Check out the articles based on our interviews at Network for Business Sustainability (NBS):
James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the solutions that we’ll need to address the climate crisis. I’m James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review, share it with your friends, or tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s episode is the 100th episode of Climate Now, and we wanna thank all of our listeners for tuning in, those who have been with us from the beginning, and those who are coming to us more recently. Here at Climate Now, we’ve learned a huge amount since we started producing this podcast, and we’ve met so many people doing so many great things in the space.
We thought that, for our hundredth episode, it would be interesting to take a look at climate communication. We talked to three people who are working to win others over to the climate cause. The first is veteran progressive marketing and public relations guru David Fenton, who believes the climate movement needs to stop moralizing and start advertising.
The second is [00:01:00] Leah Thomas, an environmental justice social media influencer who’s working to reach Gen Z with the climate message. And finally, psychologist Elke Weber will explain how to change hearts and minds on the individual and community level.
This episode was produced in collaboration with Network for Business Sustainability or NBS. Check out their articles on how to talk about climate change at nbs.net.
There was a story that came out May 23rd in the New York Times this week by Michael Levenson which publicized a study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by a group of scientists with affiliations at Georgia Tech and other universities, which looked at the risk to the population of Phoenix in the event of a combined heatstroke and extended power failure.
And the study found that about 800,000 residents would need emergency medical care for heat stroke, and other [00:02:00] illnesses in the event of both of those things happening at the same time. Julio, Darren, did you guys see this story? What did you think?
Julio Friedmann: Yes, I did. I am glad that people are studying these kinds of black swan events where you have a combination of a climate crisis with some other crisis. Understanding the consequences of these things is important for planning.
I don’t know whether it will be 800,000 people or somewhat more, or somewhat less, but it’s alarming. There’s no way that you can actually build enough hospitals to manage this. That’s not what adaptation means.
So instead, you have to think about how you really manage what people are now calling “heaticanes” and trying to figure out how it is you can actually cope comprehensively and well with combined challenges when climate exacerbates things.
James Lawler: Yeah, and it’s an interesting backdrop here. So the population of Phoenix continues to increase year over year at between one and 2%, so people continue to move to [00:03:00] Phoenix. A study done to assess the reliability of the grid in the United States, uh, that was just published estimates that about two thirds of Americans will experience power outages this summer due to demand for cooling throughout the country.
And you have the mayor of the city of Phoenix who is reported in this story to- she’s basically saying, “help!” Phoenix’s Mayor, uh, Katie Gallegos urging the federal government to add extreme heat to the list of disasters like floods and hurricanes that could prompt a federal disaster declaration.
So we noticed a story this week in Climate Wire: a United Nations panel is casting doubt on the promise of using machines to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and the ocean to fight climate change. So this is sort of casting a pall of skepticism over, you know, carb- industrial or sort of techno, technology-based as opposed to, say, natural solutions.
Julio, you, I’m sure, have seen this.
Julio Friedmann: [00:04:00] Yeah, I’ve had a busy week. I don’t know what prompted this. There is some question as to whether or not this followed conventional UN process in point of fact. A number of groups, including the International Emissions Trading Association has issued a public statement that the conventional UN process has not been met here.
I also find this surprising because. The IPCC, which is a UN arm, has said that we need enormous amounts of CO2 removal. In fact, their prediction is that we need 1.2 gigatons of CO2 removal by 2030 by these engineered systems. So there’s some confusion as to what’s actually going on here. The technologies that we’re deploying today and that they called out things like bioenergy with CCS, things like, you know, direct air capture, uh, are, in fact, getting investment. They’re scaling well. The risks so far [00:05:00] have been small.
There was an announcement last week of a deal between Microsoft and Orsted to do bioenergy with CCS on municipal wastes and on forestry wastes. These things are scaling up well and to say there could be environmental problems in the future doesn’t seem like solid grounds for this kind of, uh, statement to say that it is not, ill-suited for 6.4.
The last thing that I’ll say, and again, there’s a question around this, it is actually outside the jurisdiction of this group to talk about economic readiness. So the fact that they issued this statement is curious. I am confident that it will create some back pressure and it will create challenges, but it’s not really based on science.
It counters the UN’s own science. So we’ll see how this plays out.
