Top questions about our global report

Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to present our global research briefing, “Later is Too Late,” to over 800 participants. We shared the key findings from our 23-country survey which seeks to answer: Does the world want action on climate, and how can we motivate the public to accelerate progress?

You can watch the recording of the 60-minute webinar and download the full global report. We were also excited to see the report covered in the New York Times this week; you can read that here.

After sorting through the 200+ questions from our webinar, we thought it would be helpful to pull out some of the most consistent curiosities and answer them below.


Your research referred a lot to “the best message.”

How important is it that we have one message or uniting theme; don‘t we need multiple approaches?

Climate communications is certainly a lot more nuanced than “a single answer,” and our work doesn’t intend to imply that all climate policy puzzles are solved with one phrase. In fact, in some cases, for example to win policy approval or accomplish a local clean energy investment, the best tactical message might not even go through climate. We need a wide breadth of efforts, an approach most of you know is core to Potential Energy’s work.

That said, the research is clear on one thing: There is indeed a big territory that is highly effective, across the world, at uniting people to care about climate and demand solutions: generational urgency, and the idea that “later is too late” to protect the people, places, and things that we love.

Communal, big ideas have a clear benefit. People want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves; it’s the best defense to “nothing I do matters.” The bigger the territory the more people will feel like their actions will add up to something large enough to tackle the problem.

In a commercial context, “brands” — bigger uniting ideas that give people a reason to “join” — have real economic value, and significantly propel the efficiency of product sales. The same is true in a social context. It will be hard to get the magnitude of change we need, at the speed we need it, without a bigger “why.” And the data is clear that the most common why’s used in the climate movement today aren’t big enough.

You found the generational urgency message has the highest lift in support.

But I worry that the urgency message gets old quick — the “boy who cried wolf” effect. Do you have thoughts on how to keep it fresh and ensure it maintains its value?

Another thing we learned loud and clear in our research is: there’s a difference between what the climate change community has been saying and what the public has been hearing. We have a salience issue. People in general are under-informed and undereducated on the issue, so we don’t need to worry too much about “wear out” at this stage. Rather, reach and repetition are incredibly important. The more people hear about climate change — from leaders, from loved ones — the more likely they are to support action to address it.

We should, however, be mindful of the line between “urgency” and “crisis.” Crisis-framing risks polarizing along partisan lines (and since many are under-informed, crisis-framing can also fall flat). Urgency, on the other hand, when supported with facts and immediate observations, has powerful bipartisan appeal.

For more insight on the line between urgency and crisis, see pages 6–7 of our “Talk Like a Human” report.

You mentioned that “limitation always loses.”

But aren’t some of the most important policies those that will limit the burning of fossil fuels? How can we balance the need for resonant messages with the reality of effective solutions?

First things first, there is one limitation that actually wins: pollution. Framing climate policies as efforts to reduce pollution is very popular, even with conservatives.

Beyond that, though, it’s absolutely true that “limitation” is a losing frame. “Less” typically loses to “more,” and frames that included the words mandate, ban, or phase out on average had 9 percentage points lower support (and in some cases, up to 20 percentage points lower support) than those that did not. Conversely, framings that included ideas like upgrading, setting standards, making solutions accessible, reducing pollution, and reducing dependency performed significantly better.

Policies need to be thoughtful, nuanced, and effective at reducing carbon pollution. But the communication to gain support for those policies must make a clean future feel abundant, appealing, and free.

You mentioned the need for message simplicity.

But how can we keep things simple when the answer (and the truth!) is quite complicated?

Certainly, policy-makers and leaders need to deeply understand the issue and its root causes in order to craft effective solutions. The public wants them to act (there’s incredible support across geographies to “do whatever it takes”), and we’ve found the most effective way to gain even stronger public support is through simple messages that focus on issue urgency and love for future generations. In our research, these were far more effective at driving support than complicated scientific or policy appeals.

You mentioned we should go in through the “front door” of climate change (rather than the “side door” of jobs, economic growth, or other issues related to action on climate change).

Is this true when talking to audiences like policymakers? Corporations? Conservatives? Are “side door” concepts ever more useful?

Jobs and growth messaging have their roles. But part of the effectiveness of our most winning message (generational urgency focused squarely on the need to fight climate change out of love for future generations) was its universal appeal. The specifics may vary, but love for the people and places we care about is universal. Policymakers and business leaders are also awakened to the crisis because they care. It works across countries, demographics, political affiliations — and since we need broad-based public support and consensus to keep pressure on elected officials, a message with universal appeal can be particularly powerful.

Another benefit of a universal message is that it reinforces ideas about collective action. A shared narrative can, in some ways, help individuals feel less helpless, because we’ve found something we all care about, and we’re all committed to. It transcends individual behavior change and highlights the power of cohesive, collective action. “Later is too late,” but now, acting together, we can effect change.

This is just the beginning of our dialogue about the global report. We’re thrilled to have your active participation, and we know that, together, we can accelerate progress on climate change solutions all across the world.

Do you have questions that aren’t covered above? Ask us here.

John and Jessica