the climate change curator’s playbook

A Field Guide to Mobilizing Climate action  

Artwork:  Dave Chenell

Artwork: Dave Chenell

We stand at a critical point in history. With global environmental crises on the horizon, we need to mobilize millions of people to take action.

In 2019, Climate Change Curators are conduits who can transform abstract existential issues into intimate personal experiences that inspire change. 

This field guide is for curators working to make a large-scale impact on behavioral change. It is based on lessons learned from my curatorial practice over the last decade and the latest research in climate change communication.

what is The Role of a Climate Change Curator?

Climate change curators face harder problems than typical curators. They must identify relevant touchpoints to engage cultures around the world, thoughtfully introduce and contextualize doomsday scenarios, support viewers’ emotions, and guide them from denial and fear into empowerment and action. 

Part of the challenge is connecting invisible changes to the felt experience of daily life. We need people to understand, viscerally feel, and internalize the issues in a way they can relate to, so they are inspired to take action.

“Though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?” — Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org in What the Warming World Needs Now Is Art, Sweet Art

Climate Change Curators need to:

  1. Analyze the global zeitgeist to identify entry points for climate conversations. Audiences need to understand how climate change touches our everyday lives – our work, our food, our cities, our clothes, our societies, our planet. These touchpoints in daily life are starting points to open up a dialog about climate change. 

  2. Collaboratively craft experiences that spark curiosity and wonder. Exploring climate change and inspiring action takes creativity. Artists - the way they approach an idea or issue, the way they can inspire new perspectives and elicit emotion are crucial in understanding climate change. The results can take many forms- exhibitions, immersive installations, conferences, events, articles, videos, interviews, online communities, VR experiences, apps, etc - whatever is best received among the targeted audience.

  3. Capture participants’ attention so they’re willing to temporarily withhold judgment and stay open to new perspectives. An exhibition only showing melting icebergs lacks the nuance required to engage people who are already skeptical of climate change. We need to consider what aesthetics and narratives will engage diverse audiences.

  4. Introduce new (at times challenging) ideas in a way that makes audiences feel acknowledged, honored and understood. This requires understanding your audience and crafting a narrative that’s sensitive to their experience of life – even if it’s different from yours.

  5. Support viewers as they process their thoughts and feelings, including disbelief, helplessness, fear, guilt, etc. Participants won’t integrate new ideas if they don’t have a safe container in which to process them. Presenting doomsday scenarios and explaining the science is not enough to get people to change their behavior.

  6. Celebrate the humanities and their ability to leave lasting emotional, impressions. One joy of the curatorial process is holistically considering each and every element of the experience you are creating for your audience and how best to connect with them on the deepest possible level.

  7. Challenge audiences to do something once they’ve seen the world differently. Arming audiences with practical, actionable steps helps transmute any fear and guilt into positive, productive energy. 

  8. Support their journey after they leave. Research shows that climate action is much more likely if there is an ongoing element of support. An exhibition should not end when it’s de-installed. It should have a lasting relationship with audiences through followup materials, events, communities, drip email sequences, social media conversations, etc. 

So join me as I lay out my field guide for mobilizing climate action below. My hope is to help each other inspire the change needed to bring our planet back into balance. 

The Challenge of Climate Change Curation

Before we can mobilize people to act, we need to understand why people have been so reluctant to change. 

Why aren’t people taking action on climate change?

  • The culprit is invisible. The main causes of climate change are carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These ghostly molecules are colorless and odorless. People inherently have difficulty relating to things they can’t see, feel or touch. 

  • The impact is too far in the future to grasp. Immediate concerns always trump distant ones. People are more worried about putting food on the table and fitting in with their social/cultural group than intangible events that might happen long after they’re gone.

  • We lack concrete signals indicating we need to change. If we do a poor job at work, the consequences are tangible: we get fired. But if we continue our habitual actions that pump Co2 into the atmosphere, we often do not experience immediate, tangible repercussions. That makes it hard to accept that it’s really happening and causing problems. 

  • Automatic defense mechanisms make it hard to process. Common emotional reactions to climate change include fear, numbness, defiance, guilt and anger. These are the same reactions to trauma, which can completely shut down our ability to deal with problems rationally. Accounting for these reactions is key to keeping people engaged in climate issues. 

