Last year, more than sixty contributors and organizations came together to publish A New Era in Climate Communications. This collaborative paper, an initiative of the non-profit New Zero World, proposed a shift in how we think and communicate about the climate crisis. I was one of the contributors and added my thoughts to four sections of the paper which pull from my 15 years’ experience in U.S. political campaigning, public policy process, the NGO / non-profit sector, and global environmental issue advocacy. 

Since the launch of A New Era during last year’s NYC Climate Week, the digital knowledge hub has attracted over 80,000 impressions from a global audience spanning 85+ countries. The paper has been presented at the COP28 UN climate conference, the Cannes Lions Festival, and other global events. A new effort was also launched alongside the paper called the Earth Public Information Collaborative (EPIC) “a global media and communications coalition to support direct public engagement in tackling the planetary emergency.”

I can’t speak on behalf of EPIC or New Zero World, but I can speak to why I contributed to this paper and why I believe a radical reframing of how we think about and communicate climate change is so important. I’ve been publishing and speaking on this exact topic for a few years and there are mistakes I think the climate activist and advocate community are making in their approach and messages. These messages, well-intentioned as they may be, may nevertheless be having unintended consequences that harm our ability to move toward collective solutions. But there are simple things we can do to correct course, build a more unifying activism, and begin to think about what solving climate change actually looks like -- not just raise alarm. 

This Earth Day, we must think about how we can continue to learn and grow in our advocacy and do a better job for this planet we share. Climate change remains a hyper-partisan issue and we’re not moving fast enough on all the policies we desperately need. Clearly we, as advocates and communicators, have to do better. Join me in taking best practices from A New Era into the world and making the largest difference we can.  

The following four excerpts, taken from my contributions to A New Era, illustrate exactly what I mean. I provide simple and specific examples all of us can follow to reframe our climate communications. There are also many other excellent contributions from a wide variety of expert communicators and leaders in A New Era that I hope you can learn more from. 

“World-On-Fire” messages push us away from climate solutions.

From Chapter 5 in the paper: “Is Doomism The New Delay?”

There are countless examples of climate activist messages that rely upon images of doom. Perhaps one of the most widely recognizable is one that depicts the entire Earth held in the palm of a human hand, one side of the Earth Garden of Eden and the other side fire and brimstone. The message is clear – we have the power to “Save The Earth;” that the fate of nature is literally in our hands. While true in some regards, this image doesn’t do much to build advocacy messages that connect to a broader audience. Fear-based messages only tend to work for those already committed to an issue. World-on-fire messages can be disempowering and breed apathy, resentment, and escapism. They can cause people to emotionally shut down if they believe that an issue is too large for them to solve, that there’s nothing they can do.

Similarly, framing climate activism from the perspective of saving the Earth can convince many that humanity and nature are inherently pitted against one another in a zero-sum game. Creating this false separation between us and a natural world we are very much part of and rely on for our own survival is a tactic we can no longer afford. Certainly, human industrial society and plain greed have depleted many of our natural resources. I get that, as I work every day to conserve land and marine ecosystems. But the reality is that we are also the only ones who can counteract the damage we have caused.

If our message is one of hopelessness and the pitiable plight of the natural world we have ruined, we will not galvanize audiences to positive action. We must convince more humans that the threat to our environment is crucial to them, personally. Why should a Midwestern farmer care about melting glaciers thousands of miles away? Because it is not just the polar bear that suffers from the worst drought in twelve centuries or deadly flooding – both of which can cause crops to fail. Nature-based messages don’t work with everyone and images associated with them, like the polar bear, may even be contributing to polarization. 

As the impacts from climate change get progressively more severe each year, apocalyptic messages may seem warranted. But, in fact, they are overly simplistic, mostly inaccurate, and contribute to a negative and divisive advocacy that pushes us further away from solutions. 

How To Build a More Unifying Climate Activism

From Chapter 6: “Lessons Learned From Other Efforts.” 

We have decades of best practice when it comes to successfully building public identification to issues of societal concern. We’ve done this with anti-smoking, seatbelts, civil rights and more. No issue ever reaches 100% acceptance, and there will always be some who never identify with them. But virtually everyone accepts that not wearing a seatbelt or smoking may kill you. Not as many see the imminent danger from climate change.

Successful advocacy campaigns provide an optimistic vision of the future. They provide tangible examples of what we can work toward and build together. They transcend polarizing messages and find ways to bring more people into the conversation beyond the “true believers.” 

Successful campaigns also humanize an issue by making it as personal and local as possible. If you can see yourself in an issue, you will care more. This builds issue identification. We know the challenge of solving climate change is not scientific or technological at this point but rather political. The messages we create, as activists and advocates, make all the difference in how we build political engagement toward policy solutions.

Rejecting world-on-fire messages and reframing our advocacy messages are critical to create a more unifying climate activism. We can learn to have new conversations about what climate change means to us, in our lives, here and now. Not in the future, not in remote frozen landscapes, not thousands of miles away. 

By taking these actions and learning best practices from previous successful movements, we can change beliefs, regain our optimism for a hopeful future, and see our own personal role in the changing world around us while inspiring new conversations and ways of looking at climate solutions.  

Attending UNFCCC Climate Conferences As Part of Civil Society

From Chapter 8: “The Rise of Citizenship.”

I attended my first UN climate conference just days after the election of President Donald Trump. It was COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, and I represented my graduate school as part of the “RINGO” (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations) constituency. There were many such organizational constituencies including YOUNGO (youth organizations), BINGO (business), ENGO (environmental NGOs), and more. What all these organizations provide is much needed civil society engagement alongside the official UNFCCC proceedings.

Public awareness and pressure is critical to effective government. Civil society and citizen advocacy fills a very important role in elevating issues of concern and holding elected officials accountable. This was on display in the most recent COP27 in Egypt where huge efforts by civil society across the world led to a first-of-its kind agreement on Loss and Damage. If a country isn’t moving quickly enough to meet its targets or if a domestic election causes backsliding, civil society can step in to right the ship. 

I saw an example of this the next year at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. I attended alongside a bipartisan delegation of 11 U.S. states, which included four governors, state legislators, and heads of state environmental and energy agencies. At that time, it was the largest delegation of U.S. states to ever attend the annual climate talks. Due to fear of U.S. climate policy rollbacks during the Trump Administration, cities, states, and other “subnational actors” stepped up and redoubled their own commitments in anticipation of what the federal U.S. government may or may not due over the next few years. The “We Are Still In” coalition and other e orts were created. COP23 became the most important conference for subnational actors in the 25-year history of international climate negotiations.

This example is one of many that highlight how important the COPs are as a rallying point for global action, a platform for communicating climate awareness, and a process for us as global citizens to engage with decision makers. Even if you can’t get access to one of these official constituency groups and get inside the conference (aka: the “Blue Zone”) thousands of people now attend events and rallies outside the main conference area each year (the “Green Zone”). This public area has become very important to the COPs with many officials, scientists, and VIPs traveling back and forth to engage with the public.

With an issue as large as climate change, it can often feel as if individual actions can’t possibly make a difference. That is why it is so empowering to take part in these conferences alongside tens of thousands of others in civil society. Collectively, our voices are making a difference in the negotiations. 

Making Climate Change Personal and Local 

From Chapter 4: “The Psychology of Climate Change.”

A 2021 Pew Research Center poll showed only 57% of American adults believed climate change was affecting their local communities at a “great deal” or at “some” level. When broken down by political parties, the divide grew — effectively, half the country doesn’t see what climate change personally means to them in their lives and communities.

The gap in “issue identification”, or connecting more people personally to an issue like climate change, is also global, as highlighted by a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report. The IMF surveyed 30,000 people across 28 countries and found more public support is needed to pass climate-friendly policies. The majority of respondents said they cared about climate change, but this sentiment alone wasn’t enough to lead to new climate policies in those countries.

These polls come despite countless examples of how climate change affects human populations. There may be a climate crisis in the scientific sense — but for all practical applications of the solutions we need to pursue, we are in a humanitarian crisis. Every piece of the Paris Agreement is grounded in making our human society more resilient, more sustainable, and profitable. Clean air, clean water, a clean energy revolution that creates millions of jobs and dramatically improves our standard of living. The agreement’s most ambitious goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5ºC by the year 2100 (over pre-industrial levels) was created with the citizens of small island nations in mind, who will literally go underwater if that temperature threshold is exceeded.

Building direct, personal connections is a foundational step to overcome a knowledge gap on any issue. It helps bring something that may still seem so large or abstract to so many into focus. These connections also build political support and are the missing links to passing more effective climate policies. 

The Learning for Action fellowship not only offers a comprehensive understanding of climate change and solutions but also has an active community and mentor program for building connections with people that share your passion for change.

Will Hackman has been a mentor since 2021 and is a conservation and climate advocacy expert with nearly 15 years’ experience in U.S. political campaigning, public policy process, NGO / non-profit leadership, and global environmental issue advocacy. You can find his work at –

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