Maximizing Climate Leadership Through Effective Communication

Over the past twelve months, governments have made enormous progress in working towards climate change solutions. The historic international agreement reached in Paris at COP 21, unprecedented bilateral agreements made between China and the United States to reduce emissions, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan focusing on transitioning to renewables in states and regions, and even local and citywide measures like the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative—all mark tremendous movement on advancing potent climate action.

Climate change is even making its way into pop culture. This year’s Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio used his acceptance speech to spotlight the dangers and urgent need for climate action. Oscar winning director James Cameron used his celebrity platform at the Democratic National Convention to draw attention to the devastation that climate change is already unleashing worldwide. And most recently, the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro highlighted how climate change is already affecting a growing number of nations, and that global problems require global solutions.

“Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It’s the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.” Leonardo DiCaprio 

While all of these developments are nudging Americans in the right direction, and putting climate change in the spotlight, it is important to ensure that such messages are not wasted opportunities to do more. After all, raising awareness is not enough—action is what is needed.

Research tells us that merely focusing on the impacts of climate change, on the doom and gloom, can make people feel helpless. Providing statistics, facts, and figures can turn off listeners, who may feel confused or as though they are being lectured at. And respondents often feel alienated from abstract messages, with no real idea how they are supposed to address the problems of a warming planet.

Fortunately, research also points to some simple ways that all of us can effectively talk about climate. Most importantly, climate messages must start with people, and stay with people. Climate leaders must connect with their audience, and show that acting will improve their lives, make their communities better, healthier places to live, and help create stable, well-paying jobs. Leaders must empathize with the difficulties of acting, and recognize the local consequences that we are all seeing—but quickly pivot to what can be done to minimize the damage of these consequences. By showing the benefits of action, leaders can inspire members of their community to act.

The 15 Steps:

  1. Start with people, stay with people. Mayors must express that climate action is about residents first. Be sure to stay focused on how action improves the lives of families and residents in your city.
  2. Connect on common values. We all want to live in clean, healthy cities. Show residents that values including faith, community, personal choice, health, and fairness are the motivations for climate action.
  3. Acknowledge ambivalence. Show that you recognize the competing priorities and limited time available to effect climate solutions.
  4. Make it real. Point out local, real climate impacts that affect residents and the health of their communities.
  5. Emphasize solutions. Climate change offers opportunities and solutions that can empower communities. These include well paying, stable jobs for residents, lower energy bills for businesses and families, and healthier environments to live and raise a family. Focus on these benefits rather than the consequences of a changing climate.
  6. Inspire and empower. Cities are the epicenters of climate action. Mayors and community leaders are able to act quickly, decisively, and implement climate action plans with an efficiency unparalleled at the state and federal level. These may include subsidies for rooftop solar, bike paths, or even increased energy efficiency standards for new construction. Let your community know how local action can translate to regional and global progress.
  7. Focus on personal benefit. Climate action brings well-paying, stable jobs. It puts more money back into family pocketbooks by decreasing energy bills, and creates healthier environments to live and work. Focus on these benefits rather than personal sacrifices.
  8. End with your “ask.” Call on residents to be productive climate changers and provide the impetus to act. This may include voting and supporting climate-wise policies and programs.
  9. Sequence matters. Start your messaging with what is personal and relevant to your constituents’ lives, and move to solutions.
  10. Describe, don’t label. Use simple language to illustrate the need and benefits of action. Picturing the results of solutions is more effective than jargon-filled explanations.
  11. Have at least one powerful fact from a trusted messenger. Don’t get too bogged down with statistics. Use one or two statements from a source your community trusts to lend support for action.
  12. Ditch doom and gloom. Too much talk about climate consequences is not constructive, so focus instead on how action can overcome these challenges.
  13. Use stories to strengthen engagement. Stay away from abstractions. Use personal stories to show that action benefits real people in the community.
  14. Stay above the fray. Don’t get sidetracked or sucked into arguments—focus on the big picture of climate solutions.
  15. Message discipline is critical. Know your residents and what is important to them. Stick to your talking points and stay on message.

Mayors, community and local leaders, who are on the frontlines of climate action, are often the most trusted public officials that residents interact with in their everyday lives. Because of this, it is important that whenever leaders are given a platform to speak about climate, they ensure their message is as potent and effective as possible. Hone your climate communication skills by joining with leaders at Path to Positive Communities.

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at

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