James Lawler: Changing topics, our next story is about, uh, Darren. Darren, what is our next story?
Darren Hau: Yeah, sure thing. I think the big news over the last few days is that Ford and Tesla have partnered [00:06:00] up to enable Ford vehicles to use Tesla’s supercharger network.
This is honestly a bit of a sea change in the industry, a bit of a shockwave, especially for, well may, maybe I’m in a little bit of a bubble, but we find it really, really impactful and interesting in the, in the industry. So what’s gone on in the industry is that, you know, plugs for charging have been very much like plugs in your AC outlets.
You know, you have a plug in North America that doesn’t necessarily work in Europe or in China, or et cetera. Everyone who’s traveled knows how they have to buy adapters. So lack of standardization is a big problem. Uh, for EV charging in particular, we’ve had kind of that problem a little bit on steroids, especially in North America.
We have had three competing standards to the Tesla charging standard, which they call the NACS standard, or North American Charging Standard, the CCS standard, which is a combined charging system, and then CHAdeMO, which came out of a consortium of Japanese companies. Now these days, basically only Nissan Leafs use CHAdeMO [00:07:00] adapters. It’s, it’s kind of a dying standard, at least in North America.
But what we’ve seen in, like, Europe is, you know, Tesla has switched to the CCS standard. Now that’s CCS2, a different standard than what is applied in North America, which is called CCS1. But what we have is a situation where now Tesla vehicles, which are the most popular electric vehicle, use a standard that is not the same as everyone else.
So you kind of have this Apple lightning connector versus a USBC situation going on. For a long time now, Tesla has been saying, “hey, we wanna open up our adapters. People can use our network. We’re not trying to be a walled garden”.
People can have different opinions on whether they were, well, whether Elon was truly offering that at face value or not. The question was whether any other OEMs would actually take Tesla up on that offer. And for a while it seemed like that wouldn’t be the case. You know, all the OEMs had basically implemented CCS1.
So it’s really quite a surprise to see Ford working with Tesla on this. Now, there’s a lot of advantages, uh, to this deal. So what does this deal actually say? First of all, it says that [00:08:00] Ford vehicles will be able to use more than 12,000 Tesla superchargers across North America, so US and Canada starting next year via an adapter.
And what might be even more interesting: Ford vehicles starting in their next generation, so call it mid-decade, uh, are going to include a standard, the Tesla charging plug in there. So that, that is huge. Why would Ford be incentivized to do this? Well, it’s very clear to the industry that Tesla’s supercharger network is the most robust, most, you know, prolific network out there.
So from Ford’s perspective, they get to offer their customers the usage of this network uh, without investing in those capital costs.
James Lawler: And from a customer perspective, like I, I just don’t think any other network compares- even comes close to Tesla’s, to Tesla’s charging network.
Darren Hau: Nothing. Nothing comes close.
Yeah. If you see a JD Powers report the customer satisfaction for Tesla, that’s the only one that’s above the average for every other charging network. So Tesla’s single-handedly pulling up the performance of the [00:09:00] entire industry. It’s not risk free, right? Essentially what Ford customers are doing is giving Tesla money, um, but on the flip side, it’s, it’s not risk free for Tesla either, right?
No longer can you say that Tesla has a moat, uh, that only Tesla vehicles can use a supercharger network. Now what it does enable them to do, along with their magic dock adapter, is allow them to apply for NEVI funding. ‘Cause now they are open to more than just their own vehicles, they can apply for federal funding to subsidize the growth of their network.
So, you know, regardless of the competitive pressures on both sides, I think for the consumer this is a major win.
James Lawler: That’s great, thanks Darren. Another story related to cars, EVs, California is going to mandate, it looks like, bidirectional charging for electric vehicles by 2027.
So this is an accelerated timeline from, I think, what had been contemplated previously. It always seems like, you know, you turn around and California’s mandating one more thing to happen a little bit faster than it was gonna happen otherwise, which is great. But [00:10:00] what exactly does this mean? You know, mandating electric vehicles, new electric vehicles to have bidirectional charging.
Darren Hau: Yeah. On a big-picture level, the quite the, the reason this bill has probably surfaced is because of some of the grid strains we’ve seen, uh, that are slightly attributable to electric vehicles.
