Scientist-moms explore why climate change messaging falls flat

Climate Data

Scientist-moms explore why climate change messaging falls flat

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Using hard data and research, these women scientists are working to increase their impact.

When Melissa Burt, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, made a video about the climate crisis, it included images of her daughter, Mia.

“There’s some light within her that makes me continue to do the climate science work that I do,” Burt says in her voice-over. As she speaks, photos of a toddler — playing in the garden, sledding in fresh snow, frolicking on the beach — appear in frame. “As moms, we care about the environment they grow up in. And for Mia, I want you to know I worked hard for the change, and to make it a better place for you.”

What Burt does not say are phrases like “net zero,” “1.5 degrees Celsius,” or even “carbon emissions.” Nor does she mention polar bears or ice caps. Climate change isn’t about politics or jargon, the video implies. Climate change is about us: Our neighborhoods, our schools, our kids.

“From a scientist’s perspective, oftentimes we say facts, facts, facts,” Burt told Climate & Capital. “But half the time, people don’t understand what those facts mean.”

And facts alone don’t seem to spark action. 

The video was a commercial for Science Moms, an advocacy group of scientist mothers working to communicate the reality of the climate crisis to fellow moms, specifically suburban moms — suburban moms –– a demographic that is generally not inherently climate-focused but is persuadable. Since 2018, Science Moms has launched around $10 million worth of advertising in several political swing states. Yet this is not a simple story of women scientists banding together to enlighten their fellow mothers. Launched by a sustainability-focused marketing group, Science Moms is the product of months of meticulous research meant to answer the question: How can climate communication be better?

Potential Energy Coalition, the nonprofit, marketing agency behind Science Moms, paid for around one billion online ad impressions targeting a wide variety of platforms, target audiences and geographies, closely tracking which sorts of people responded to which sorts of messaging. 

“We’ve tested a lot of messages and ads to different groups of people. And we’ve found that the suburban mom was the most persuadable on lifting support or strong government action on climate change,” said Anne-Marie Kline, managing director of campaigns for research at Potential Energy.

“And more than any other group, they, when exposed to and talked to about what’s going on, were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m totally in,’” Kline said. 

Once Potential Energy had its target demographic, the next step was finding what that group responds to. For example, they found that the phrase “carbon emissions” drew less attention than “carbon pollution.” Likewise, viewers were more likely to support government action on climate change after seeing an image of a city full of smog versus an image of a severe storm. In Florida, audiences reacted more strongly to the phrase “sea-level rise” than “climate change.”

In Florida, audiences reacted more strongly to the phrase “sea-level rise” than “climate change.”

Kline described it as a constant exercise in cost-benefit analysis: “If you use the phrase ‘get to zero emissions by 2050,’ let’s just say it costs $15 to get one person to say ‘Okay, I get it.’ But if you say ‘cut emissions in half by 2030,’ it costs $10. If you say ‘tax polluters,’ it gets down to somewhere like $4. If you say ‘stop coastal development,’ it gets down further.”

This approach may seem better suited for getting people to buy Nike Shoes and Apple Watches than thwarting the climate apocalypse. But the truth is, while climate-focused NGOs and publications are strong on science, many can use some coaching on the art of persuasion. 

“The data shows that their messaging does not work, period,” said David Fenton, former CEO of Fenton Communications, which currently handles communications for Science Moms. “They don’t reach a lot of people. They think they do, but they don’t.”

In his 40-year career, Fenton has helped craft the messages of clients such as Al Gore, Nelson Mandela and Yoko Ono. He noted that according to the Yale Study on Climate Communication, only half of Americans are either “cautious” or “alarmed” about climate change. Around a quarter of Americans are either totally apathetic or actively dismissive. 

Fenton partly blames this relatively limp public interest, considering the impending apocalypse-level threat, on a failure by mainstream environmental groups to reach ordinary Americans. He said climate groups are reluctant to invest in traditional marketing, the kind mastered on Madison Avenue, based on demographic research, focus group data and the repetition of simple messaging.

