Liz Purchia Gannon is a founder and partner of Riff City Strategies. She was previously the head of communications at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I spent the past eight years communicating the policies and priorities of President Obama — on his campaigns, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Talking about climate impacts and public health was a huge part of my work, and it was all-consuming. White House staff suggested I cancel my bachelorette party, which was scheduled for the weekend before the launch of the Clean Power Plan. I got married two weeks after visiting Fukushima, and announced the VW emissions scandal a week later. I delayed my honeymoon until after the Paris climate talks. But it was worth it, because the work we were doing was so important.
Then came the shock of Nov. 8. Washington, D.C., didn’t see it coming, and the environmental community in particular was blindsided. We hoped the Clinton administration would take President Obama’s strong environmental legacy and build on it, leading the U.S. and the world toward a clean energy economy. People were betting on what actions President Clinton would take first. Budgets were prepared, announcement rollouts were planned. But the election sent everything into a tailspin.
Now, as environmental and public health advocates plan for the next few years, they’re operating in a completely different landscape. But I think lessons I learned in the Obama years can be helpful for those communicating about climate change in the Trump era. Here are a few of them:
- Be positive. Talking about doomsday scenarios won’t get you anywhere. A story about how half a million people are going to die by 2050 from climate change may be accurate, but it does nothing except terrify people before they move on to the next scary headline. Americans want healthy places to live, work, and play, so talk about how climate action leads to healthy communities. Highlight success stories, like cities that are benefiting by embracing clean energy. Let’s not give climate skeptics more ammo to say we’re just a bunch of alarmists.
- Emphasize that climate action = jobs. Some 374,000 Americans work in solar power generation — more than in generating electricity from coal, oil, and gas combined. More than 100,000 people work in wind power in the U.S., and last year, wind turbine technician was declared the fastest-growing job in America. Renewable energy development puts people to work in areas with high unemployment. Talk about how clean-energy businesses are creating new economic opportunities.
- Be respectful and inclusive. No one likes to be lectured or told they don’t understand. Talk with people rather than at them. Americans want to be part of a winning team, so encourage conversations about how they can make a difference and how their communities can be part of the solution by cleaning up pollution and preparing for extreme weather events.
- Don’t just talk about climate change. Messaging needs to be refined to reach new audiences. Many conservatives are suspicious of spending money on “climate action.” But they will care about the fact that farms and businesses are being hurt by droughts, floods, and wildfires. Most of us can agree on the need for conservation, love of country, preserving God’s creation, and protecting the most vulnerable. We can all be inspired by patriotic campaigns that link clean energy to national security.
- Personalize and localize messages. Instead of talking in broad, global terms, focus on individuals and local communities. Don’t just rely on your own spokespeople; elevate the voices of people who can talk from personal experience and explain to their neighbors why resilience or clean energy matters in their own lives. Tell the stories of people who are hurt by bad policies and extreme weather events. Meet people where they are, literally: Hold coffee meetings and roundtables, go to rural newspapers and local radio stations. People still closely follow their local news, and they are more likely to believe someone from their community than someone making a statement from D.C. or NYC. Keep in mind that a powerful story in a local paper can quickly make its way to mainstream channels.
- Focus on making change happen at the state and city level. Just because progress is blocked in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mean we can’t get things done. Cities and states have long been on the frontlines of climate action. Think about what was accomplished during the Bush administration: Nine states created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first mandatory market-based program in the U.S. to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed into law AB 32, first-of-its-kind climate legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says, “No good idea ever came from the federal level.”
- Keep the pressure on leaders. When elected officials and other officeholders make the wrong moves, call them out — again and again — via email, social media, protests, and media coverage. They may say it doesn’t bother them or try to ignore you, but they closely follow all mentions of their names — both in local media and national outlets. If you’re regularly pushing them on an issue, they’re likely to eventually respond.
Climate advocates need to remember: Average Americans are really busy. They’ve got families and jobs that take up most of their time and energy. They aren’t consuming the same in-depth stories, tweets, alerts, and morning newsletters that you are. Their Facebook feeds are dominated by photos of babies and articles about Trump. Reaching them requires targeted efforts, localized strategies, and smart and consistent messaging. It takes a lot more effort than just publicizing the latest bad-news study about climate change, but it will pay off in good news down the line.