I believe it was last summer or maybe the summer before, where Governor Newsom was saying, “hey, we need to electrify. Oh, by the way, please don’t charge your cars during a certain period ’cause our grid can’t handle it.”
Big picture, like, our grid can handle EVs on there, especially with managed smarter charging and grid integration. This bill is essentially proposing that we take one step further and enable vehicles not only to stop charging, uh, when there are stresses on the grid, but also to pump power back into the grid.
This is not necessarily new technology. We’ve had this for quite a long time. Bus fleets in particular are often using bidirectional charging because they are giant batteries that are used in the morning and maybe the afternoon to take kids back and forth [00:11:00] from work. But then otherwise they’re sitting at a depot.So why not use that asset?
However, bidirectional charging hasn’t really taken off as much in the passenger vehicle segment, uh, largely because it adds additional cost and, and, and weight to, to the system. And there’s a question of, well, what, what value does it really provide? But Julio, what do you think?
Julio Friedmann: I agree with your overall framing here. It again, seems to be attempting to solve a problem we don’t have with a technology that adds weight and cost. That doesn’t make it wrong… we could get some resilience. We may in the future be able to better load renewables on without having to also pay for, you know, grid battery storage, uh, separately.
But this is, I think, an opportunity to learn in the best case, in the worst case, it’ll be another mandate which doesn’t deliver anything.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm. Interestingly, that new bill on bidirectional charging comes in the same week that California unanimously [00:12:00] approved its Advanced Clean Fleets rule, which requires all new medium and heavy duty vehicles sold or registered in California to be zero emission by 2036.
It also bans new diesel trucks from shipping ports and rail yards beginning in 2024. So these are other big steps in terms of decarbonizing vehicles in in the state of California.
Julio Friedmann: Yeah. Let me just quickly say 2024 is pretty soon-
James Lawler: It is.
Julio Friedmann: -uh, for the kind of heavy duty applications that port vehicles have, we’ll see how well they do. You could replace all of them with hydrogen. You could replace many of them with electricity and batteries, but boy, that is tough in terms of the duty cycles, the weight requirements, these other things.
James Lawler: Yeah.
Julio Friedmann: I did like this story, uh, that came out about a partnership between IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, and Bloomberg Philanthropies around COP28. And [00:13:00] the thing that I found most, uh, interesting about this, there’s three different basic bits of work they’re talking about doing together. One of them is capacity building in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America. Uh, second is improving finance for projects in prep- preparation around that.
Hopefully that will include things like working with the multilateral banks to help reduce risk and, and these sorts of things. And then facilitating mobilization of private capital into more projects using groups like the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. One of the things that’s lovely about this is that these are all really needed.
It is not obvious how to get from where we are to those outcomes, and having a philanthropy like Bloomberg working with a group like IRENA will hopefully get more problems and challenges cleared.
You’ve heard me say before, if we’re gonna deploy at scale, we just need more human beings who really know the job and if this partnership helps build [00:14:00] capabilities, helps build capacity for human beings around the country and around the world. That’s just awesome.
James Lawler: Now to our interviews, David Fenton is the founder of purpose-driven marketing and public relations firm Fenton Communications. David and his firm have had a hand in some of the most important progressive media campaigns of the last 40 years. With clients ranging from Nelson Mandela to Bruce Springsteen to Al Gore.
But David has bad news: the climate deniers are winning the PR fight. David’s view is that, by and large, fossil fuel industry interest groups and other opponents of climate action have mastered the art of reaching the American public. The climate movement, meanwhile, prefers to let sound science and effective policies speak for themselves.
David says, this isn’t enough.
David Fenton: People that study the humanities, the law, and the sciences are taught the basically false belief [00:15:00] that we call the enlightenment fallacy: that a great idea will magically sell itself. It will convince people because it is so intrinsically brilliant. And people that go to business schools study cognitive and marketing science, and they learn that that is absolutely not true.
That the brain only absorbs information when it is simple, when the messages are simple and when they are repeated incessantly. So you notice the right is often unified in its messaging. They unify their echo chamber. They say the same thing every day, and they say it over and over and over and over again through all their outlets.
