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Framing Climate Change Action Now  

by Susan C. Strong

There is evidence that a number of American citizens know we have a climate change problem. But many of them experience it as something we can’t fix technically, socially or politically. So they ignore it to keep going day by day. Among the already convinced, that’s where the issue is stuck. But we also have fellow citizens who haven’t heard or thought much about the issue, and of course, we’ve got the fossil fuel gang still funding denial. Recent research shows that the public is primarily focused on jobs, the economy, and D.C. gridlock instead.(1) So, to make any headway on this issue, we will have to get a lot smarter about framing climate change problems and their solutions. For too long climate change activists and professionals have been talking to each other and to the sympathetic. It’s time to get serious about framing the issue in a way that reaches mainstream America.


Let’s start with educating the convinced about possible fixes. Years of research have shown that trying to motivate people on this issue by scaring them fails. Up-to-date framing research proves that people respond better to a “prevent damage” message than to an “avoid risk” one.(2) So, the real focus of our framing on this issue should be action to prevent more damage to our economy: who can do what, who is doing what, what is working now.(3) Americans are pragmatic, action-oriented optimists.  We need to pose the climate change problem as a challenge we can all meet.

Along these lines, some language picks I’d make from the Metaphor Project’s “American Story” lists include these: being prosperous, saving money, being clean, safe, and healthy, being free, and doing it ourselves. Big political change in this country always starts with the grassroots. That bottom-up path calls on our most prized national traits --doing things in our own communities, being part of a grassroots groundswell, being innovative, pragmatic, showing can-do, rolling-up-our sleeves, helping to reinvent a new, healthier economy from the ground up. “

So much for educating the convinced about solutions. What about convincing more of our fellow citizens that the problem is real? First, we need to bear in mind the fact that most Americans are primarily extroverted sensing types—they require proof about the reality of a problem from their five senses. Climate change is a bit like cancer—it’s silent, and it’s been happening somewhere else. The warning signs are easy to miss for the average American. So be understanding of anyone who honestly seems to be unaware or incredulous. Start by talking about how much we all want a prosperous new economy. Then describe climate change as the growing climate crisis that threatens our economy and our way of life,” because for some it may not seem like a full-fledged “crisis” yet. When we get to the moment for going into detail, we need to use stories about what’s already been happening to other Americans lately: increasing drought, mega-storms, floods, fire storms beyond anything we’ve seen before, rising sea levels, bad changes in local weather patterns and their costs. Once you get people’s ear this way, you can quickly move on to talking about suggestions for positive action. (If you encounter a Fox News denial fan, just laugh, and say, “Oh, you’ve been watching Fox News!” and then walk away laughing. Don’t stay to argue. Especially don’t argue about what the majority of scientists say. Don’t waste your energy on hardcore deniers.)

If you need to give a cause for the climate change problem, describe it as the result of too much carbon getting into our air. (To learn more about natural ways to get carbon back where it belongs in plants and in the soil, see Note 4.) Pollution is something everyone knows is dirty and bad for your health. And please avoid talking about “greenhouse gases.” To the general public, greenhouses are good things that help you grow more food! (It would be nice if even the experts stopped saying “greenhouse gases” to each other too. That unfortunate metaphor inevitably slips out in public and harms the cause of reform. I likehothouse gases” better, because it sounds more like the real thing and nasty too. Also please avoid using any evidence that relies on pictures of or references to the fate of the “environment,” or of other species of all kinds such as polar bears, penguins, etc. Avoid talking about polar and glacier melts, using charts or graphs, and talking about CO2!” Everyone who can be convinced by the means I’m criticizing here is already on board.

Now it’s time to consider our third task, which is actually quite separate from the two previous ones above. As Bill McKibben and others have pointed out, we do have to hold the carbon crooks and climate crisis deniers up for public shaming. But even when your project is shaming the fossil fuel gang, it’s vital to start and conclude with a positive vision of the clean energy world and prosperous economy we could have instead. In between these two positive notes there are a number of classic American negatives you can sound: the deniers are “telling lies and betraying the public trust.” They are on the take, they are stealing subsidy money from the taxpayers, they are sabotaging our clean energy future, they are blocking progress, they are holding our country and our economy back or hostage, and they are profiting from damaging our health, our economy, and our country. Their CEOs are blocking the dawn of a new energy age, they are criminal cons, they have gone too far, they are corrupt, and as for their ‘wait and see” strategy—do you wait until your house burns down to buy insurance? They are costing us too much. You can also warn people that everyone will soon be selling their fossil fuel stocks and moving their money into alternative energy investments, because “the carbon bubble is going to burst.” (For more about this “divestment” strategy, see

So much for going negative. Always, whatever our messages or audiences might be, we must start and end by returning to the positive: “We can do it, it will be good for us, it will prevent new damage, it will save/make money/jobs, save our health, our economy, our communities. We can improve our economy by meeting the climate change challenge!“

Let’s put powerful new American Story energy into all of our campaigns now and get the massive liftoff we so desperately need!

Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project,,  and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear.  The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.


1.This fact has recently been noted in “U.S. Energy Policy: A Bridge to Nowhere,” by Bob Burnett, on Huffington Post:

2. The following links provide details about the new research on framing climate change action:

3. For action ideas, see your community/ICLEI_Climate Communication_Local Governments.pdf

4. Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.)

