Science mothers explore why climate change messaging is falling flat

This article originally appeared in Climate & Capital Media. Read it here.

When Melissa Burt, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, made a video about the climate crisis, it included footage of her daughter, Mia.

“There’s a light in her that keeps me doing the climate science work that I do,” Burt says in his voiceover. As she speaks, photos of a toddler – playing in the garden, sledding in fresh snow, frolicking on the beach – appear in the frame. “As moms, we care about the environment they are growing up in. And for Mia, I want you to know that I have worked hard for change and to make this a better place for you.”

What Burt doesn’t say are phrases like “net zero,” “1.5 degrees Celsius,” or even “carbon emissions.” Nor does it mention polar bears or ice caps. Climate change is not about politics or jargon, the video implies. Climate change affects us: our neighbourhoods, our schools, our children.

“From a scientist’s perspective, we often say facts, facts, facts,” Burt told Climate & Capital. “But half the time people don’t understand what those facts mean.”

And facts alone don’t seem to trigger action.

The video was an advertisement for Science Moms, an advocacy group for science moms working to communicate the reality of the climate crisis to other moms, especially suburban moms — a demographic that isn’t usually inherently climate-focused. but who is persuasive. Since 2018, Science Moms has launched around $10 million worth of advertising in several politically unstable states. Yet this is not just a story of women scientists banding together to enlighten their fellow mothers. Launched by a sustainability-focused marketing group, Science Moms is the product of months of meticulous research designed to answer the question: how can climate communication be better?

Potential Energy Coalition, the nonprofit marketing agency behind Science Moms, has paid approximately 1 billion online ad impressions targeting a wide variety of platforms, target audiences and geographies, closely tracking which types of people responded to what types of messages.

“We tested many messages and advertisements with different groups of people. And we found that the suburban mother was the most persuasive to raise government support or take strong action on climate change,” said Anne- Marie Kline, General Manager. research campaigns at Potential Energy.

Half the time people don’t understand what these facts mean.

“And more than any other group, when they were exposed and talked to about what was going on, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m totally into it,'” Kline said.

Once Potential Energy had its target demographic, the next step was to find what that group catered to. For example, they found that the phrase ‘carbon emissions’ attracted less attention than ‘carbon pollution’. Similarly, viewers were more likely to support government action on climate change after seeing an image of a city full of smog compared to an image of a severe storm. In Florida, the public reacted more strongly to the phrase “sea level rise” than to “climate change”.

Kline described it as a constant exercise in cost-benefit analysis: “If you use the phrase ‘achieve zero emissions by 2050’, let’s just say it costs $15 for a person to say ‘OK , I get it”. But if you say ‘halve emissions by 2030’, that costs $10. If you say ‘tax polluters’, that’s about $4. If you say ‘stop the coastal development”, it goes even further.”

This approach may seem more suited to getting people to buy Nike shoes and Apple Watches than to thwart climate apocalypse. But the truth is that while climate-focused NGOs and publications are strong on science, many can use coaching on the art of persuasion.

“The data shows their messaging isn’t working, period,” said David Fenton, former CEO of Fenton Communications, which handles communications for Science Moms. “They don’t reach a lot of people. They think they do, but they don’t.”

Over his 40-year career, Fenton has helped craft the messaging for clients such as Al Gore, Nelson Mandela and Yoko Ono. He noted that according to the Yale Climate Communication Study, only half of Americans are either “cautious” or “alarmed” about climate change. About a quarter of Americans are either totally apathetic or actively dismissive.

Fenton attributes this relatively sluggish public interest, given the looming doomsday threat, in part to the failure of mainstream environmental groups to reach ordinary Americans. He said climate groups are hesitant to invest in traditional marketing, the one mastered on Madison Avenue, based on demographic research, focus group data and the repetition of simple messages.

Instead, they tend to let the science speak for itself. “They think, ‘I had an op-ed in the New York Times, it changed the world, everyone saw it.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

Common jargon such as “net zero” and “climate justice” may be noble and well-meaning, but for most Americans, it just doesn’t stick.

“When you say ‘pollution’, there’s a chimney in my brain. It’s bad, dirty, horrible. It’s a frame that’s a real circuit in your brain. But when you say ‘net zero’, you don’t activate any circuits. No one knows what that means. [censored] is ‘net zero?'”

The climate section of the website of the Sierra Club – which spent an estimated $1.8 million in campaign contributions in the 2020 election cycle – features photos of wind turbines and melting ice caps with a warning about the sea ​​level rise. Its calls to action relate to Wall Street investments, electric cars and specific legislation.

Climate moms try to keep things more grounded.

An advertisement attempts to convey the scientific consensus on the climate threat. “If the doctors of an entire neighborhood told you that your mole was cancerous, would you keep it? the ad asks. “If the mechanics of an entire city said you needed new brakes, would you say, ‘No, are you okay?'”

Another ad describes the greenhouse effect as a “thickening blanket that traps heat in the atmosphere” – a simple and powerful analogy that Melissa Burt hopes will become a common shorthand.

“I think by just providing them with information so they can understand the urgency of the issue and feel more comfortable talking about it, they can easily engage with other people in their PTA group, their club. book, their wine club, whatever be.”

Burt, who is African American, also hopes to upend the mental image that the term “scientist” usually conjures up – a white man in a white coat. She remembers a mother she met after speaking at a panel on parenting and climate change.

“She’s like, ‘I’m a black mom living in New York. I didn’t think climate change was something that mattered to me. I just never really thought about it. Nobody’s ever been in on it. contact with me in this same way to make it clear to me that this trusted and credible messenger is saying this is something I should care about.'”

Yet crafting powerful slogans and imagery is only part of the battle, said Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University. Opponents of the climate movement, including the fossil fuel lobby and its political allies, have no qualms about traditional marketing – and in the fight for public opinion, they have home field advantage.

“If you push for change, those who oppose change have an easier time than supporters of change,” Shapiro said. “All they have to do is confuse.”

Opponents of the climate movement don’t have to refute climate science; that’s enough to make the science seem uncertain.

Opponents of the climate movement don’t have to refute climate science; that’s enough to make the science seem uncertain. They don’t have to convince people that climate change isn’t important; just make other issues seem equally important. Suburban moms are a key election demographic, Shapiro agreed, but when it comes to influencing their hearts and minds, it’s up to science moms. And ads aren’t enough: Science Moms, and their talking points, will also need exposure in mainstream news media if the band hopes to get things done.

“If they really want to maximize their effect, they have to be there every week to hammer this in so it doesn’t disappear from people’s radar screens,” Shapiro said. “And it’s tough. It takes resources and planning and you’re also competing with other things going on at the same time.”

Kline said Science Moms is indeed going hard. They’re running ads in 11 swing states, including Arizona, Colorado and Florida, places that are already feeling the effects of a warmer world. Videos with Burt and his fellow scientists appear on platforms such as Facebook and Vimeo, as well as major television networks, in partnership with the Ad Council. Kline also said Science Moms has made more than 3,000 media appearances, including full articles in The Washington Post and The New Yorker.

That may be enough to make scientists like Burt more accessible, bring climate change into conversations on playground benches and football field bleachers, and hopefully change a few votes on Election Day. elections.

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