We know “1.5 degrees” doesn’t work well, so what does…?

Last issue, we shared some interesting data that illustrated the massive gap between what climate people say versus what the general public hears. As a goal, “1.5 degrees” is neither motivating nor clear, even though it dominates climate coverage.

So, how could we better connect?

The second objective of this study was to find the best approach to help close that gap and to accelerate collective action on climate as a top priority globally.

Across 25,000 people in eight countries, we evaluated six frames that gave people a mental model and linguistic reference point to make the significance of exceeding our limits readily apparent.

The data says…

  • Many frames that are currently in vogue do not effectively persuade. Neither the jobs and opportunities created by tackling climate change nor the goal of getting to net zero were top performers.


  • Put safety first. People were most likely to feel increased urgency to act if we positioned ourselves as on the defensive: to protect what we have, we must stay in the safety zone by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.


Safety is highly effective frame

A few hypotheses on why the safety zone works, particularly for an American audience:

  • “Safety” embodies the positives of comfort and stability, while “zone” simultaneously delineates an understandable threshold,


  • It sidesteps the issue of ‘alarmism’ and ‘hysteria’ that is a side dish to American political polarization,


  • And it leans on loss aversion — an effective persuasive technique fairly well documented in the literature — which is inherent to the idea of staying within a safety zone.


That’s interesting…

In most countries, “Code Red,” buoyed by the UN”s report released earlier this year, also generated a significant amount of worry — except in the US.

Code Red

In our qualitative research with political moderates in the US, we often encountered backlash to the alarmist and partisan cues found in these messages. As exemplified by one of the women in our ongoing digital panel after reading about the UN’s declaration of Code Red:

“[They’re] trying to create a panic so people will do whatever they are told to do out of fear…I sometimes feel almost like they are trying to brainwash people. In conversations…or on the news, I hear these same key phrases and for me, they have become meaningless.”

One last thing…

Positively-oriented frames seemed consistently less effective. Though we didn’t expect to observe high lift on questions centered on worry and urgency, we were surprised to find that “Race to Zero” and “Climate Opportunity” drove comparatively less lift even against questions centered on taking action. Solutions and other gain-frames are desperately needed to complement increasing worry, but it’s not clear to us that a race to “zero” is it.

What to do about it…

  1. Again, discard the jargon-heavy technospeak that bears minimal relevance to the average person. Shed 1.5 degrees for non-policy audiences.


  2. Lead with the concepts that people immediately have vested interests in: safety, security, and stability.


  3. Continue to explore new ways of contextualizing 1.5! Safety is the most effective approach we’ve found so far, but admittedly, there could be a multitude of others that we just haven’t yet tested — especially in linguistic and cultural traditions that dramatically differ from ours. If you have ideas, we’d be eager to hear them.


Until next time,
John and Jessica