Originally posted to SusanCStrong on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 10:33 AM PST.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Climate Change SOS.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think reframing this message is critical (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LaughingPlanet, julesrules39

    to elevating this issue in the eyes of enough people to change our trajectory.  Although I don't agree with all the recommendations you suggest you are definitely on the right track.  Thanks for reminding all of us that gloom and doom will never be a good marketing strategy.  

    If we really want to straighten out all this crap we really need to think about shit - Holy Shit.

    by John Crapper on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 12:05:46 PM PST

    •  Which suggestions don't work for you? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      julesrules39, John Crapper

      John, I'm interested in knowing which of my suggestions don't work for you and why?

      Help me out here. . !

      Susan Strong

      •  Climate Reality (the Al Gore) team agrees (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        John Crapper, Calamity Jean

        that the climate change message is often shelved or buried in the mind as the threat is so overwhelming.  They advise that it is important to end on a positive note, such as the fact that we have surpassed all mitigation targets by several fold.  In some cases, more than 100 times over.  So, we are making progress.

        I just read a report that China, the US and the EU emissions are all trending downward finally as of 2012 even though economies and populations are growing.  

        NYC Mayor Bloomberg just reported on Zakaria yesterday that 20 mayors from Chinese cities were in City Hall (in NYC) last week and they all had climate change mitigation and adaptation plans that they were moving forward with.  He indicated that the Chinese will make headway as they don't face the climate denial/pollitical obstruction that we deal with in the US.  

        As VL Baker reported last week, President Obama just issued another executive order to all 50 governors and many federal agencies for climate change preparedness plans.  This is historical and relevant given the frequency of storms destroying homes and businesses every month across the country.  Last Friday, as the LAX shooter dominated the news cycle, storms from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas went largely unnoticed.  But, to those whose life savings were wiped away with no recourse for rebuilding, climate change is very real, costly and life-changing.

      •  The problem I have with your message is one more (0+ / 0-)

        of omission rather than what you are saying.  I agree fully that a constant positive message is needed.  The problem I have is the implication that we can make this transition without a redefinition of our values, goals and way of life.

        First to those that are educated there is need for more.  Humans have a great way to use cognitive dissonance to rationalize things.   I view the crux of our problems when dealing with climate change and other environmental problems as primarily one of dealing with our ego.  We think we can somehow escape sacrifice.  We can't.  Our lifestyle is unsustainable.  Here are some specifics:

        1.  Economics:  We can no longer afford the luxury of producing everything that people can be convinced to buy.  
        We have to stop using as measurements of wealth measurements of consumption.  Consumption is wealth dissipation. The constant growth model based on ever increasing consumption is unsustainable.  It is not only a strong economy that we need but one that is based on different underlying assumptions.  Energy measurements should be the measure of wealth creation rather than consumption.  

        2.  We must somehow come to terms with the fact that we need to control our population numbers. This could be done with incentives like subsidized college education for an adopted child vs your own.  Punitive measures like China took will not work.

        3.  We need to finally realize that nuclear power is not a viable alternative.  It is not and will not be a silver bullet.

        For those that are uneducated and doubters I agree with most of what you say but a big part of the messaging should be geared towards an appeal to patriotism and making some sacrifices in the short term for a better long term future similar to what was done during WWII.  I like the messaging of an "Energy New Deal".   This could be coupled with the nation's need to do this for national security.  

        I have been and will be writing extensively on this very subject.  This whole area needs intense scrutiny and some serious "out of the box" thinking.  Again, thanks for addressing it.  

        If we really want to straighten out all this crap we really need to think about shit - Holy Shit.

        by John Crapper on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 03:42:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Some Other Ideas (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    My Solutions to Climate Change

    How to Change US Energy in One Growing Season

    Let me know if any of these strike a chord with you.

    One thing that I see more and more is that cities and municipalities are working on climate change solutions more quickly than nations and the international community.  There are hundreds now doing something, partly because of Hurricane Sandy and what happened in NYC and partly because  they are already experiencing slower and steadier changes like sea level rise.  This is one reason why I say, "Solar IS Civil Defense."  Many of the things we need to do to prepared for emergency and disaster are either mitigation or adaptation strategies for dealing with climate change.

    •  Some Other Ideas (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Thanks, gmoke, I'll check these out. I like "solar IS Civil Defense." That's good. You are right that the real climate change action these days is happening at the local level. That's why I included that ICLEI link for how to work at the community level. That is the level where the damage is actually felt, and people are much more likely to be able to cooperate there to help solve the problem.

      •  Local Level (0+ / 0-)

        Other, better funded, groups beside ICLEI need to be doing the integration and networking between the various municipalities who are already starting work.  Boston's recent report on Building Resilience in Boston (see my diary at is a great resource for a world-wide survey of resilience efforts but it needs to be kept updated and disseminated so that all those who can use this kind of information know about it.

        Last week, I talked with a US DOE representative, John Pershing, and learned that the DOE is collecting information on municipal level resilience, mitigation, and adaptation.  I'm hoping that he will send me his slide deck on this issue as I gave him my information and asked him to do so.

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