Make It Personal

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Make climate change personal. Make your message personally relevant and people will think about it (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981). Americans see climate change as a distant problem. When people believe they have experienced climate change firsthand, they are more likely to believe that it is happening and more likely to care about the threat (Myers, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Akerlof, & Leiserowitz, 2012). They are also more likely to support government action (Vainio & Paloniemi, 2013). Remember, humans are a part of nature. Climate change doesn't just threaten polar bears. It threatens all of us.

Summers are longer and hotter... Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies… Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides... Insurance rates are rising... Wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage.
— National Climate Assessment

Talk about real people. Even a stranger’s experience with climate change can stir strong feelings in people. Your message should include stories of people's personal experience with drought, floods or severe weather (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001). Show how natural disasters on American soil may be linked to climate change. Your goal should be to create a feeling of anxiety in your audience more than a feeling of concern for the victim (Hart, 2010).

Hurricane Katrina has been linked to climate change.

Hurricane Katrina has been linked to climate change.

Don't assume people already care. Not everyone feels the same level of concern. Acknowledge this by saying something like, "Many Americans are starting to think about the problem of climate change" (ecoAmerica, 2009).



Tell a Story


Tell a story. Create a heroic narrative in which we overcome our own complacency to defeat an all but unconquerable foe (Marshall, 2014). To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we should take on climate change not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because doing so "will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win."

Tell a good story. The characters in your story should have clear goals and relatable motives, and the action should unfold in a believable way. Information is unimportant. It's all about narrative (Fisher, 1984).

Focus on solutions. By starting with solutions, you can make it easier for your audience to accept that climate change is happening (Dryzek, Norgaard, and Schlosberg, 2011). Explain how addressing climate change will make life better by spurring innovation, improving public health and strengthening national security. All of this will make us happier. You should spend more time talking about solutions than about the problem.

The solutions should match the challenge. If one person changes his lightbulbs, it won't do much, but if we all change our lightbulbs, it can have an impact. Explain how our collective efforts can stem the advance of climate change (ecoAmerica, 2013).

Don't terrify people. Inspiring fear can backfire, especially when you don’t offer a clear solution. Dire warnings about climate change can actually make people less likely to reduce their carbon footprint (Feinberg & Willer, 2010). Fear won't work if people don't feel empowered (Peters, Ruiter, & Kok, 2013).

When we ask for hope, then, I think we’re just asking for fellowship. The weight of climate change, like any weight, is easier to bear with others. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in these last 10 years, it’s that there are many, many others. They are out there, men and women of extraordinary imagination, courage and perseverance, pouring themselves into this fight for a better future. You are not alone. And as long as you are not alone, there is always hope.
— David Roberts, Climate Writer



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Appeal to group identity. That could mean, for example, Americans, New Yorkers, NYU Students or members of a particular fraternity or sorority. People are are more likely to identify with smaller groups than with larger groups, so find the smallest group your audience identifies with. People care about other members of their group and they will be eager to help their group realize a particular goal (Jackson, 2008) even if not everyone is on board (Arora & Logg, 2014).

Moreover, if people believe their group has harmed the natural world and the damage can be repaired, they will feel some sense of collective guilt and will try to repair the damage (Ferguson & Branscombe, 2009).

Investing in fossil fuel corporations jeopardizes Harvard’s institutional resilience and integrity as well as the future of its students.
— Divest Harvard

Appeal to a sense of legancy. Our desire to leave a legacy after we die can be powerful motivation for climate action. (Wade-BenzoniTost, Hernandez, & Larrick, 2012). To that point, people living in older countries have a stronger sense of the future and feel more concerned about then environment than people in younger countries. Talking about the United States as an old country can make Americans more willing to take action (Hershfield, Bang, Weber, 2013).

We know now the world is not a commodity, is not a source of revenue. It’s a common good. It’s our heritage.
— François Hollande, President of France

Make it normal to care about climate change. Did your mom ever ask, "If all your friends went and jumped off a cliff, would you?" Studies show the answer is a resounding "yes." People want to behave like their peers (Graziano & Gillingham, 2014). If they believe that everyone is talking about climate change, they will be more likely to take an interest in the issue (Spartz, Yi-Fan Su, Griffin, Brossard, & Dunwoody, 2015).

DON'T say, "You must take steps to reduce your carbon footprint."

DO say, "Americans everywhere are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint."