Public awareness campaigns about climate change can be real downers. This one  was too scary for children and was eventually pulled off the air. This one  scared even the adults and was pulled off the air within hours of its release.
Doom and gloom scenarios seem to be the dominant theme in most of these campaigns. But are they working? According to Futerra’s Sell the Sizzle , these campaigns completely miss the target with this type of negative messaging. While it is true that climate change is aggravating problems like mass migration, overcrowded cities, and food shortages, our message need not be about Armageddon. We are trying to sell a version of climate change hell when we should be selling a low-carbon heaven, argues Futerra .
Climate change, with all its complexities, requires behavior and social change as much as technical fixes. And human beings tend to make bad decisions  when we are stressed and under pressure. So how can we induce positive behavior change without scaring people into it?
First, present a positive, viable vision and associate certain behaviors and actions towards meeting that vision. That is why “Yes we can” and “I have a dream” have worked.
Especially relevant for those who are familiar with the science of climate change, our messages also tend to be too technical. Technical language about CO2 targets does not adequately communicate a complex, global problem that is equally driven by individual behavior and political power.
In a recent workshop for journalists to learn about and report on forestry and environment issues (REDD+ ), the first journalist to raise his hand as soon as the presenter finished asked “so what?” It is a fair question and embodies a challenge to those of us who work day after day on these issues. Because the impacts of climate change are affecting us all, it will require a true social movement that goes beyond campaigning from one high level global meeting  to another. Judging from the journalist’s question, we are not doing a good job of communicating this vision.
“Don’t sell the sausage – sell the sizzle”  is now a famous line by an American salesman named Elmer Wheeler. His theory was that instead of selling trying to sell the sausage itself, we should sell its sizzle to entice the consumer.
The messages on climate change should sizzle, not burn.
Photo credit: flickr user JohnLeGear