Climate leadership and communications in the time of COVID-19

Communicating climate change has always taken courage. Now, it will take all that we can muster.

How do we talk about climate change? That’s a tough question for climate leaders and communicators on a normal day. For the past few weeks, none of our days has been normal. One could reasonably argue that we shouldn’t be talking about climate change at all right now. People are dying. People are losing their jobs. Advocating for climate action in the midst of all this may not only come across as tone deaf and callous, it could potentially do real damage to the cause.

At the same time, governments and businesses are now making massive economic decisions—from relief spending to bailout packages—that may shape the future of industry. Made through a climate lens, these choices could ensure that a post-COVID world is also a more sustainable one. Made without one, they could do worse than lock us into the status quo. They could knock us backward.

In this “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” state of limbo, how can climate leaders and communicators do their jobs – in a way that is conscious of our changed context? Is there a line to walk between silence and shouting into the wind? Here’s what to avoid and embrace in the months ahead.

DON’T: Compete, Conflate, or Celebrate
Just as the urgency of COVID-19 set in, a colleague sent me a trending meme: Climate Change needs to hire Coronavirus’s publicist. I laughed. I cried. I pulled my hair. Here’s my response to that: No. It doesn’t. Here’s why:

  • People cannot respond to climate change the way they do to COVID-19, and we should not expect them to. There is simply no comparison between communicating about an emergency that quickly and directly hurts the people closest to you and a crisis that slowly and indirectly hurts humanity. The psychological challenges embedded in climate change communication are inherently different (this interesting piece from two McGill professors explains why). Rather than blaming the public or ourselves for this, we should learn more about how our brains are wired to respond to emergency and crisis.
  • The COVID-19 response is temporary, and it should be. The behaviour changes governments and health officials are impressing upon people now are temporary. In fact, their rallying cry is the faster we all do our part, the quicker we can get back to business as usual. But “business as usual” is the opposite of what it will take to address climate change. That makes climate advocacy objectives fundamentally different from those of public health. If we conflate them, few will respond well to the suggestion that their temporary sacrifices during an emergency should become a way of life.
  • It’s true that our current lockdown is drastically reducing carbon pollution – but that is no cause for celebration. The most vulnerable in our society are bearing the brunt of the lockdowns: the people living paycheque to paycheque or gig to gig. They are struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, and to care for and educate their children. A low-carbon but stagnant economy would not mean a better future, but a devastated one. Communicating the solutions to climate change means asking people to imagine and embrace a very different world. Right now, that is a hard ask. Equating that world with the experience we are living through now will make it an impossible ask.

DO: Connect, Create Value, Innovate
The question to ask is: What can we effectively do, in our current context, over the next four months to set us up for the conversations we want to be having in late 2020? Think about the rest of the year in two phases: the emergency phase (now until, say, July) and the recovery phase (August, fingers crossed, and after).

  • Build community. More than ever, Canadians are together in their solitude. Desperate for ways to connect, we are, in many ways, a captive audience. How can you bring people closer, and build more meaningful relationships with them? For example, Efficiency Canada has opened up weekly internal knowledge sharing sessions to its partners — growing a brain trust and building relationships, in an authentic and human way, with Allies. Now is a unique time to engage those closest to your organization, and to consolidate the interest of those most relevant to your mission.
  • Create value. Take the “Five Great Tips for Lowering Your Carbon Footprint” blog and put it aside. Just like you, your audience is worried about their jobs and debts, how to keep their kids engaged and safe, how to find calm and sanity. Challenge yourself to offer something of unique value to people based on where they are right now. Can you re-frame that carbon footprint blog to make it about how to save money through home efficiency tips—now that every member of the household is online at the same time? Can you offer a weekly or daily online class for high school or college students? Can you create a neighbourhood biking or walking guide, or citizen science project, that can help people find respite in nature (Birds Canada offers a good example)? Unusual times call for creative solutions. Providing value now will build long-term relationships.
  • Innovate. Now is not the moment for loud climate advocacy campaigns, but it is an important time to telegraph relevant recovery and rebuilding solutions to decision-makers, both privately and publicly. However, that does NOT mean slapping a bit of paint on an existing climate policy ask and trying to shove it into a COVID-shaped hole. Dyson isn’t trying to convince us that now is the perfect time to buy a vacuum. Instead, the company has focused its expertise on creating a new kind of ventilator. That’s the kind of thinking we need now. How can we offer creative and innovative solutions aimed squarely at Canadians’ current challenges? A good example is the Energy Futures Lab’s progressive, pragmatic guidance on how to support Alberta’s economic recovery.

Communicating climate change has always taken courage. Doing it well now will take all that we can muster, because it requires doing things very differently. It means being vulnerable.

Communicating to people in times of anxiety and grief is both awkward and scary. We all fear saying the wrong thing. In our personal lives, we set that worry aside and reach out the best we can to offer comfort. Our organizations must do that now.

It also means letting go. Forget this year’s agenda. It’s different now. It has to be. This does not mean abandoning our core missions. It means taking a step back and reimagining our value in this moment. What Canadians need is community, safety, wellness, and hope that we will come through this stronger and together. How can your organization contribute to that imperative?

Finally, if ever there was a time to be creative and experiment, that time is now. Connect with audiences in ways you never have imagined; let down your institutional and brand guards to collaborate with peer organizations in new ways; disrupt the silos surrounding your traditional issues so you can communicate about them – with more relevance than ever.

As leader and communicators, we have a responsibility to help Canada get through this and come out the other side wiser, more resilient, and more compassionate. To succeed, we must do the same.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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