Instead, they tend to let science speak for itself. “They think, ‘I had an op-ed in the New York Times, it changed the world, everybody saw.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

Common jargon like “net zero” and “climate justice” may be noble and well-intentioned, but for most Americans, it just doesn’t stick. 

“When you say ‘pollution,’ there’s a smokestack in my brain. It’s bad, dirty, horrible. That’s a frame that’s actual circuitry in your brain. But when you say ‘net zero,’ you’re activating no circuitry. Nobody knows what it means. What the fuck is ‘net zero?’”

The climate section of the website of the Sierra Club — which spent around $1.8 million in campaign contributions in the 2020 election cycle — features photos of wind turbines and melting ice caps with a warning about sea-level rise. Its calls-to-action concern Wall Street investments, electric cars and specific pieces of legislation. 

Climate Moms try to keep things more grounded. 

One ad tries to drive home the scientific consensus on the climate threat. “If an entire neighborhood’s worth of doctors told you your mole was cancerous, would you keep it?” the ad asks. “If an entire town’s worth of mechanics said you needed new brakes, would you be like, ‘Nah, I’m good?’”

Another ad describes the greenhouse effect as a “thickening blanket that traps heat in the atmosphere” — a simple, punchy analogy that Melissa Burt hopes will become common shorthand. 

“If you’re pushing for change, those who push back against change have an easier time than the proponents of change.”

“I think by just providing them with information so that they can understand the urgency of the problem and feel more comfortable talking about it, they can easily dialogue with other people in their PTA group, their book club, their wine club, whatever it may be.” 

Burt, who is African American, also hopes to upend the mental image the term “scientist” usually conjures — a white man in a white coat. She recalls one mother she met after speaking on a panel about parenting and climate change. 

“She’s like, ‘I am a black mom who lives in New York City. I didn’t think that climate change was something that mattered to me. I just didn’t really ever think about it. Nobody ever connected with me in that same way to make me realize that this trusted, credible messenger is saying that this is something that I should care about.’”

Yet crafting powerful slogans and images is only part of the battle, said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University. Opponents of the climate movement, including the fossil fuel lobby and its political allies, have no compunctions about traditional marketing — and in the fight for public opinion, they have the home-field advantage. 

“If you’re pushing for change, those who push back against change have an easier time than the proponents of change,” Shapiro said. “All they have to do is confuse.”

Opponents of the climate movement do not have to disprove climate science; it’s enough to make the science seem uncertain. They don’t have to convince people that climate change isn’t important; it is enough to make other issues seem equally important. Suburban mothers are a key election demographic, Shapiro agreed, but when it comes to swaying their hearts and minds, the onus is on Science Moms. And ads are not enough: Science Moms, and their talking points, will also need exposure in traditional news media if the group hopes to move the needle.

“If they really want to maximize their effect, they’ve got to be out there every week hammering away at this so it doesn’t disappear from people’s radar screens,” Shapiro said. “And it’s hard. It takes resources and planning and you’re also competing with other stuff going on at the same time.”

Kline said Science Moms is indeed going hard. They are running ads in 11 swing states, including Arizona, Colorado and Florida, places already feeling the effects of a hotter world. Videos with Burt and her scientist colleagues appear on platforms like Facebook and Vimeo, as well as major TV networks, in partnership with the Ad Council. Kline also said Science Moms has made more than 3,000 appearances in media, including full stories in the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

It just may be enough to make scientists like Burt more relatable, to bring climate change into conversations at playground benches and soccer field bleachers, and, with a little luck, change a few votes on election day.


Written by

Jared Downing

Jared Downing is managing editor of Climate & Capital Media. Before Climate&Capital, he spent five years in Yangon, Myanmar, producing the human rights podcast Doh Athan and producing features, columns, and cartoons for Frontier Myanmar, that country's leading English language magazine. Prior to that, he was a freelance writer in Birmingham Alabama, focusing on city culture and social justice.