Effective climate change communication

Practical advice for boards and executives

Report author
alex-cropLuke Heilbuth
Head of Strategy

When I moved from diplomacy to sustainability consulting in 2017, I was surprised to realise that most business leaders had done little to educate themselves on climate change. In private conversations, some doubted it was relevant to their businesses. Others saw the issue as one of brand management, delegating middle managers to greenwash on their behalf.

A lot has changed in four years, with most boards and executives now supporting genuine action. A recent survey found that 81 percent of Australian business leaders believe climate change will have a negative impact on their operations. Climate change was also identified as the biggest global risk in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020.

Growing concern, though, hasn’t led to a corresponding rise in expertise, with limited resources available to support better climate communication. So we’ve put together three suggestions to help boards and executives inspire change in this area, based on our own experience as climate specialists.

1. Pitch to centre-right voters

Climate change needs to be depoliticised, and paradoxically, the best way to do this is to craft climate messaging that appeals to centre-right voters.

The reasoning is simple. A problem as intractable as this requires the support of the majority of society, and ignoring or belittling those inclined to scepticism does nothing but entrench their view that climate change is an ideological weapon of the left. Besides, progressives already view climate change as an existential issue, so fashioning arguments that appeal exclusively to their preferred political narrative is wasted effort.

There’s no reason why climate change can’t be reconceived as a marquee issue of the centre-right, as it has been in the UK. Millions of Australians fall in this camp, and their support will be vital if we are to transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050. What’s more, right-leaning Australians are more likely to support climate action than many people assume.

The Australia Talks National Survey of 54,000 Australians in 2020 found that a majority of Coalition voters (54 percent) considered climate change to be a problem for them personally. Only one issue ranked higher (saving for retirement, 55 percent). Climate ranked above all other priorities for Coalition voters, including terrorism (48 percent), crime (42 percent) and immigration (33 percent). Overall, 84 percent of Australians favoured some action on climate change.

CEOs and chairs can enhance the appeal of their climate messaging and reporting to these centre-right shareholders by using language and symbolism which resonates with conservative values. Framing climate action around the following themes is particularly effective:

  • Renewal and restoration: Conservatives are inspired by the idea of returning what has been lost, rather than simply improving on the current situation. With this in mind, explain how your company is renewing or rebuilding something lost, whether focused on environmental restoration (e.g. natural beauty, endangered species) or social regeneration (jobs, community values).
  • National well-being: Right-wing voters take pride in the nation, and caring for it. So consider tying your climate change initiative to national pride, nation-building or protecting a land that we love (a sentiment prized by Indigenous Australians, farmers and environmentalists alike). Fortescue is particularly skilled at merging commercial and nation-building objectives together. Take this press release, assessing prospects for the company to pioneer the development of a green hydrogen industry in Tasmania.
  • Share price performance: Australia Institute research reveals that fossil fuels are poor investments based on economics alone; a fact that won’t be lost on conservative shareholders and reason enough for a board or executive team to look elsewhere for investment returns. Fossil fuels were the worst-performing sector in the ASX300 in the decade to July 2020 – $100 invested in the fossil fuel dominated S&P ASX300 Energy index in 2010 was worth just $104 by January 2020, dropping to a mere $51 during the market correction caused by COVID-19. By contrast, $100 in the wider market peaked at $237, falling to $169 in the pandemic.

2. Consider the messenger, not just the message

Ricky Gervais’ denunciation of the Hollywood elite at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards gave voice to what many of us already felt – intense irritation at the hypocrisy of actors with huge carbon footprints lecturing ordinary people on the perils of climate change.

A messenger needs to be trusted for his or her message to be effective. And while most of us have little trouble seeing the absurdity of Hollywood millionaires virtue signalling about environmental collapse, we tend to be less critical of the obvious shortcomings of our business elite.

If your CEO or Chair can’t demonstrate even a basic understanding of climate change impacts on business strategy, or explain basic concepts like Scope 3 emissions (and many can’t), are they really the best person to address investor and community concerns?

Look instead for an insider who is respected within the group you’re trying to influence. For example, if you’re speaking to a regional community about a decision to avoid future investment in coal-fired power, seek out local workers who have successfully transitioned to a new role in renewables. Or, if an institutional investor is worried about the costs of your climate mitigation strategy, call on a climate economist who can provide an assessment of how long-term benefits accrue to early movers.

Finally, if you’re faced with a hostile audience, consider using surprise to scramble their assumptions. This might involve employing an unusual messenger, such as a strong conservative advocating for climate solutions. And your messenger might avoid using the phrase ‘climate change’ altogether. We know of one electric vehicle entrepreneur who pitches to traditional car manufacturers in terms of cost savings and efficiency gains only. He intentionally avoids any mention of climate change or sustainability, despite the green benefits his product provides.

3. Tell stories, make them relevant

Like all scientific disciplines, climate science involves the collection and analysis of evidence. This might involve the examination of variations in average temperature, ice-floes, or concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, tied together with a falsifiable conclusion.

But good climate communication doesn’t follow as a natural consequence of good climate science. Most of us have no interest in scrutinising tables and data models, nor the capacity to determine whether a particular thesis is well made. It’s a problem exacerbated by the inability of many scientists to translate their findings into a narrative that resonates with the hopes and fears of everyday people.

The lesson holds true for corporate communication on climate change – even the most sophisticated investors, employees, regulators and shareholders want to be engaged and inspired through story, rather than statistics. As the IPCC explains, climate change communication works best as a narrative, when the author describes a problem, lays out its consequences, then provides a solution (or at least the potential for one). This final element – a sense of hope – is most important; many people don’t act in response to warnings of climate catastrophe because they feel powerless to stop it.

This doesn’t mean ignoring the science. It means creatively thinking how to repackage the data to present the problem, its implications, and a solution in a way that emotionally connects with your audience. Facts and figures alone are unlikely to shift views, nor will images of polar bears on ice floes. Stories rich in humanity work best, especially when presented with compelling visuals – see the website Humans & Climate Change Stories for inspiration.

Sustainability-focused reports and microsites, for example, should be constructed around a positive narrative, such as your company’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions. The strategic rationale for action should be simply explained, and enlivened by examples of real people solving the associated challenges in memorable ways. NZX-listed thl provides a good example in their 2019 integrated report.

Luke Heilbuth (luke@bwdstrategic.com) is Head of Strategy at BWD, a sustainability consultancy specialising in ESG strategy and reporting.