#12: Do Enough People Care About Climate Change?

We know climate change is an existential threat - so why does public engagement remain low?

Welcome to the twelfth edition of the Marketing Mind Meld - a semi-weekly dive deeper into consumer growth, marketing psychology, and controversial opinions on the marketing world.

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🌳 The marketing behind climate change: What’s missing?

"I feel my throat tightening. It’s not the coronavirus or smoke. It’s rage—rage radiating up from my belly and my heart. We’re trapped inside because of the pandemic and because of the fires, but ultimately we are most confined by the inequality, selfishness, and greed that created this moment. Even in the wide-open West, we’re still stuck in the United States of America." - Emma Marris

I’m writing this piece in the midst of a historically destructive wildfire season on the West Coast. In the past few months, more than 1 million acres has burned in Oregon. One in every 33 acres of California has burned. In fact, of the ten largest wildfires in California history, five of them have happened this year.

The massive plumes of smoke generated by the wildfires raging across California have led to the longest stretch of unhealthy air quality warnings on record in the Bay Area, with almost 25 straight days of alerts.

Wind conditions even pushed much of the smoke into lower elevations, leading myself and many others in the West to witness orange skies.

Little of this should be surprising, of course. This has been one of the hottest and driest years on record. California’s air temperature has risen almost 3 degrees over the past century and the vapor pressure deficit (a measure how much moisture is in the air vs. how much the air can hold) is at its highest level in almost 40 years. Trees, shrubs, and grasses are drying out quicker than ever - and in turn, prime to burn.

Scientists have been pointing to climate change as a source - and while there are certainly strategies around managed burns and better predictive signals, there is little to contest the idea that rising temperatures and shifting meteorological patterns can make wildfire seasons worse. Even Gavin Newsom and other politicians have thrown their hat in the ring to attribute this as a climate emergency.

So what are the chances anything will happen?

California’s signs are nothing new. We’ve been sounding the alarm about global climate change for decades, with policy offerings since the Clinton administration.

We know climate change is a threat, but the discourse around it feels like a bit of a predictive cycle - we sound the alarm, citizens and politicians escalate it during election years and then face the same blockade that we’ve faced with policy for years.

It boils down to a question social and climate scientists have also been asking for years: Is there value in marketing climate change differently?

It’s why politicians were quick to jump on the Green New Deal, a climate package with a catchy name evocative of FDR’s New Deal policies, or why Greta Thunberg, while advocating for ideas that had been pushed by scientists for years, had suddenly catapulted into fame in a year of climate mobilization.

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development in Bangladesh, spoke pointedly about Greata: "Speaking as a climate change scientist who has been working on this issue for 20 years and saying the same thing for 20 years, she is getting people to listen, which we have failed to do.”

Yet even with catchy slogans, mascots, and pleas to vote for green politicians, many people still don’t want to think about climate change. Critics and deniers remain steadfast in their conviction that it’s not an emergency or broker weird illusion that new policy will lead to them losing hundreds of cows.

So what are we missing in this conversation?

What psychological science tells us about climate engagement

In a study done by Princeton and Yale University professors for the Association of Psychological Science, many of their conclusions were the same:

  • Climate change is one of the most important challenges of the 21st century

  • Public engagement with climate change remains low overall in the United States

  • Most people regard climate change as a non-urgent and distant risk

The reasoning behind why public engagement remains low was an interesting dive into the human psyche and how the average person perceives climate change as a risk.

  • The human brain is biased towards experience: Because climate change can be primarily studied in statistical terms and the urgency can only be communicated in relatively abstract and analytical formats, it loses people quickly. Our brains have two systems, one that is fast, affective and automatic, another that is deliberate, analytical, and slow. The first system often exerts the greatest influence over our decisions - it’s why terrorism is ranked as a top national priority despite the fact that odds of death and injury from a terrorist attack remain low. Terrorism is vivid and evocative - bringing to light visions of 9/11 and ISIS. It feels like something that can happen anywhere - and while hurricanes and wildfires bring us some apprehension, a lot of climate change is largely invisible.

