Tis the season: twelve months of climate communications data

As we close out the year, we wanted to share a roundup of our favorite learnings from 2022. In the last twelve months, we have served and measured about a billion pieces of climate-centric content, tested over a hundred of new pieces of content in randomized control trials, measured our impact on 5 million citizens in ongoing measurement, and spent countless hours directly listening to consumers. So in the spirit of the season, here are our twelve of our favorite insights of the year.

  1. Human stories beat abstract concepts, every time.
    It seems simple, but featuring a real person at the center of each story seems like a guaranteed impact. In every climate message, whenever we showcased a real human story we moved people – a lot. We’ve found it to be a lot more challenging to win people over with conceptual arguments, like climate innovation, job creation, economic competitiveness – no matter how popular they are with our climate colleagues.Cali Headline


  2. Science – and scientists – still matter a lot.
    Our highest performing work featured climate scientists, and climate stories communicated by scientists generally outperform those by laypeople. For the majority, drilling in the fact that we have complete scientific consensus had a significant, persuasive impact.


  3. Conservatives moved … but education is critical.
    Indeed, the gap in support for government action between political parties only grew in 2022, according to recent research from Yale. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create support: in the many pieces of content we tested, we moved conservatives to increase their support for climate action two thirds of the time. In our core treated market – suburban moms in five states, we have increased conservative support for climate action from 37.5% to 50.7% over the year. The key: All of the top ten pieces of content were basic issue education. Not a whiff of an agenda. No emergency or crisis. No bundling of other issues.


  4. What politicians love to say . . . had some real believability issues.
    The political equivalent of “chicken in every pot” on climate messaging has been “solving climate change creates jobs” and “it saves you money on your bills”. Test after test, focus group after focus group, these messages have underperformed for us. It’s true that everyone’s ears absolutely perk up when they hear about “saving money”. But there is deep, entrenched skepticism and doubt. It’s critical to meet people where they are, and only about one in five Americans think that solar and wind have become cheaper in the last decade. We’re not saying it doesn’t advance the policymakers, but it looks like highly significant investment is required to get the public to believe it. It’s an area that’s ripe for more education, but we need to remember that just because we say it doesn’t mean they believe it.


  5. Social, collectivist actions were much easier to create than individual behavior changes.
    2022 was the year when we asked people to take action – from joining a group, to speaking to elected officials, to speaking up at work, to going electric at home. We found that social actions – joining, writing, talking to friends – were much easier to create than changing behavior, by a factor of over 3:1. But we also know that the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act has created a seismic shift in the landscape. With thousands of dollars of federal incentives available to consumers through the Inflation Reduction Act, we might be on the precipice of massive behavior change… We’re still learning, so stay tuned!


  6. Climate salience went down, but extreme weather was key.
    Like others, we saw a decline in climate salience, especially early in 2022, and it is clear that inflation, reproductive rights, gun violence, and other issues crowded out climate as a top priority. However, one critical learning: unprompted, people are connecting the dots on extreme weather and climate change in a way that creates a major opportunity. The data says that these should be key marketing moments – the ideal time to teach and mobilize – so we will be increasingly amping up our extreme weather triggered media buying. Case in point, this past year, data from Europe showed that climate change salience increased 10% as a top issue in the UK when the record-breaking heat waves hit. Get them while it’s hot.


  7. The left and the right actually agreed on something: nuclear energy.
    Our data showed an underappreciated fact – support for nuclear power is higher and more universal than people perceive. Support for nuclear in coal communities outweighs opposition by 5:1. And support from the left and the right both exceed 60%, meaning citizen support doesn’t appear to be the main barrier for increasing nuclear energy.
  8. Actually, the left and the right also happened to agree on one more thing: energy independence!
    Earlier this year, when the Ukraine crisis broke out, and energy prices skyrocketed, the most compelling message on clean energy for Americans was to end our reliance on foreign fossil fuels. “Our dependence on dirty energy was dangerous.” This message was more than twice as effective as “clean energy is cheap.”


  9. And one last thing we all happen to agree on: fairness and accountability.
    When it comes to polluters, it isn’t just that they’re spewing dangerous, climate-altering toxins into the air. It’s that they’re getting away with it. Messages that lean into our shared value of fairness consistently resonated across the aisle.


  10. The IRA was a massive climate win, but there’s a long road ahead.
    It would be remiss of us if we didn’t dedicate at least one learning to our research about the Inflation Reduction Act, no matter how poorly named. No one’s denying the impact it will have, but while we’ve been celebrating, most Americans have continued on with their lives as if nothing’s changed. Virtually no one knows about the clean energy provisions in the new law; in fact, for many participants in our research, it’s the first time they’re hearing about it!


  11. Sadly, we found that stopping clean energy projects will be much easier than supporting them.
    That is, NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) is much easier than YIMBY. Our data found that it’s half the cost for opponents to create a blocker for a local clean energy project than advocates to create a supporter. There is certainly hard communications work ahead to help ensure dramatic scaling of solar and wind projects. If nothing else this shows the criticality of garnering major support for permitting reform.Petitions


  12. Lastly, we learned a lot about testing… and are even less enamored with the usual polls.
    We conducted hundreds of tests and experiments. One thing we discovered was that a stated preference for a message in pre-market polling had very little relationship with the statistically demonstrated lift in a real campaign. One part of the brain ticks a survey box saying we like the statement “clean energy creates jobs.” But something else is clearly at work in the real world, when people see the same message but don’t actually change their view or behavior. Most corporations have been moving to observational data instead of polls to obtain deeper, more accurate insights. The climate communications sector must do the same.


There was much to celebrate in 2022. Here’s to a great 2023.
John, Jessica, and The Potential Energy Team