They coordinate and unify their communications because they understand that that’s how the brain changes- through the exposure to the repetition of simple messages. Now on the progressive side, we basically hate that very idea. [00:16:00] We love complexity. We hate simplifying things. We think it’s manipulative and misleading and we hate repeating ourselves, and we don’t really value communications.
Like if you look at the big environmental groups, they do a lot of great law and science and policy work, but they spend almost nothing on mass communications and public education. You only hear from them, basically when they’re trying to raise money.
But the people from the fossil fuel companies, they value it very much. They’re using it right now in claiming that, you know, wind, offshore wind is killing whales, as if they care. And you know, they’re very good at using symbolism.
James Lawler: So when it comes to successful communications, you have to make your message simple and you have to repeat it. You have to say it multiple times. You have to deliver it over and over and over again.
See what I did there? The key to good communications is symbolism, [00:17:00] repetition, and simplicity. Here’s an example.
David Fenton: So back in the late 1980s, a bunch of doctors groups and and others, Ralph Nader, et cetera, were trying to get a, a very carcinogenic chemical banned from the food supply. It was used on apples and it was called alar, and alar was a growth regulator.
It, it ripened all the apples and made them red at the same time. And it was among the most cancer-causing chemicals in the food supply. And it was particularly bad for children because kids eat a lot of applesauce and drink a lot of apple juice relative to their size. So kids were being overdosed with this carcinogen.
And the EPA kept falling victim to so-called regulatory capture. The industry, the chemical industry kept delaying their review of this chemical and nothing was moving. So I [00:18:00] got hired by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, to publicize their report that included this chemical, among others. And we decided to focus on this chemical because of the symbolism of poison apples. An apple a day is supposed to keep the doctor away, not make your kid sick.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
David Fenton: This is basic communications principle. What the linguists and the cognitive scientists will explain to you is, as you’re exposed to language over your lifetime and imagery, it forms literal circuitry in your brain. These are called frames. Now, successful communications activates those existing frames.
So for example, when I say net zero, Hardly anybody knows what the frick I’m talking about.
James Lawler: Right.
David Fenton: I’m not activating any existing circuitry in the brain. When [00:19:00] I say “we have to stop polluting”, everybody knows what I mean instantly, and no one will defend pollution- ever. Pollution is universally bad. That’s an existing mental frame.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
David Fenton: So the- we have a big problem in the climate world, which is much of our language is totally inscrutable to most of the public. And we’re not gonna amass the degree of public support and unity for the enormous transformations we need in politics and the market if we don’t have a motivated, knowledgeable, activated public.
And, unfortunately, very few people are working on that.
James Lawler: Yeah. So you basically outlined two big challenges that climate communicators face today. One sort of by way of the example you shared about the apple pesticide, namely very few channels reach [00:20:00] the kind of numbers that they used to, right? You have to basically be Rihanna at the Super Bowl.
Not to overuse that concept, but you know, to, to reach sort of numbers at scale, right? So you have the problem of scale and you have the problem of, sort of, this fracturing of the media landscape. And then you have the second problem, which is just that the language and imagery are not sufficient.
David Fenton: Well, actually that’s very true that the media is much more fragmented.
It’s a much more challenging of an environment to break through. Look, here’s the situation: so two thirds of Americans report they almost never hear anybody talk about climate change, two thirds of Americans report they hardly ever hear about climate change in the media, only 20% of Americans (these are Yale figures) know that there’s scientific consensus among climate scientists.
Most people still think there’s enormous disagreement about whether humans are heating the earth. Only [00:21:00] a- 30% of Americans are alarmed about this, and when you press them harder on the issue, it’s a low priority issue for most people.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
David Fenton: They view it as way in the distant future and not likely to affect them.
So ha- again, if those public opinion numbers remain, how are we supposed to do what science demands? This, you know, we have to, as you know, James, we have to mobilize as if for a war. We have to transform the entire industrial base of the world in a hurry. And, so, how can you mobilize the public for war if they don’t know they’re under attack?
I can tell you from the polling, they don’t.
James Lawler: Okay, so what do we do? Right? You’ve thought a lot about this.
