We have to talk like humans to build demand for climate solutions

Guest Author
Illustration showing two silhouettes talking to one another with a green and a red speech bubble coming out of each head, one with wind turbines and the other with a nuclear plant drawn on it.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

“I’m the greenest person you’ll ever meet.”

In April, my team was talking to self-described “climate champions” as part of a focus group to understand how they think about climate change impacts and solutions. But as we dug deeper, we learned the self-described super green participant quoted above had never heard of the Inflation Reduction Act — passed by the United States in 2022 and arguably the most significant climate policy in recent history — and he also believed recycling and composting were the most effective ways to tackle climate change.

Adopting clean energy technologies at the speed and scale needed to tackle climate change depends on building public demand for those technologies. After decades of efforts to sell the world on the benefits of cleantech solutions, as our recent focus group participant illustrates, we’re nowhere near where we need to be to turn the tide. That’s largely a communication failure.

We recently surveyed close to 60,000 people around the world in collaboration with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Global Strategic Communications Council. And we found that, while most people broadly support steps to address climate change, the words we’re using to talk about the actual solutions aren’t resonating with most people.

The wonky language scientists use doesn’t make sense, and the economy-focused language politicians use doesn’t connect.

For the average consumer, the difference between passively supporting and actively demanding cleantech solutions comes down to how they expect transitioning to cleaner energy sources will impact their lives. In other words: whether clean energy technologies will create a better future for them and their children, or limit their opportunities and make their lives worse.

To build the momentum needed to generate demand, the people who communicate about climate solutions — government leaders, corporate leaders and even the news media — need to use words that actually resonate with humans.

Here are three principles we have identified for how to communicate about climate solutions in a way that resonates with people and leads to significant increases in public support:

  • Lean into the why: In testing, messages and ads that began with a powerful “why” — a safer, cleaner and better future — performed 10 times better than ads highlighting clean energy as a driver of innovation or economic growth. “Protecting the planet for the next generation” was the most motivating message for people on climate solutions across every country, political party, gender, age and income.
  • Focus on upgrades not bans: Using the words “mandate,” “ban” or “phaseout” on average significantly reduces people’s support for a solution. Instead, talking about maintaining or improving people’s standard of living through upgrades, setting standards, making solutions accessible and reducing dependency performed significantly better.
  • Talk like a human: No one wakes up in the morning and says “what a great day for decarbonization.” Skip the scientific jargon and avoid language that doesn’t resonate. Only 20% of people we studied were familiar with the 1.5 degrees goal or the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Use words that are familiar to people’s daily lives, like pollution, overheating and extreme weather, and highlight how solutions will improve the lives of their families and neighbors.

It’s not just a good message, it’s also the truth: later really is too late. The world can’t afford to wait to start adopting the technology that we know we need. By appealing to universal human values and emphasizing the impact climate change has on humans, policymakers and businesses alike will have the best chance of building broad demand for clean energy solutions.