  • It can threaten our basic need to put food on the table. Millions of people rely on paychecks from fossil fuel companies, global transportation companies, big agriculture, fast fashion brands, and other climate change culprits. A coal miner who is concerned about the safety of his five kids and facing potential layoffs is in no position to ask his neighbors to stop buying coal and switch to solar. We can’t expect people to put their financial security at risk without meeting them on their own terms and starting from a place of empathy. 

  • We get no gratification by taking action. If you do a great job at work, you may be recognized in front of your whole team. Positive reinforcement makes us feel good, motivating us to continue the behavior. But taking climate action does not provide any gratification. Separating recycling feels like a chore; It doesn’t provide a dopamine release and reinforce our biological feedback loop to do it again. 

  • It can threaten our agency and freedom. Many people naturally don’t like being told what to do, without deciding on their own if it’s in their best interest. Anything that takes away options can feel like an affront to individual power of choice. We can’t expect this people to stop doing things they love — even if unsustainable — unless we frame problems and solutions in a way that’s empathetic to their worldview.

  • Disbelief in human’s global influence. Many people believe that humans couldn’t have caused climate change. How could such a huge and age-old system be so affected by our species? Often this disbelief isn’t based in scientific logic, but in emotional, cultural, familial, or economic reasons. These need to be addressed with sensitivity and care.

  • Lack of basic understanding of science. Sometimes it’s simply a lack of knowledge that gets in our way. Projects like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth help address that problem. But research shows that it’s almost always other reasons that prevent people from taking action. We need to address those as well as the pure science.

how is current climate communication failing?

  • Simply providing more information does not inspire action. This assumption has been studied widely. It’s known as the knowledge deficit model (Bak 2001; Sturgis and Allum 2004). Research shows that giving more information is not enough to mobilize people (Nisbet and Scheufele 2009). In fact, overloading people with data can actually come off as condescending if the people feel like they’re seen as irrational or ignorant. 

  • Fear-mongering does not inspire action by itself. Studies show that audiences generally reject fear appeals as manipulative (Moser 2007c; O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole 2009). Conservative audiences have been particularly resistant to them when it comes to climate change (Jost et al. 2007). Images of overwhelming problems without effective solutions can trigger denial, numbness, and apathy. These reactions control the unpleasant experience of fear, but don’t inspire action to mitigate the actual threat (APA 2009; CRED 2009). 

  • Framing the issue as a scientific problem doesn’t inspire action. Most people do not find the science of climate change inherently interesting. They may get lost in jargon and technical details, or feel exclusion during debates over minutiae beyond their grasp. Also, it’s typically a one-way communication when experts present the science. This doesn’t leave room for dialog, building a shared understanding of the problem, or collaborating on possible solutions. 

  • Mass media is not the most effective way to inspire action. Climate campaigns often assume that mass communication is the most effective way to reach wide audiences. But a closer look is needed. Although it’s natural to want to reach large numbers through television, newspapers, and the internet, media channels are often consumed without great attention, quickly discarded or ignored. Adding to the problem, changes in the media landscape have affected the quality and diversity of news (Moser 2009b, 2010). So simply blasting messages out of a public megaphone misses the point of engaging people in a way that’s meaningful to them. 

  • Information provided by untrusted sources does not inspire action. Climate change has mostly been communicated by experts or scientists voices in media reports (Nisbet 2009). But these are not the most trusted or most appropriate source with every audience or with any message (Cvetkovich and Löfstedt 2000). 

how can we pick the right medium for our message?

People relate to climate change very differently. So understanding how to tailor messages to each audience is critical.

For example:

  • If climate change is framed as a moral issue, religious leaders may have greater persuasion (Wardekker et al. 2009).

  • If taking action on climate change is seen as an economic issue, it may be most credibly conveyed by a business person who has done it (Arroyo and Preston 2007).

  • If climate change is framed as a national security issue, spokesmen such as former CIA director James Woolsey can serve as a trusted messenger (Nisbet 2009).

  • If climate change is framed as a social issue, community members taking action can be effective. For example, teenagers already active in the climate movement can be more effective messengers than hip celebrities (Isham and Waage 2007).

These brief examples highlight the importance of choosing the right medium to maximize impact.

A Checklist for Climate Change Curators

There is no silver bullet to fix climate change. However, the checklist below can help increase the likelihood that we genuinely changing behavior at scale.