David Fenton: Well, the, you know, the answer is actually pretty simple. We have, now, a lot of data on what language, [00:22:00] imagery, and messages and messengers work to change public opinion. What we lack is the resources directed at delivering those proven, tested messages and images to target segments of the public with enough repetition to sink in and change public opinion.
Because of media fragmentation, unless Rihanna is gonna do it on the Super Bowl, you know, every month on climate change, we have to buy access to the public mind. It used to be you could get it for free.
You can’t get it for free anymore. Mm-hmm. Not with the repetition that’s required for it to stick.
James Lawler: Why could you get it for free before?
David Fenton: Well, because, like you said, you could go on 60 minutes and 35 million people would see it. There was only three television networks, so if you got on two of them, everybody knew what you had to say.
James Lawler: Yep. [00:23:00]
David Fenton: Those days are gone. The climate community has a lot of money. There’s a lot of climate philanthropy. The problem is back to the mindset.
Most of the money goes into what I call the supply of policy. Studies, reports, conferences, meetings, opening more offices around the world, and we don’t lack a supply of policy.
We know what to do by and large. We lack demand. And there’s almost no funding going into demand.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
David Fenton: So if you spent 300, $400 million a year on communication in the United States using these proven, tested messages, you would transform the political dynamic on the climate issue. You would change the political will.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
David Fenton: So I ask people, well, how much do you think it costs to buy a [00:24:00] 30-second television ad in Washington DC on CNN or Fox? One 30-second television ad on cable news in the Washington Metro Market. James, do you- will you take a guess? How much do you think it costs? Take a wild guess.
James Lawler: Um, 2.5 million?
David Fenton: Yeah, okay. So most people give answers like that, and the answer is $2,500. It’s $2,500. And so, in other words, the reason we don’t neutralize the impact of the fossil fuel advertising on the political establishment and the media based in Washington isn’t because we don’t have the money it’s ’cause we don’t think that way.
And the people who go to business school who have to sell products and services to advance their careers, they think that way. So they spend money on that. And we don’t, it’s not ’cause we don’t have the money. We have the money in the community [00:25:00] to do-
James Lawler: I see
David Fenton: -this, we just don’t-
James Lawler: I see.
David Fenton: -spend it on this. If Bill Gates and, and Jeff Bezos and you know, a bunch of other billionaires sincerely and legitimately concerned about climate change, would make more of a priority of public knowledge and, uh, political will, we could do this.
James Lawler: In today’s media landscape, we get our information from many different sources.
David Fenton is a veteran PR strategist who’s worked within major traditional media landscapes like television and newspapers. Now, we’ll hear from someone who is using some of those same communication techniques to reach a large swath of people, mostly younger generations, through social media.
Leah Thomas is an environmental justice influencer. Her nonprofit, Intersectional Environmentalist, not only promotes environmental messages, but also environmental messages that put minorities, LGBTQ+ people, and other historically marginalized groups, front and center. The whole thing began back in 2020. Leah had been working for the communications team of [00:26:00] the Patagonia apparel brand. Then, a post on her personal blog went viral.
Leah Thomas: I had a blog called Green Girl Leah, which I still have, where I just- it was like a, a life- I just told people what I was doing, like” I’m, I’m hiking, I’m doing this”. And then I was working at Patagonia at the time, and then the pandemic had just started and there was really major racial justice uprisings, as you remember, during 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement.
And there was a lot of environmentalists who were just asking questions like, should we be involved? Should we not be involved? What’s going on? So I made a post on social media basically saying, like, as a call to action for the environmental community to support racial justice reform.
And then I did a definition of “this is what intersectional environmentalism means to me, and this is why racial justice is important. And if you’d like to join me, here’s a pledge that I created for, you know, action steps for people to get involved”. And that started circulating on the internet [00:27:00] in a way that I had never seen before, like it was shared over a million times, like 50,000 people liked it, et cetera.
So a group of friends, about four of us, decided to make Intersectional Environmentalist within a week from that post kind of going viral to channel that virality to a resource that was a collective of people.
James Lawler: Intersectional Environmentalist reaches millions of younger people with its environmental justice messages.
Leah has also launched an event company, Green Girl Productions. It’s debut event, the Black Ecofeminist Summit in London sold out. But, for Leah, a million impressions on social media doesn’t mean anything if you can’t then inspire real world action. So I asked her, how does one not only get people to listen, but also to act?
