In promotion, vocabulary makes a difference. In the US, promotion has been our best tool in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the absence of widespread testing and available treatments. But the muddled message and vocabulary between politicians, scientists, and the healthcare community has led to a fractured public health effort. We saw the power of vocabulary in the push for gay marriage equality. Once the vocabulary of that campaign switched from “civil rights” to “love,” adoption of the new law quickly followed. Can we get similar results by changing the vocabulary for climate change awareness?
Don’t Upset the Children
In my day job as a marketing consultant, I occasionally get asked not to mention “climate change” in marketing materials I’m writing. This has happened primarily related to work for the utilities and insurance industries.
The rationale given is that these industries are conservative. Executives in these industries are likely to not believe in climate change, or at least in mankind’s role in the climate. My clients doesn’t want to put off people in their target demographic by mentioning controversial political ideas.
Colleagues suggest I change the text to say “frequent or increasing extreme weather events.” And I make the change. Sure, those are the events that utilities and insurance companies and other social goods organizations are directly responding to. But the “don’t upset the children” approach I find disturbing. Especially when more than two-thirds of people in the US think global warming is happening.
Finding a New Vocabulary for Climate Change
With the public promotion and mobilization related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re finally seeing what a global response to a crisis might look like. And because the shelter-in-place orders to mitigate viral spread has led to declining carbon emissions, we’re starting to see what changes might be needed to tackle climate change.
This moment may be a chance to expand our crisis response beyond COVID-19 to climate change–and vocabulary may play a key role.
This Stanford Social Innovation Review article argues for a new narrative around climate change. Because the current narrative, based in crisis and social obligation, isn’t working. I love the courage and persistence of Greta Thunberg. However, her message may not be the right one to win the day for climate change solutions.
Instead, the Stanford article authors propose a more personal narrative about climate change: a changing climate hurts your health. This provides a strong alignment to the current pandemic.
In some ways, this strategy parallels the messaging shift for gay marriage. That shift moved from the abstract social constructs of rights and fairness to something much more personal and primal: love and family.
Promoting Everyone’s Self-Interest of Health
And what can be more personal than health? If we don’t have health, we don’t have anything, as we’re reminded everyday during this pandemic. Air pollution from fossil fuels contributes not only to atmospheric change but also to “chronic bronchitis and asthma, cardiovascular diseases, systemic inflammation, impaired cognitive development and memory function, and kidney damage, as well as gastrointestinal, liver, lung, and renal cancers.” Air pollution may even worsen the effects of COVID-19.
In turn, these negative health consequences drive up health care costs, school and work absenteeism, and lost productivity.
It’s hard for people to care about the climate-driven health impacts of a polar bear. They will never encounter a wild polar bear face-to-face. But watching their spouse or grandchild struggle to breath provokes a visceral reaction. And that visceral reaction may be just what we need.