Moving Beyond Doomism: Data-Driven Strategies for Effective Climate Content
by David Finocchio, Co-Founder/CEO of The Cool Down
When I started evaluating the climate content space a couple of years ago, I noticed a surprising number of parallels to what the sports world looked like between 2005 and 2010, when we launched Bleacher Report.
The biggest similarity is that there is a lot of ideology and idealism, but not a lot of data-driven decisions rooted in objective analysis of what mainstream audiences actually care about and what actually moves real people to do real things. The smart use of granular data is one of the biggest levers climate communicators can pull to make these transitions move at a much faster rate — but that doesn't seem to be happening at any kind of meaningful scale.
As a relative newcomer to the climate movement, I’ve observed that insiders spend a disproportionate amount of time debating the merits, or lack thereof, of individual consumer action, often questioning whether those efforts are distracting from the energy that should be spent holding corporations responsible for their massive levels of emissions and other pollution. Unfortunately, the findings published in our first public data report suggest that this approach is misguided at best and counterproductive at worst.
I get the sentiment and logic of the arguments against individual action. I get that recycling, especially of plastic, was a hell of a trick played by the fossil fuel industry. I get that buying expensive heat pumps, induction stoves, and electric water heaters is what we really need over 100 million households to do. That, and having those same households switch to clean, renewable energy if and when they can. When you include gas vehicles in that equation, that’s around 35% of emissions in the U.S. that can’t be eliminated without individual people deciding to take action in their own homes.
But we can't get there by hoping people magically shift their attitudes overnight. Instead, the transformation needs to be a gradual one — and the best way to start the journey toward broad-based awareness and high-impact action is with the small, personally beneficial baby steps that many climate insiders argue against.
Let me be clear about how much I admire the many great people in the climate space who've committed themselves to saving the world. Their work is crucial, and their selflessness should be celebrated. But it's that same selflessness that makes them fundamentally disconnected from mainstream Americans, who are still very much in the “what’s in it for me” phase of their climate journeys. The unfortunate consequences of this disconnect cut both ways: Climate insiders miss the opportunity to meet people where they are with accessible information and advice, and mainstream Americans get the impression that "real" climate action is out of their reach, so they tune out the conversation entirely.
My solution to this dynamic — and TCD's reason for existing — is to work toward a world in which climate communicators embrace the potential of incremental individual action and spend more time converting casual consumers into evangelists than lecturing people about corporate responsibility. You can read a summary of TCD's data on this subject here, but I’ll also call out our high-level findings:
Climate content that promotes self-interest (saving money, saving time, protecting your family) outperforms content about making changes "for the planet" by almost 6x on average, an absolutely staggering figure. Induction stoves are a solid example. Convincing people to switch away from a gas stove because it increases their family’s odds of experiencing asthma is a much more successful sell than asking them to switch for the collective good of the planet.
Baby steps, like food storage hacks to help people reduce waste, may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme, but they’re actually highly effective at engaging climate beginners and increasing their awareness of their impact on the planet. This type of content gives media brands an opportunity to educate readers over time and to move them further down the climate funnel to a point where they start really thinking about more lofty aspirations, like how they’re going to reduce emissions at home or at work. Baby steps content outperforms denser, more abstract climate content by 670%, on average.
Relatable voices (think: a friend or neighbor) are typically received a lot better than climate-hero types, who often come across as being too perfect or endorsing standards that are unattainable for normal people. Content framed around everyday people living greener lives, like gardeners, thrift store patrons, and concerned parents — all of whom readers can easily relate to — performed an average of 270% better than hero content.
We expect the circular economy ecosystem to blow up (in a good way). Click-throughs to circular economy services are 20x higher than click-throughs to other types of content. It seems clear that mainstream Americans don't want to throw their old stuff in the garbage when they can help it — it’s all about showing them what to do with it instead.
Doomerism is a losing strategy. Leaning into anxiety and despair creates paralysis and depression. On the flip side, visually showing audiences a future that’s happier and healthier, and exposing them to the innovative technologies and solutions that will take us there, can inspire people to want to become a part of the climate movement.
The marriage of granular data and talented communicators has profound potential to accelerate the shift of cultural attitudes and behaviors around climate in the U.S., which always has been and always will be essential to mobilizing transition at scale.
All of our time and efforts will be more efficiently spent if we treat each person's climate journey like a data-driven customer experience: Start them at the top of the funnel with easy-to-understand and easy-to-achieve concepts, then patiently introduce them to the next level that’s slightly more sophisticated, and so on and so on until the casual media consumer has become an eager participant in the movement for a cleaner and more sustainable world.
This is how we can shift attitudes and convince millions and millions of people that making both individual switches and societal switches is actually very much in their own best interests as well as the best interests of the planet. And at the end of the day, that outcome is the only one that matters.
If you’d like to talk with us about our data or findings in more detail, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thanks to David for writing this. Messaging about climate action has been and will always be like walking a tightrope due to the sheer complexity of the problem. There is a place for "doomerism" in the dialogue but it's best served in small doses.
An FYI that Rare (https://rare.org) has done some great work on behavior change as well, worth checking out!