Leah Thomas: I would say being very solutions-focused and optimistic and hyper-local-
James Lawler: In the messaging, you mean?
Leah Thomas: Yeah, in the messaging, it really helps. So there’s a study by an agency, Futerra, that I adore and they’ve probably [00:28:00] worked with a lot of businesses out there, and they have this great study. It’s- well, it’s not great, but it’s showing that Gen Zers in particular and Gen Z consumers are identifying with something called climate fatalism a lot more than previous generations.
So a lot of millennials felt climate pessimism, so there wasn’t a lot- they were like, “eh, there’s probably nothing that we can do. You know, we could maybe do something”. But a lot of GenZe are like, “no, I’m fatalistic. There is no hope”. We’ve had a humongous amount of climate organizing, but I think it’s unfortunately led to an extreme amount of climate fatalism, which is also leading to apathy and inaction because, if you feel like there’s no hope for the future, why are you going to act?
So I feel like what’s really worked for me and Team IE is showing people that there is hope. So, you know, finding those people out there who are doing really cool things in the world of regenerative agriculture, explaining how carbon sequestration can be a [00:29:00] solution, et cetera, highlighting those stories.
And yeah, it’s been helping people say, “okay, I wanna get involved” because the solutions are out there. We just need to fund them, amplify them, and support them.
James Lawler: But, so what do you do about the fact that fake news or just clickbait seems to do really well on social media?
Leah Thomas: So, if you start with, like, this horrible headline or something that’s really divisive, people are probably going to comment a little bit more
James Lawler: or a lot more,
Leah Thomas: a lot more, a lot more.
James Lawler: It’s not, like, a little. It’s either, it’s either very low or a lot because you hit some nerve.
Leah Thomas: Yeah, and it’s scary and I know a lot of platforms that completely give into that. And their platforms are built on canceling brands about not being sustainable enough, et cetera. And they get- their engagement is through the roof.
And we only get that similar engagement when we post something that’s really optimistic. So that brings me a lot of joy as [00:30:00] well, because when we have these stories like, “did you know if the soil were healthier, we could save the earth?” Like, things like that, people get so excited and the comments are hilarious to me.
They’re just like, “I was gonna give up today, but I’m not”. It’s so sweet.
James Lawler: I was gonna start wearing sweatpants and just throw in the towel. No I’m just kidding-
Leah Thomas: -but they’re like, “but the, but the carbon and the soil like this is really exciting”. So, I am not here to cancel anyone through the internet. So that’s something that, as one of my values, I’m not here to do that.
Accountability is really important, but I think just kind of defining like, okay, what do I wanna do on social media? And having a clear North Star. And for me it’s like, I wanna use this as a platform to increase the awareness about environmental justice and hopefully turn this into real life action change curriculums, et cetera.
James Lawler: So I wonder how you use these strategies if you’re trying to reach Gen Zs and younger people with [00:31:00] messages about actual policy. Like if you’re the Biden administration, how do you get Gen Zs fired up about something like the Inflation Reduction Act, which is, you know, this big complicated piece of legislation that, that probably does not play too well on TikTok?
Leah Thomas: Yeah, it’s so- I don’t wanna call it cute, but it’s kind of cute watching the White House and other government agencies trying to navigate TikTok and the world of Instagram, et cetera. But they’re realizing that these TikTok creators or Instagram creators, some of them are 19 years old. They’re getting like three times the amount of views and engagement on their posts talking about the IRA or something like that than maybe the White House is getting in some of their other climate communications, which is wild.
So they’re trying to figure out, and they have this brand-new team, I think it’s called, like, the White House Digital Comms Team that’s run by a bunch of, like, [00:32:00] millennials and maybe some older GenZers who are trying to make that a part of the strategy. Like even testing out, inviting some of these online digital creators to press briefings.
And when the IRA was passed, they invited, kind of, a collective of us to go to educate our communities on some of the, you know, major, you know, findings. And it was even something that was really unbiased, kind of talking about the pros and cons of Justice 40 and the IRA, et cetera. And I’ll never forget being in a room with President Biden and them saying, “take out your phones, like, take it out, like, it’s okay”. And not telling us to put them away because they’re figuring it out. Yeah.
