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T.S. Strickland headshot

In the Age of Trump, Business Leaders Must Take Up Climate Fight


For those who care about the fate of our warming planet, the last month presented a barrage of bleak headlines.

In America, President-elect Donald Trump has declared his suspicion that global warming is nothing but a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese and pledged to dismantle the landmark Paris climate agreement.

Meanwhile, hundreds of puffins — those brightly-colored, absurdly charismatic seabirds — have been washing up dead in Alaska, and scientists think climate change might be to blame.

Despite all of this, a group of corporate executives, sustainability consultants and environmental activists has spent the last three days in — wait for it — Florida mapping out a surprisingly sunny narrative about our future.

The consensus? If Washington is hell-bent on dismantling progress, the private sector must become equally hell-bent on protecting it.

“Complaining about the election and the incoming administration doesn’t help anybody," event organizer Jason Youner told the Guardian on Thursday. "We’re not here to debate whether there is climate change. We’re here to try to save the world, because the government’s not going to.”

The event, appropriately dubbed Companies versus Climate Change, began Wednesday with a keynote by David Fenton, a prominent publicist and climate change activist, who called on the audience to take up the banner of sustainability before it is too late.

“We are not winning the war of public opinion,” Fenton told the crowd, noting that only 16 percent of Americans consider climate change an urgent issue and less than half believe humans are to blame.

"That is not enough to get action," Fenton said, "and we have no program — no marketing, communications or mobilization program -- to raise that number.”

It was in the hope of changing this that Fenton spoke. The climate change movement is massive and well-funded, he said, but the people responsible for directing these ample resources aren't typically skilled communicators.

"If you come from the law, the sciences, the humanities or a policy background, you tend to have an innate belief that, if you explain the facts quietly to people, a lightbulb will go off in their head and everything will change," Fenton explained. "People in business know that is not how the brain works."

This year's election was a case in point, he continued — a triumph of emotion over reason.

“Trump had ‘make America great again,’" he said, "... And on climate change, we have ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’ — the Tower of Babel. We have no simple message.”

What would that message be? Fenton said he and a team of advertising professionals were in the early stages of figuring this out. They don't have a clear winner yet. However, this much is clear: Whatever the message, it will have to strike the right emotional tenor.

“We have to have a balance, it seems to me, between a message that's predominately hopeful, so that people can hear us, and that has enough fear and urgency in it," Fenton said. "My formula is two-thirds hope, one-third fear.”

Equally as important as the message is who will deliver it. In particular, Fenton said, we need to lift up voices on the political right who are speaking out about climate change — people like Jerry Taylor.

Taylor, a libertarian, was a vocal climate skeptic before mounting scientific evidence convinced him to change his stance. Now, he directs the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank that advocates for market-based solutions to climate change, among other things.

"By making people like [Taylor] better known, we open up political space for other Republicans to feel it is safe to come forward," Fenton said.

It was in the hope of promoting just such a dialogue that Fenton's firm — working with the Partnership for Responsible Growth — took out a series of 12 ads promoting mainstream climate science in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“In 25 years, no [Journal] editorial had ever admitted that humans were changing the climate," Fenton said. The ads, which were highly critical of the paper, attracted a lot of attention — including from the Journal's op-ed editor, who initially refused to run them. He was overruled by the chief revenue officer.

“As a consolation prize, they charged us $10,000 more for that ad," Fenton said.

He urged the audience to support a similar, large-scale effort.

“There is currently no regularly visible business group on climate science and solutions," he said. "The only thing that works in marketing is regular visibility. There are business groups. There's some terrific ones. But there are none focused, day-in and day-out, on showing the public and policymakers the truth of this issue.

“I pray that we get together and organize a scientific marketing and communications campaign to turn this situation around," he concluded, "for the sake of our children and the world. Because if we don't do that, if we leave the predominant messaging and communications efforts to the enemies of progress, we will stay where we are.”
Image credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
T.S. Strickland headshot

T.S. Strickland is the founder of Neon Tangerine — a branding, strategy and experience shop focused on food, tech and social good. His writing has appeared in Impact Alpha, Entrepreneur, the Food Rush and elsewhere.

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