The five best content strategies for communicating climate-change action

Effective content brings climate initiatives to life as well as being a powerful tool for companies to engage consumers and enhance their brand

Meaningful change has become the Holy Grail for communicating about climate issues. That’s because the scale of the problem is so huge that it can feel both paralysing and overwhelming. We are awash with information about the impact and consequences of global warming, to the point where warnings of gloom and doom fail to move us.

Clearly, any effective communication campaign at this stage must educate and inspire. Content that brings to life climate initiatives, or breaks down what each of us can do to help save our warming planet, is vital. It can increase understanding and spur action as the global conversation moves from expressing concern to actively making a difference.

Content also becomes a powerful tool for companies, who are now expected to show what steps they are taking to fight climate change or risk losing the trust (and business) of clients. Well-executed content can engage consumers and enhance their brand. In light of that, here are some of the most engaging strategies we’ve seen.

Setting a new standard

Since early 2018, public concern about plastic waste has been off the charts. The UN declared war on ocean plastic; China has banned the import of used plastics – saying it would no longer be the West’s rubbish dump; and a campaign to ban single-use plastics has been gathering pace.

So when frozen-food retailer Iceland announced it was eliminating plastic packaging, the story made a huge splash. Here was a major supermarket – believed to be the first in the world – that was not only owning up to a problem, but spelling out what it was going to do about it.

Iceland’s decision was both a technological challenge – a race to find eco-friendly substitutes for plastic packaging within five years – and a call to action. A survey of its customers showed 80 per cent supported the retailer’s decision to become plastic-free. As Iceland’s general manager, Richard Walker, explained: “The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change.”

Iceland’s #TooCoolForPlastic campaign set a new bar for climate action by retailers, with many now trying to follow suit. But Iceland also wins plaudits for adopting one of the most effective strategies for climate communications today: owning a climate problem and spelling out how you are going to solve it. Iceland has a web page – Plastic Free by 2023 – that monitors progress on its pledge, showing product lines that have eliminated plastic packaging and a meter counting the plastic saved so far. A series of YouTube videos pay tribute to communities that are battling plastic pollution across the UK.

Of course, Iceland is not the first company to confront its responsibility for the planet’s climate emergency. Tech giants have long been aware that their huge data centres are rapidly becoming the biggest energy guzzlers on Earth. Google and Apple have led the corporate charge to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy, a movement that now encompasses 207 multinationals around the globe. In the process, these companies are transforming the way energy markets function. This, too, is meaningful change.

Changing the world one person at a time

Just as companies are taking up the baton on climate action, individuals also want to know how they can make a difference. The most effective content here focuses on everyday routines – such as the journey to work and the food we eat – to inform and inspire with sensible and achievable steps people can take to minimise their climate impact. The New York Times recently ran a helpful guide about the climate impact of food with suggestions on how to minimise the carbon footprint of your diet. Want to know how a pound of beef contributes to global warming? Whether eating farmed fish is more sustainable than wild catch? You can take a quiz to see how your eating habits contribute to climate change. By focusing on practical steps, individuals are more likely to respond by changing their behaviour. The BBC has also latched on to this, publishing a helpful guide on what individuals can do to reduce their climate impact.

Individuals who can use their authority to spur climate action in their industries also have an important role to play in communicating effective climate strategies. Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, is one of the most effective practitioners in this field. He was one of the first central bankers to warn of the financial risks of climate change in a landmark speech to Lloyd’s of London – the world’s largest reinsurance market. He has since followed up with a flurry of international climate-focused finance initiatives. Cutting our global emissions will require “a massive reallocation of capital”, the Governor says. “If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist.” Today, it is hard to find a financial institution – including banks, insurers or fund management groups – that isn’t delving into its portfolio to uncover climate risks. Thank Mark Carney for that.

Cutting through with facts

In an era of fake news, scientists are also getting better at creatively explaining the facts of climate change in a more understandable and consumer-friendly way, often with arresting graphics. The magazine Fast Company recently announced that this chart was “one of the simplest and best climate change graphics we’ve ever seen”.

Changing temperatures are usually illustrated by a basic hockey stick-shaped graph. In this one, stripes turn from blue to red to show the increasing temperature for each year from 1850 to 2018.

“Ultimately, we’re just trying to find simple, visual, compelling ways to communicate the changes that have occurred to our climate over the last hundred years or so,” Ed Hawkins, a professor at Reading University, told the magazine. “Scientists love making very complex figures for our everyday work, but we need to communicate far more clearly when we’re talking to the public. So the idea of this was to simply strip away all of the unnecessary detail and to simply leave a visual, which is unmistakable about what’s going on. It’s compelling. And you know, anyone can take one look at it and understand what’s going on.”

Reuters’ graphics team also came up trumps with arresting illustrations of the size of our plastics problem. Around the world, almost one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. Half of all plastic is designed to be used only once. The team wanted to show what the world’s discarded pile of bottles would look like after an hour, a month, a year and a decade and used the Eiffel Tower, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the island of Manhattan to illustrate the growing size of this plastic mountain.

NASA´s climate time machine, meanwhile, has interactive graphics that track Arctic sea ice, global sea levels, CO2 emissions and global temperature rises. Scientists don’t always have a reputation as the most user-friendly of communicators, but some are now moving to new platforms – such as posting rap songs on YouTube (almost 250,000 views) – to take on climate deniers wherever they find them.

From content to action

But content doesn’t always have to be creative to get results. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, warning that catastrophic global warming may be less than 12 years away, is very technical but has been the rallying cry for climate protests all over the globe. Extinction Rebellion (313,000 followers on Twitter) took over central London; school strikes, inspired by teenage activist Greta Thunberg (2.9m followers on Twitter) spread from Sweden to the Philippines; and the US youth climate movement Zero Hour (33 thousand followers on Twitter) marched on Washington. Many of these protests are organised by people who are still too young to vote and who blame their elders for political inaction on climate change.

Teen activists use social media, including videos on YouTube, Vox and Vice, to get their message across and build a new climate-change media narrative. And it’s a very different message. As told by teens, the ever-nearing deadline of catastrophic climate change conveys not just urgency, but also injustice; it’s both a science story and a morality tale about inter-generational violence. They have been hugely successful by adding a fresh perspective and becoming the moral conscience for climate action.

So if you are inspired to produce climate content that is original, arresting, impactful and capable of galvanising people into action, keep these five strategies in mind:

  • own a climate problem and spell out how you will deal with it
  • inform people of sensible steps they can take to minimise their climate impact
  • use your authority to spur change in your industry
  • be creative when explaining the science of climate change
  • add a fresh perspective to the debate.

It’s a tough challenge, so good luck!

Leslie Crawford is a former comment editor of the Financial Times