• Ian Sutton

Climate Lessons from Virginia

Governor Elect Youngkin lessons for climate change communication
Governor Elect Youngkin

I live in the State of Virginia. Yesterday we held state-wide elections, including the governorship. This race is seen by many pundits as an indicator for the national election results a year from now.

The upshot was that the governorship was for the Democrats to lose, and they lost it.

The political pundits will doubtless draw many lessons from this loss, but there is also a lesson for those of us trying to communicate climate change issues. An article in the Politico magazine suggests that “elite Democrats have increasingly lost touch with many of the voters” whereas "Republicans focus on issues like border security, inflation, crime, the economy, national security and even on ‘getting things done’ ”.

Many of us who write about climate change issues may face the same communication challenge; we may not be addressing issues that people really care about. We use technical terms such as 'carbon neutral', 'tipping point' and 'dispatchable power'. These phrases are not used in everyday language so they may fail to convey our concerns. We claim that a 1.5°C increase in temperature is “significant” — even though the temperature has changed by three times that amount just this morning (except that people would actually say 3°F). We talk knowingly about ‘COP26’, whatever that is. Yes, there seem to be more fires, droughts and floods than there used to be, but for the average Virginian the climate is pretty much the same as it always has been. Climate change seems somewhat distant and irrelevant to everyday concerns.

Moreover, our language is often one of fear and threats. We talk about those fires, droughts and floods. This type of messaging rarely works. People don’t like to be threatened. Moreover, they don’t see a link between say the emissions from their morning commute and the climate as they experience it.

Sales people know that you don’t make sales that way. You don’t say, “If you don’t buy my product or service something bad will happen.” You say, “If you do buy my product or service something good will happen”. It’s two sides of the same coin, of course, but the message is what matters. Maybe this is why government meetings such as COP26 are usually disappointing. No political leader wants to tell his or her constituents that the future is grim and that they need to make even a small sacrifice in their standard of living. They know that people don’t want to hear bad news.

It's true that it is hard to create a positive message regarding climate change. But it’s not impossible. The leaders of commercial enterprises, large and small, may see a business opportunity in adapting to the new world. If they adopt ‘Net Zero’ programs now, for example, they may establish a lead over their competitors. In doing so they may come up with innovations and ideas that help all of us.

This is why, in my writing to do with climate change I suggest that we focus on helping companies and smaller organizations establish realistic Net Zero programs. They can then use their skills and knowledge to provide leadership for the rest of us. For example, the managers at large oil companies have much experience in managing high-risk megaprojects — they can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on drilling a dry hole. This management experience could be invaluable as we switch to new forms of energy. There will always be a need for government action, but the impetus can be bottom-up rather than top-down.

Will this approach “solve” climate change? Of course not. But it may helpful, and it is certainly a lot better than merely berating and blaming these companies for the damage that they have done in the past.