James Lawler: If you can’t beat ’em, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Leah Thomas: And it’s kinda funny, but it’s also affirming and really exciting and I get it. They want people to understand this legislation. So even when, I think it was Justice 40, when it came out, their team sent Intersectional [00:33:00] Environmentalist just a breakdown of “this is, this is a summary, so if you all could, like, make a graphic to just tell people this is what this piece of legislation is”, and then people in the comments were saying, “this is not comprehensive enough”, “I’m excited about this”.
And we’ve even had Instagram lives with the @WhiteHouse account or the Department of Energy, et cetera, as they figure it out, and it’s working because we’re seeing a lot of Gen Zers want to engage in policy in ways that they hadn’t before. And I think it’s because they’re breaking that accessibility gap. And, you know, I think some people might argue like, “why is the White House on Instagram?” But if you want Gen Zers to turn out and vote, you should probably be on Instagram.
A lot of the climate creators online are acting as representatives for a specific community that’s sometimes really hyper niche. So for example, a friend of mine, Isaias, has an Instagram account called Queer Brown Vegan. [00:34:00] Very niche, but is representing a lot of, you know, Latino folks out there who are also, you know, a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and then also a spokesperson for vegans of color, which could be activated to be a really strong voting block.
So I guess it makes sense why they wanna do it, and I think it’s cool seeing them navigate it, even when sometimes it’s a little cringey, but they’re figuring it out.
James Lawler: Leah’s working to reach a large number of people with messages that will inspire them to act, what she says is a difficult challenge, even for audiences who are already inclined to believe in environmental causes.
But what about people who don’t fit that criteria? What about people from red states and conservative communities in places with economies that depend on the fossil fuel industry or other emissions-intensive industries, people whose social media algorithms won’t lead them to Leah’s content?
Psychologist Elke Weber, a professor at [00:35:00] Princeton, is looking for the answer. She and her colleagues study how individuals and entire communities change their climate beliefs. I asked her about communities whose livelihoods have been built around the fossil fuel industry.
Let’s just imagine a person who has made their livelihood from, let’s say, foss-, the fossil fuel industry, or you know, from business- from a business that has, that, that sort of relies on unsustainable practices. So much of their identity is, let’s say, wrapped up in a particular way of being in the world, right?
And so their moral code is formed around that. How does that person change their view about the priority of climate action and the priority of making a transition?
Dr. Elke Weber: When you’re sort of getting to the notion of identity and that our identity oftentimes is shaped, you know, by sort of what we have been doing all of our lives, you [00:36:00] know, and that is not so easy to just switch gears.
I come from a coal region in Germany and certainly my parents’ generation, uh, they weren’t in the mines, but you know, that’s what, you know, sort of drove the economy and, and you saw the mine shafts every day. Uh, and, and you’re absolutely right, it’s a lifestyle. Clubs, you know, sort of are arranged around that.
And oftentimes uh, these, these types of changes in identity sort of take a generation or two. It’s not that easy, you know, sort of, you don’t change a person from a miner to a renewable energy worker in a weekend, you know, even in, in, in a couple of years. The problem we have with climate and climate action is we don’t have that time, you know, sort of, to basically sort of wait for more organic changes to happen over the next 20 or 30 years.
James Lawler: And even if some people in our hypothetical coal mining town change their views on climate action, there’s an obstacle keeping it from spreading through the community. It’s what psychologists call pluralistic ignorance, which is a phenomenon where people falsely believe that most people disagree with them, that their own political or [00:37:00] moral opinions are in the extreme Minority.
Elke says that, even in places where large numbers of people support climate action, those people might still believe everyone is against them. Thus, despite their feelings, they throw their support behind leaders and policies they think the rest of their community wants.
Dr. Elke Weber: So pluralistic ignorance refers to the fact that we often don’t know how others think about a particular issue.
And yeah, my, my team and also several other groups around the world have shown that this is particularly true for perceptions of climate action. And so we had a, a paper last, I think, yeah, last year where we sort of asked, again, a large representative sample of Americans about their support for four or five different climate policies, specific climate policies, and also their, yeah, sort of their worry about climate change.
