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Can We Make Climate Change Sizzle?

CCA LiveE | Thursday May 12th, 2011 | 2 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

by Amy Gustincic

Keep Our Skies Blue poster

While waiting in the train station on my way out of San Francisco International Airport I noticed a group of business-casual people arriving in the city. The group was commenting on the carbon offset poster in the otherwise empty station. “Keep Our Skies Blue,” the poster read, with the message to buy air travel carbon offset credits at kiosks in the terminals. The loud-talker of the group didn’t understand the message of the poster, and it actually made him angry. “What are they trying to do?” he asked, suggesting that he thought it was some sort of San Francisco hippie exaggeration scam. He seemed more skeptical than inspired and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t going to be buying any carbon offsets. Observing the negative interaction between these travelers and the poster got me thinking about how can we better communicate messages of climate change.

British communications company Futerra has spent the past decade thinking about communicating sustainability messages and they’ve developed an approach based on the words of master salesman Elmer Wheeler, “Sell the sizzle, not the sausage.” If climate change is the sausage, then what’s the sizzle?

For a message of sustainability, the sizzle is a narrative that begins with a compelling vision of low-carbon “heaven.” Our communications must create a desirable picture in the minds of our audience of what a low-carbon future can look like. Creating this picture draws viewers into a world rather than alienating them with the typical visions of climate-change hell. It holds their attention long enough to get to the call to action, and doesn’t get immediately shut out by cynicism.

Our train-station poster attempts to sizzle with a lovely visual, but the generic blue-sky image failed to connect the campaign’s message to a personal situation. In addition, standing in the train station looking at the beautiful San Francisco sky, the poster failed to illustrate a clear difference between the reality of today and the potential of a low-carbon heaven.

To be successfully received, we must offer a clear vision of what the audience wants. Only then can we provide an action plan for what can be done in the near future (five years, not 20 or 30) to make it happen. We should make it clear to people that they have a choice—there are two paths to go down, one towards “heaven” and the other towards unmitigated climate change, and it’s up to them to decide.

The train-station poster does present an action item (buy carbon offsets) but it fails to give the viewer a choice of paths, or explain how buying carbon offsets would put them on one path or the other. The poster lacks a narrative and therefore fails to “sizzle.”

Current psychological research shows that typical dire climate change appeals may actually be counter productive, increasing skepticism and reducing intentions to decrease carbon footprints. One possible reason for this pattern is the idea that climate change threatens the common belief in a “just, orderly and stable” world. In order to overcome this threat, people deny the existence of climate change and discount the science. [Feinberg Willer, 2011] This research supports the idea that combining hopeful messaging with consequences could be more effective in communicating messages of climate change.

Given the above, how could we deliver a more compelling message to the travelers I observed?

We’d start with a clear understanding of our audience—in this case, travelers who are often tired and rushed, and may be local or not. We’d then frame the message to appeal to that audience in a way that includes a more relatable vision of “heaven.” That vision might include notions of “home” (something most travelers look forward to), or images of the Garcia River Forest (the project their carbon offset purchases will support). Then we’d give the viewer the information they need to understand the carbon situation and how it relates to the viewer specifically—at home and while traveling. We would explain what carbon offsets are and how inexpensive they can be (as low as $3.44 for a two-hour flight) and let the viewer know it’s their choice to make. We’d empower them to make that choice using clear, concise language.

Messages of climate change are challenging to communicate, but if they can be made more relatable as illustrated above, the “loud talkers” of the world might just start to listen.


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  • klem

    “What are they trying to do?” he asked, suggesting that he thought it was some sort of San Francisco hippie exaggeration scam”

    I think you are absolutely correct, I think that is precisely what he was suggesting. What’s amazing is that you actually think that travellers possess the same assessment of carbon offsets schemes that you do. In other parts of the USA (and other countries), carbon offsets are considered a scam. Investing in carbon offsets is akin to investing in a pyramid scheme, hippie idealism has nothing to do with it. No matter how it is presented at a train terminal it will not alter this opinion. At present I think only Californians believe the legitimacy of carbon offsets. Perhaps the best way to reposition carbon offsets is to alter the view nationally, make it more than just a California thing first. Right now, it’s just a California thing and those from other places merely shake their heads in suspicion. I think you’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of a non-beleiver and start from there.

  • NikFromNYC

    “Observing the negative interaction between these travelers and the poster got me thinking about how can we better communicate messages of climate change.”

    Get rid of hockey sticks and start supporting real science! Stop putting all of your eggs in the AGW basket. There’s real problems out there, real pollution, real land use issues, and real ocean use issues too.

    Tide gauges refute alarmism: http://oi56.tinypic.com/11jsp5i.jpg
    So do thermometers: http://oi51.tinypic.com/357pvme.jpg
    So does the global average: http://i49.tinypic.com/2mpg0tz.jpg
    So do dozens of temperature reconstructions, e.g.: http://oi52.tinypic.com/2upvlvm.jpg
    So do serious left wing intellectuals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n92YenWfz0Y
    But at least psychopaths support it: http://oi54.tinypic.com/wrm3xc.jpg