How to talk about climate change in 2019

It’s time to change the script if we want to make an impact.


Recently, Saturday Night Live devoted a “Weekend Update” report to the United Nations climate findings summing up what it seems pretty much everyone (but a small minority of us) is thinking:

“This story has been stressing me out all week. I just keep asking myself, ‘why don’t I care about this?’” chuckles Weekend Update anchor Michael Che.

What he’s really saying is he does care, he just has no idea what to do about it. This is what Anthony Leiserowitz calls the “hope gap.”

“We don’t really worry about climate change because it’s too overwhelming and we’re already in too deep,” explains SNL’s Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost. “It’s like if you owe your bookie $1000 it’s like ‘okay I’ve gotta pay this dude back.’ But if you owe your bookie a million dollars, you’re like, ‘I guess I’m just gonna die?’”

They then go on to deliver some excellent satire with examples to make people care. Essentially we need to frame our message in ways the people we’re talking to can understand. We need to know who we’re talking to, and what they already care about, then frame our message inside that scenario.

“Like, if Fox News reported that climate change is gonna take away all the flags and Confederate statues, there’d be recycling bins outside of every Cracker Barrel and Dick’s Sporting Goods.”

Understanding who you’re talking to and framing your message in terms of their existing concerns and desires is exactly what we walk teams through in our messaging strategy workshops. We also test and iterate messaging so we know it resonates before we publish it. This tried & true process works for branding and marketing, and it’ll work for climate action, too.

Personally, I look at the challenges our society faces and I’m excited. We are looking at an amazing opportunity for humanity to get super creative, invent new technologies, new industries, new infrastructure — here, I’ll say it, it’s job creation!

I’m glad the latest UN report painted the honest truth about what the next decade or so is going to be like. It’s about time we look this issue fully in the face and stop denying it or putting it off to future generations. This is the kind of pressure, only seen before in times of war, that brings out the best of human ingenuity, don’t you think?

I’d like to propose some new rules for talking about the climate situation now that we know what we’re up against. We need to change the conversation from old tired phrases that have fallen on deaf ears for decades, and be bold in how we discuss moving humanity forward:

  1. Be concrete about solutions. There are solutions to the climate problem. People need to hear about them. We’ve been hearing about the problem for decades. Hearing the data and facts hasn’t brought quick change. Tell us what we can do about it — and not in vague terms like “get off fossil fuels.” Know your audience and their lifestyles and give them concrete scenarios they can wrap their minds around.

  2. Frame things in the present, not 2050, or 2100. Let’s talk about 2020. This is happening now. Putting things in the far off and distant future has not created change, it just makes people feel like they don’t have to worry about it just yet.

  3. Appealing for change in service of our grandchildren or children doesn’t motivate. That should have inspired people 30 years ago — clearly it didn’t. For all people alive now, the effects of climate change have already started and are having a noticeable impact on our lives.

  4. It’s not about individual action anymore, but individuals can make a difference. The impact a single individual can make now is too small, which makes people feel hopeless. But single individuals can impact larger change — through pushing for change at the office, organizing groups, and influencing politicians. (Also: Vote!) So rather than making people feel guilty about fueling up their cars to get to work, help them realize they can make a difference by lobbying to their bosses for more conscious business practices (waste reduction, paying for public transportation, office supplies sources, catering companies, etc.)

  5. The goal was never to “Save the planet.” The planet will still be here no matter what happens, and in a few hundred million years it will balance out its ecosystem once again. What’s at stake is human survival in the meantime. We all want to be able to grow food, breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in resilient communities that can weather the storms. That’s what we’re trying to save. That’s something anyone can get behind, regardless of political party.

  6. Replace the term “sustainable” with terms like “regenerative.”Sustainable won’t work anymore. We’ve passed the tipping point where we could work to create a system that simply sustains its current level without making things worse. Now we must create systems that remove more waste than they produce, or create more positive effects than negative.

  7. Leave language like 1.5°C and 2°C to scientists. This measurement is important to scientists and policymakers, but too abstract for the general public. It requires people to understand concepts like global average temperature which is already pretty abstract, and then an amount of change since pre-industrial times, which was, when, exactly? Moving an abstract number from 1º to 1.5º doesn’t even sound like very much, it’s hard to get people motivated with this language. And hell, most people in the US can’t even wrap their minds around Celsius (sorry). Also, people latch on to these numbers, as if an average change of 1.49ºC is okay, but 1.5º is when we need to worry?

  8. Replace “climate change” with climate resilience, stability, or restoration. The climate has already changed. Climate change is no longer something we need to prevent. It’s now something we need to adapt to and learn to live with. We are dealing with climate instability, understanding our capacity for resilience, and working towards a stable future. Our goal now is to restore our climate to the state it was before industrial society did its damage. (Thanks to Felix Kramer of Climate Changes Everything for this language.)


Here are some examples of the kinds of solutions we need to be talking about:

I’m really excited about regenerative agriculture, which solves a lot of problems at once — sucks carbon from the air and uses it to restore soil health and grow better quality, more nutritious food. Anyone who likes to eat should be excited about this.

I’m also excited to see things like Y Combinator putting out calls for carbon removal startups. I was a software designer here in San Francisco when the startup industry created products like Twitter, AirBnb, and Uber that transformed society around me before my eyes. It was fast-moving, messy, and controversial, and fun to live through!

I truly feel like restoring our climate is going to be the next culture-changing startup boom — especially #carbontech — technology that reverses global warming by changing CO2 into a usable product… i.e. converting carbon from the air into money, or what our friends at Impossible Labs call Air Mining. I mean hey, if you can’t beat the system (capitalism), might as well figure out a way to use it to get the results you want.

I’m really looking forward to the creative problem-solving power of Silicon Valley and beyond to be applied to building a resilient society and stabilizing our climate.

And I’m looking forward to reading about all the exciting new technologies humanity comes up with as we move forward into our present reality. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Are you a climate warrior coming up with innovative ways that tackle this issue? Learn more about what we do.

Related: How Thinking Wrong helps your climate startup be heard, stand out, and kick ass

One last thing

You’re invited to our new event series, Thinking Wrong about Climate Change. We’re bringing people together to meet up, build communities, and generate ideas towards tackling climate change. It’ll be an ongoing series of meet ups in the SF Bay Area that will cover a variety of industries such as landscape regeneration, ocean health, and clean energy. Our next event is in the regenerative agriculture space. Sign up to be notified.


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