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Preventing the Undeniable: How to Challenge the Deniers by Energizing the Climate Movement

Apr 22, 2019

nyc-ad-agencySomething significant has changed in our global culture over the past twenty years. Blame it on politics, economic pressures, the energy industry or the opportunists, but, if we are to be honest with ourselves, the fact is that the climate change denier movement has soundly overwhelmed the other side. They have built a movement based in denials that have ignited a portion of the world’s populace that is more determined to stand AGAINST their self-interest and the environment than FOR the status quo. The denier movement has made consistent headlines with their challenges to the 97% of expert climate scientists who definitively state that humans are responsible for climate change. Not only are their claims unfounded, but the deniers are much hungrier to be heard than their opponents making their movement even more potent. How can this be? How successful have the various pro-environmental movements been overall? It wasn’t that long ago that climate change almost ushered Al Gore into the White House.

There’s no denying the environmental movement has had their fair share of successes. For example, through its members, the Earth Day Network has managed to create the largest single civic engagement event every year on April 22nd. Their mission statement is literally to build the world’s largest environmental movement and by many measures, they have. Each spring more than one billion people participate in events on that day to protest, activate, educate, and perform service projects related to the cause. The first Earth Day began in 1970, spurred by the release of Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental work Silent Spring in 1962. Fueled by the anti-war movement and environmental concerns, “on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.” As examples of the Earth Day movement’s efficacy, we have their activism to thank for the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, and the passage of both the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Great progress, right? Fast forward to 2019, almost 50 years after the first Earth Day and the same question remains: why are there still climate deniers? Has the “counter movement” really been that much more effective? Why are fossil fueled SUVs and trucks still the best selling vehicles purchased? Why isn’t climate change the most important topic on every poll for consumer concerns? In fact, climate change and global warming didn’t even come up as a topic measured by the polling organization Gallup when it conducted a survey of American opinions on “What Is the Most Important Problem Facing the Country Today from September of 2018 to March of 2019.”

So why aren’t more people focused on climate change despite the laundry list of natural disasters and the underreported mental health impacts that we’re all experiencing regardless of your location or socio-economic status?

2020 will mark not only an incredibly important election year here in the US, but it will also mark the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day movement. To continue to propel the movement forward, we can use what we’ve learned to ignite and sustain movements for some of the world’s largest companies to further spark and re-activate the climate change movement. We launched StrawberryFrog in 1999 and pioneered an approach called “Movement Strategy and Movement Marketing” that has proven to help companies and brands avoid the hazards that come with pursuing purpose. We advocate for meaningful purpose-driven stances as the way to avoid the pitfall of devising a purpose that just sits on a PowerPoint slide and does nothing. A big part of this approach is our 6-stage formula for creating a massive movement:

1. What (or who) is the enemy? Knowing what any movement is against can give focus and energy to recognize what the movement stands FOR. If you simply state what you are FOR, then that thinking can lead to words, ideas, and actions that are generic. But when we concentrate on what or who our real nemesis is, then distinctive and impactful actions bubble up. In this case, the climate change movement needs to define the enemy as anyone or anything who stands in the way of real systemic change – that means calling out the #climatedeniers because there is #noPlanetB.

2. What are the barriers to changing mindsets and behaviors? Why do they behave as they currently do? What is important to them in the category and in life? Using new leaps in behavioral science the movement can identify ways to create the change they seek. We brainstorm with our clients to arrive at concrete suggestions for a solution. For example, psychologists have identified a state called “motivated interference,” which occurs when we hold a specific bias to ignore the evidence. Remember when Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) brought that snowball into the Senate Chambers to prove global warming was a myth? Take his stunt and combine it with accurate facts, and the impact he managed to achieve for the deniers, can be attained by the climate movement.

3. Have a simple but cool and inspiring call to action. People long to be part of something bigger than them. But the movement our society stands behind requires authenticity. If the purpose does not carry weight to activate it and elicit a response, it risks falling flat before it can even take off. A big idea that’s catchy and emotive has a strong potential to become a movement. Because it has power and relatability, it bonds the participants by standing together against the enemy. Some social movements that have sparked this type of activation are #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #iweigh.

4. Insightfully provoke a discussion. The goal is to overcome a state of complacency. The enormity of climate change can sometimes stop people in their tracks. Although “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Oscar for former Vice President Al Gore, it also received criticism for potentially increasing the political divide around climate change. A lot of the communications around the movement have been all about the dire warnings that if we keep consuming fossil fuels, then the human race will go extinct. That may be true, but it’s not yet a fact. Auden Schendler, the American climate activist, and Andrew P. Jones, Co-Founder, and Co-Director of Climate Interactive, both warn, “Solving climate is going to be harder, and more improbable, than winning World War II, achieving civil rights, defeating bacterial infection and sending a man to the moon all together.” Inspiring people to action requires you to turn a deep human insight into a sharp instigation that will stir your audience’s souls. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old high-school student in Sweden, has managed to do this in the past year by organizing an international student walk-out to protest climate change inaction. But, she needs more tools to spread her provocation wider and deeper to ensure it doesn’t decay.

5. Create “must-share” content with sticky language and content. People must want to share your content and message. The movement must have memorable language that the culture can adopt to form a lasting association with its purpose. It’s important to remember that viewing isn’t the same as sharing. Your content needs to be shareable in order to translate into deep engagement. The climate change movement can’t just generate content that induces rubbernecking and qualifies as “disaster porn.” It needs content that appeals to all facets of the human psyche when it comes to such a complex issue. For example, it’s not surprising with the popularity of the Marie Kondo effect that the most shared videos on social media are about decluttering and organizing. Perhaps there’s a content idea about Marie Kondo cleaning up Mother Earth!

6. Influence the influencers. Get great content to your most passionate fan base first and to those rising influencers who most influence your mass consumers. Direct engagement via social platforms nurtures and raises awareness of the movement. A great example was released on April 18th and has been trending as #1 on youtube. Rapper and comedian Lil Dicky released a (warning: NSFW) video featuring boldfaced names Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio to name a few. We will have to wait to see how much money is raises for We Love The Earth but the video has already been viewed over 15M times so that’s real awareness already. Another great example includes the wildly successful Ice Bucket Challenge. Since 2014, largely due to social media, the ALS Association has raised more than $115 million for research towards Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Celebrities like LeBron James, Lady Gaga, Sergey Brin, Sheryl Sandberg, and Bill Gates all posted videos. Within the first 15 days of the campaign taking off, the ALS Association had received $15 million in donations from 307,600 new, first-time donors.

As we envision the development of a movement, we can use the juxtaposition of what it is FOR and AGAINST to identify the sticking point (in this case, the deniers) and transform it into a compelling point of action. Essentially, start a controversy and then solve it – the controversy is already here, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The foundation of a movement has been built, it’s up to us to activate its purpose.

By Scott Goodson

Founder of StrawberryFrog

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