And it was between 70 and 80% of Americans across the political spectrum actually sort of were worried about climate change and were supportive of these, you know, these, all of these climate policies.
James Lawler: Like Inflation Reduction Act?
Dr. Elke Weber: [00:38:00] Exactly, yeah. Or putting a cost on carbon. Yeah.
James Lawler: I see.
Dr. Elke Weber: But at the same time, like 70 to 80% were in favor of that.
But at the same time, they thought that only 30 to 40% of other Americans, you know, sort of were worried or were, were also in, in favor of, of, of these actions. And so that, that’s the pluralistic ignorance part. And as a result of that, you know, sort of, they won’t talk about their, their support for it because they think that, they’re in a minority.
They won’t do it at Thanksgiving, yeah? In front of their families. They won’t do it at work because, you know, they’re, they’re afraid that they’re gonna be challenged on it. And as a result of that, we have this sort of, this spiral of silence, yeah? They don’t talk about it, so they don’t find out that others also support it. And so-
James Lawler: What’s a driver of that? What’s driving pluralistic ignorance in these climate conversations?
Dr. Elke Weber: Yeah, it’s, it’s probably in part because you don’t really sort of see what support for climate action looks like, right? I mean, you don’t know whether somebody has switched to green electricity, you know, cuz they do it in you sort of at, at home.
If you become a vegetarian, that, in some sense [00:39:00] that’s, much more public, right? Because, you know, so you see in restaurants what people are eating meat or the people that invite to dinner parties. Yeah. Who, who won’t eat meat.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Elke Weber: So I think part of it has to do with the actions not being publicly observable. The other thing is, I think sort of also the political polarization, you know, that has contributed to your hesitancy to talk about it.
James Lawler: So, it sounds like there are a, a number of things that make it difficult to change people’s opinions about climate ch- climate action. You have learned habits. Certain ingrained worldviews might take generations to change. But you also said, we don’t have that long to wait.
So what can be done in the short term to get people to think and act differently about this?
Dr. Elke Weber: One thing that does help people make transitions, you know, despite sort of their deep seated attachment to, to the past and their different identities is when they get hurt or when their family gets hurt.
It doesn’t matter sort of who you are when you have some negative personal experience with either COVID, you know, your brother dies, or sort of, you know, you, you, you in a, in a tornado or in a drought [00:40:00] or forest fires because of the drought. People’s concern goes way up. And, and it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, if anything, the Republicans actually show much greater concern, increase in worry in part because, you know, the, this new event is so surprising to them.
You know, Democrats already knew that this was something that was serious. But now they experience it firsthand and they do become more concerned. But for the Republicans, it’s this really dramatic increase in concern and that increase in concern and worry is a function of personal experience and also drives, you know, sort of more increased protective action and, and, and, and greater, you know, endorsement of, of policies to protect against that.
Uh, and so people do respond to these, you know, these very local negative experiences that then sort of increase their worry. And those increases in worry are cumulative, you know, so people don’t forget about these things.
James Lawler: Hmm. And so, like, in places like Texas or like, let’s say in traditionally, like, quite sort of red state areas, you see an event, there’s a, a weather event, let’s say, and [00:41:00] it causes a spike in worry. Does that translate into any kind of action? Or is that something that you’re tracking? Like- and what does that look like?
Dr. Elke Weber: So, first of all, I should say that increase in concern that then leads to an increase in action is big enough that it, it, it certainly narrows, but sometimes even closes the partisan gap, you know, that we see for people who have not had these negative experiences.
And in, in another study together with the post-doc, Matt Sisco, we looked at congressional votes in the, over the last 20 years or so. And, you know, sort of down to the precinct level and we know the- you know, sort of- and we, we track extreme weather, you know, typically sort of heat events, you know, sort of, you know, sort of unusually hot weather in those particular precincts over the previous six months prior to the election.
And we find a significant increase in votes, you know, for pro-climate action candidates.
That’s it for this episode of the podcast. For more deep dives into the challenges and opportunities of the climate movement, check out our other podcast conversations at [00:42:00] climatenow.com. And if you’d like to get in touch, email us at contact@Climatenow.com or tweet us at We Are Climate Now. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.
Climate now is made possible, in part, by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.