Three tips on how to talk about extreme weather

The recent Canadian wildfires are one tragic example of what experts believe may be another record-breaking year of extreme weather. There has never been a more vital time to demand action on climate change.

But people don’t always make the connection between extreme weather and climate change, and sometimes, these massive weather events can seem so big that action feels futile. The question is, how can we talk about extreme weather in a way that drives action on climate change?

From testing hundreds of messages, here’s what we are learning.

1. Educate on causal connections

8 in 10 adults in the U.S. report being personally affected by extreme weather. But does experience with an extreme weather event increase resolve for action against climate change?

It depends.

As researchers put it in an important literature review titled Attribution Matters, “Exposure to extreme weather can increase climate change engagement by making the issue feel more personal and impactful, but it depends on whether individuals attribute the weather event to climate change.”

Our question then becomes, how can we ensure people make the causal connection?

One way is to just state the connection. Many people think climate change is to blame for extreme weather, but they’re not quite sure. Valerie, a Republican from Arizona, brought this perspective to life for us in a recent focus group. “Well it certainly feels like something is going on,” she said. “And I have heard that it could be to do with climate change. I guess … I just haven’t researched enough to say that with confidence.”

For people like Valerie, simple, insistent messages can give them that confidence. Last summer, we ran hundreds of Facebook tests with over 30 different messages about extreme weather, from charts to stats to provocative images. The ads that generated the most engagement had a blunt message of attribution: This is climate change.

Climate Experts

For many, that simple fact–that 99% of experts agree that climate change is making our weather more extreme–was enough to dramatically increase support for climate action.

Others want a little more research.

Here’s an example of that slower, more deliberate conversation.

One of our highest-performing ads ever–driving a whopping 12% increase in strong support for government action on climate change–was a rather casual conversation between Dr. Burt and a real mom who had questions about droughts. It pays to meet moms where they are and patiently make the case for attribution.

Climate Change Videos

2. Demonstrate “right now” impacts on “people like me”

Climate change can feel big, abstract, and distant. Extreme weather urgently places it in the present tense.

To that end, extreme heat may be the most universal way in. Not only are heat waves particularly intuitive to connect to global warming, but in a 2,000 person poll we recently conducted across seven states in the U.S., they’re also the most commonly experienced extreme weather event.

“When I was growing up, me and my sister, we just went outside and played. Didn’t go home until dusk. Of course it was hot–this was Georgia, after all–but I don’t ever remember having to come inside because of the weather. Well now, for my kids, there are a bunch of days where it’s just too hot. Things have definitely changed.”
– Roxane, a focus group respondent (Independent from Georgia)

And when discussing these right-now impacts, it’s important to keep it human. In that same poll, we asked folks what their “top concern” was related to extreme weather. Higher energy bills? Impact on agriculture? Physical damage and loss of property?

The number one concern–whether the event was hurricane, heat, drought, wildfire, or flood–was the safety and wellbeing of my family and friends.

3. Empower with tangible actions

Even those who believe in the connection to climate change don’t always believe there’s anything we can do about it. To many, weather feels big–decidedly outside of humanity’s realm of influence. As Colleen, an independent from North Carolina, said, “What the hell am I supposed to do about the weather?”

But there is something we can do. Pollution causes climate change, and climate change causes extreme weather. When people understand this simple causal connection, they start to support common-sense solutions that can protect what we love from the ravages of extreme weather.

A simple way to say it: 75% of the heat trapping pollution that causes climate change comes from burning fossil fuels. This hotter air creates more extreme weather, disastrous storms, unbearable heat waves, and all the weird weather that we’re seeing in our own backyards. If we pollute less and become less dependent on fossil fuels, we’ll be protecting ourselves against extreme weather.

Bonus: What not to do

Alarmism and overly-urgent messaging causes backlash.

It’s a natural temptation when each day brings some new catastrophe, but especially with moderate and conservative audiences, content that feels “alarmist” instantly loses credibility–or worse, appears like an organization is capitalizing on human tragedy for the sake of a political agenda.

To show the severity of the problem without coming across as fear-mongering to moderate audiences, we’ve found it helps to stay in the present, portray the truth of the moment, zoom in on humans, and let trusted messengers–“people like me”–spread the message for you.

In Summary …

Extreme weather events are getting more and more common, but these events should never feel normal. The right communication can fight desensitization and motivate change. To talk about extreme weather in a way that drives action on climate change …

  1. Educate on the causal connection between extreme weather and climate change
  2. Demonstrate right-now impacts on “people like me”
  3. Empower with tangible actions

… and don’t: Come across as alarmist or fear-mongering

We’ve found extreme weather to be a powerful “way in,” a rare moment when climate change is in the news, and a profound opportunity to change minds and inspire action–if we talk about it the right way.

John and Jessica