  • The human brain responds better to group norms: People’s sense of personal efficacy in the fight for climate change (i.e. the belief that an individual action can make a difference) remains low. Many feel powerless and this leads to a larger abandonment of collective efficacy or any sort of pro-environmental group norms. Have you ever petitioned against a cause because others were doing so? or signed a recycling pledge without caring so much about recycling in private? All attributed to our penchant for in-group belonging.

  • The human brain discounts psychological distance: Our discourse around climate change has revolved around varying time scales - anywhere from 50 to 150 years. This becomes problematic, as the average people tends to heavily discount uncertain (and future events) when making trade-offs. Immediate day-to-day concerns take precedence - as temporal distance increases, representations of a distant future become harder to construe.

  • The human brain has an aversion to loss: The prospect theory of behavioral economics developed by economist Daniel Kahneman concludes this much: people prefer certain gains rather than the prospect of larger gains with more risk. When climate change impacts are framed as potential losses in the distant future, whereas climate change solutions are framed as certain losses for society at present - people want positive (and certain) benefits of immediate support.

What follows is some interesting theories on how to get more people even more engaged, based on the way we understand biases.

What are the implications for marketers?

Let me first start by saying that I don’t just think simple marketing is the solution here - someone committed to climate change denial or aeronautical conspiracies likely won’t be persuaded by rational marketing. This is more for the average person - the one who doesn’t feel close enough to climate change or persuaded enough to push for policy.

Woman Online Founder Morra Aarons-Mele says profoundly: "We are beyond of the point of “changing a light bulb to change the world.” 

More of us are skeptical that we can cool the planet just by recycling more and understand bigger change is needed - from businesses and the government. This demand stems from public pressure.

  • Make the impacts of climate change relatable: How can do we more to highlight relevant personal experiences through affective recall? Stories? Metaphors? Most people won’t understand why rising VPD is an issue - they might understand if their vacation has to be cancelled due to the risk of the National Park in their background having trees burned over. The Weather Channel made a video a few years back to show how hurricane categories could incrementally destroy a house - what’s the equivalent for rising temperatures?

  • Build collective efficacy in communities: In the book Nudge, Thaler and Sustein describe an experiment in San Marcos, California - all of the households were informed about how much energy they had used in previous weeks and then the average consumption in their neighborhood. This was enough to get big energy users to reduce energy consumption, a simple nudge to a group norm instead of an individual social norm. The Toxic Release Inventory Program is a good parallel to this for businesses. Firms have to report to the national government the quantities of hazardous chemicals they have stored. Firms are afraid of - above all else - bad publicity.

  • Emphasize the present: When climate change is out of sight, out of mind and temporal distance increases, it becomes harder for someone to get engaged. What can the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and other organizations do to highlight current and local climate change impacts?

I’m still a bit paralyzed - partly by the smoke and partly by the gargantuan problem that is climate change. I know I still have a lot to learn and that the thoughts above are really only a small part of the puzzle around public engagement - but as with many musings here, if there’s a marketing perspective that gives new insight into the human psyche, it’s a perspective worth sharing!

If you’re interested in supporting legislation for climate change, check out how to support the 40 most critical state legislature races for climate.

If you’re interested in other action you can take now, check out this wonderful piece by Emma Marris on how to stop freaking out and tackle climate change.

🍹 Meld Musings

  • Bessemer shares some memos they wrote running into now-unicorns early on

  • My friend Christina Garnett shares thoughts on self-care in marketing

  • Julie Zhuo (former Facebook Exec) muses on whether social media is good or bad

  • My friend started an Etsy shop where he turns your favorite albums into coasters

  • Public is a new social stock investing app I’ve been loving - that link gives you free stock if you want to try it out!

  • Recently discovered Boston Market on Twitter and I have a new brand crush 😉

As always, feel free to let me know if there’s anything else you’d love to see from me or the Mind Meld.

Until next time,


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