Framing Our Climate March Messages to Persuade: September 2018
By Susan C. Strong
On September 8 there will be climate marches all over our planet. The date has been chosen, no doubt, in order to increase pressure on and publicity for The Global Climate Action Summit four days later in San Francisco. Here in California, Mark Baldaserre, CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, has commented that given our horrendous fire season so far, climate change issues are no longer a credible partisan issue in the state. But researchers report that across the rest of our country, climate change denial is still an automatic GOP loyalty identifier. In order to prevent further climate change damage, our whole country must come to agree with California's rough bipartisan consensus on the issue. So what can we do to foster that same non-partisan attitude with the slogans we carry at these marches?
To be most effective, messages require a keen
awareness of the audiences for them. First, it's our politicians. Then it may
well be the people who voted for Trump when Bernie was driven out. Add to that
those who used to be Democrats but voted for Trump out of disgust with the
party's policies re trade, jobs, and its habit of cozying up to the 1%. To get
real change, we must bring a great many more of these Americans on board. These
people may not be so set on using climate change denial as a way to be
identified as Republican. But we must
also try to find ways to reach those whose stance is climate change denial from
mere party loyalty, not deep conviction.
Political analysts say that if enough GOP politicians came out for taking preventive climate change action, the rest would follow. The August 4, 2018 issue of The Economist cites several examples of GOP politicians who support carbon tax proposals now, if balanced by tax cuts ("A Slow Thaw"). It's also important that such proposals be promoted in a way that avoids the "language of repentence, guilt, and [doing] with less, which doesn't work well in the conservative community," said Bob Inglis, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina. We know it's grass roots pressure that actually moves politicians to change their stance, but it must be framed in a way the audience can hear.
So the next step in our strategic framing process is being clear about our various audiences' feelings. My thinking is that politicians are feeling very nervous right now, in view of the coming election. The other, non-hard core GOP groups described above might be united in horror at something the current administration and Congress are doing. What they may also be feeling is despair and hopelessness, as well as rage and helplessness. Those same feelings are no doubt shared by all shades of Democrats and Independents, as we watch the Administration and Congress destroy not only all previous steps to contain climate damage, but every existing measure to keep our air, water, and coastal seas clean. The August 5, 2018 New York Times magazine just published a bitter 30 year history of fossil fuel industry lying and public manipulation designed to stop all efforts to make the clean energy shift we must have. But feeding people's rage and despair with angry, negative, sarcastic, satiric, or ironic slogans, no matter how witty, won't give them (or us) anything new. What's needed most is the story of what we want instead and our right to it.Stories like that can persuade.
Interestingly enough, the Times' coverage of our current climate emergency concluded with an epilogue that ended this way: "Human nature has brought us to this place: perhaps human nature will one day bring us through. Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope." (p.66) Irrational optimism, courage, a senses of necessity, plus righteous rage of course, is certainly fueling the federal climate lawsuit by young Americans, Juliana v. s. U.S. Their GOP opponents have ridiculed the kids' argument that the Constitution guarantees them a life-supporting climate. But any honest jurist not being paid off by or in debt to the international fossil fuel conspiracy would have to agree that Section 1 of the 14th Amendment does indeed mean that these children, and all Americans, have the right to a climate that allows us a safe life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on our home planet. (1) Writing slogans and march signs that repeat, expand, and colorfully spell out or picture our right to a safe, livable climate is the best way to go this time. Call it just plain common sense--purple, not red or blue, to stem our worsening climate change damage by shifting to a clean energy economy, from Main Street to Wall Street. We'll save money in the end, as the damage will just keep getting worse, if we fail to act now.
But we must also be sure our signs and slogans express the message with words that are colloquially "American." No abstract multisyllabic, Latinate words like those two. Our phrases must also be free of a lot of facts, stats, or historical references. They should be pointing to hope instead, a quality that communications research has shown works best. For example the word "rules" evokes a key part of the Ideal American Identity Story, our being a country ruled by law, with fairness and equality of opportunity for all. So we can say things like "Restore/Bring back/ Save/Protect the rules that keep America clean/ safe/ protected from mega-fires, fierce new heat waves, super storms, bigger and bigger floods, lasting droughts, drowned sea-coast cities etc."
To help everyone find even more American words to express our stories, the Metaphor Project offers two lists of memory joggers, The American Story Elements and American Metaphor Categories. These tools can help us recall suitable language, images, popular metaphors, and catch phrases we already know implicitly. Combining these with our positive solutions or demands in a brainstorming process can create "American truth bites" that take a variety of forms. (Examples of more climate-related "truth bites" can be found on our site at this link, though I now think "climate change damage" is a better frame than "climate change chaos.") Another effective type of slogan combines two well-accepted American values to form a new idea; an example of this formula is "community rights." Then there's the X, not Y" formula. We need to say what we want first, before we say "no," as cognitive science has demonstrated that if you say "no" first, people just don't hear it.
Thinking about what we are saying and how it might sound to someone different from you is key. We also need to be objective when we decide if our newly formed street messages can meet the following tests: Can they go viral? Are they truly mainstream, not just progressive jargon, self-defeating in-group humor or insults? Are they concrete, not abstract? Do they evoke a familiar American story and point to a positive idea? VIP, do they have rhythm? Say them out loud to find out, before parading them on a sign. Even though signs carry written language, the brain reads them as spoken language. Watch out for clunkers. We must always try to "speak American" now, no matter what!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org , and author of our book, Move Our Message: How to Get America's Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong , check out her TEDx talk, and like, follow & review The Metaphor Project on Facebook .
(1) It seems perfectly clear to me, though of course I can't prove it, that the most important link between the GOP, Trump, and Russia is a joint desire to support the continued use of fossil fuels, instead of shifting to clean energy sources. After all, Russia is economically dependent on the sale of fossil fuels, and so are some of the biggest international corporations in our world. Russia may even imagine that climate change will benefit their agricultural output, though the Swedish fires of this summer might give them a bit of pause re that idea, as well as the toxic methane rapidly rising from their steppes. Viewed this way, Trump is certainly their tool, but his faux pas are a sideshow, compared to what Russia and the fossil fuel gang really want from the GOP, all officials of the U.S. government, and the American voting public. However, it is more effective right now to frame American officials' going along with Russian meddling as treason, which it also very much is.