of opposition for opposition's sake, denying the reality of climate change has little to do with climate science and much to do with distrusting and even despising those who favor climate change legislation. "If they're for it," many Americans reason, "Then it's a bad idea whether or not I understand it. Therefore, I'm against it."

Perceived Financial Self-Interest
As a culture we've come to accept as conventional wisdom that "green is too expensive." We take at face value the assertion that tackling climate change will sabotage our quality of life and jeopardize our financial future. Therefore, denying the reality of climate change allows us to shirk our collective financial responsibility for dealing with this mounting threat to our nation and civilization without having to feel guilty.

The good news for those advancing green agendas: None of this matters.

Effective green communication can circumnavigate the entire global warming debate and sway people in favor of almost any environmental agenda. When it comes right down to it, I've learned that you don't have to convince global warming skeptics that global warming is real in order to generate their support for the solutions that solve it. The question we must ask ourselves is, "Is this about winning the debate and being 'right' or is this about getting people enthusiastically on board with the solutions?" Assuming the answer is the latter, here are two green communication tactics to get you started:

1. Frame green solutions in terms of people's self-interest
A few months ago, I wrote about a drag car racer named John "Plasma Boy" Wayland who drives a suped-up 1972 Datsun that runs on electric battery power. Plasma Boy routinely trounces gasoline-powered muscle cars such as Corvettes and Mustangs. He goes zero-to-sixty in about three seconds. He generates eight-hundred pounds of torque using domestically produced energy sources instead of oil imported from foreign, non-democratic regimes. Fast speeds, raw power, and energy independence are great ways to frame eco-friendly cars to an American public that is attracted to those attributes yet still mostly associates eco-friendly cars with anemic power and an unjustifiably high price tag.

In a few months, Honda will begin selling the first hybrid car to be marketed as a fun, sporty driving experience that also delivers excellent fuel economy. It's the new CR-Z and it represents a quantum shift forward in green communication and branding. Instead of touting its "eco-ness," Honda will tout its superior driving experience for a car priced under 20K. That's great news for the planet because a broad segment of the population that doesn't self-identify as environmentalists is going to get excited about this car.

It's precisely the way we must communicate environmental solutions in terms of people's self-interest if we are going to convince Americans that green solutions not only fit but actually improve their lives.

2. Cite specific green success stories, not theoretical studies of future benefits
Often advocates for climate change legislation attempt to garner support for their agenda by citing theoretical studies of all the jobs that will be created, all the communities that will be revitalized and all the greenhouse gases that that will be eliminated one day in the future if legislation is enacted now. The problem with this approach is that Americans don't relate to theories. They relate to hard evidence, which is why specific green success stories are so much more compelling.

Consider the story of formerly unemployed Pennsylvania steelworkers whose jobs disappeared overseas but who are now fully employed with good benefits in a factory that manufactures wind turbines. Or the city of Toledo, Ohio where thousands of manufacturing jobs are returning to this once downtrodden city in order to make next-generation solar panels. Instead of citing fancy studies to try to convince Americans that millions of green jobs will be created from scratch once climate change legislation is passed, highlighting these kinds of real-world success stories presents a much more believable story about how millions of jobs will be created by replicating what's already here and working.

Think of it this way: it's very difficult to believe in a green job that doesn't yet exist, but it's very easy to covet a green job that somebody else already has.

While I'm absolutely in favor of continuing scientific research into climate change, we don't need to rely on it to get Americans on board with the solutions. We just need to communicate more effectively.

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