Climate change curators should:

  • Connect climate change to tangible, local issues that people care about. For example: their finances, their children, their health and safety, household energy use, cost savings, energy security, etc. Curators should select works that connect to the direct experience of their audience’s everyday life. We need to make climate change a tangible, felt experience.

  • Be empathetic to people’s reactions to disturbing information. People are more open to hearing information about risks if their worldview is affirmed beforehand. Understanding and acknowledging your audience’s perspective up front helps build a bridge so they can more readily accept difficult information that may follow (Kahan and Braman 2008).

  • Tailor your message to your specific audience – one size does not fit all. What issues and language resonate with different individuals and groups? What values do your audience share? What aspirations do they have – as parents, as professionals, etc? What have they already heard about climate change? What mental models or possible misconceptions might they have beforehand? Framing — through words, images, tone of voice, messengers, and other signals — provides essential context for people to make sense of an issue. We need to contextualize our work carefully, because framing can trigger a cascade of responses that can prime an audience for action – or not.

  • Reach your audience on the channels they care about. Audiences differ by the information channels they use, and what messengers are credible to them. Without solid audience knowledge, outreach campaigns may not generate more than fleeting attention. Or they fail to meet the information needs people have. This can create resistance to considering the information we’re trying to communicate (Dickinson 2009; Jost and Hunyady 2005).

  • Select messengers that will have the greatest impact. Messengers — those who convey a message — are a critical part of the framing. Our messenger should be consistent with the way the message is framed, or the importance and credibility of the message will be undermined (FrameWorks Institute 2002). Individuals not inclined or able to systematically process a large amount of (sometimes conflicting) complex or difficult to understand information will use heuristics — mental shortcuts — to make up their minds about it (Kahneman et al. 1982). Thus, for example, trust can be based on a messenger belonging to one’s own social or cultural group (Cialdini 1993; Agyeman et al. 2007)

  • Inspire interaction and participation. Studies show that face-to-face communication is more persuasive than mass media communication (Lee et al. 2002). It is more personal. And nonverbal cues allow communicators to gauge how information is being received in real-time, and respond accordingly. Direct communication also allows for dialogue to emerge. Trust between individuals participating in a two-way exchange goes a long way toward engaging and convincing someone. Interactive communication, whether face to face or over the internet, improves health outcomes and behavior change (Abroms and Maibach 2008). Climate Change Curators should think about we can make our exhibitions, events and materials interactive to maximize our impact. 

  • Leave people with a feeling of options and opportunities. Risk information and fear-evoking images should be limited – and always paired information that provides specific, pragmatic help in realizing doable solutions. Leaving someone afraid without a course of action is not a viable strategy to mobilize people.

  • Leverage community to engage and support action on an ongoing basis. It’s important to establish a sense of collective response. This is especially true within social and cultural groups. The solutions we propose should be consistent with our audience’s personal aspirations, desired social identity, and cultural biases (CRED 2009; Segnit and Ereaut 2007). Many people may feel overwhelmed about and the deep and lasting societal changes required to address the problem. That’s why facilitated dialogue and structured deliberation of issues as they emerge is so crucial (Kahan and Braman 2006). Studies show that this improves interpersonal knowledge and trust of people with very different values, provides critical social support and affirmation, increases openness to risk information, and enables decision making – rather than obstructs it (Nagda 2006).

  • Tailor programming to attract the skill sets needed for climate change. We need the best and brightest minds in the world working on climate change. How do we get them all involved? Our programming should strive to inspire audiences with the skillsets we need to join the effort. An exhibition tailored to engineers and scientists could feature Dyson spheres, artificial photosynthesis, fusion power, and other beacons of transformational science, inspiring new minds to join us in ideating creative solutions. An exhibition tailored to foodies could inspire cooks, farmers, chefs, bartenders, #foodporn instagram influencers to see new ways of eco-friendly cooking in a sustainable world. An exhibition tailored to sustainable fashion could inspire the next generation of designers to think differently about how they source their materials and compensate their workers. By strategically identifying segments of people who will be critical to the success of the climate action movement, we can create experiences that inspire them to join the cause, and more fully tap the collective power of humankind.

    a sustainable future is ours to inspire

    The checklist above is by no means exhaustive. It is just a starting point. My hope is that it inspires the world’s climate change curators to take a more strategic approach to their efforts.

    The solutions we dream up will need to cross disciplines, span cultures, reach millions, and connect to our deeply personal experience of life. They will need to present difficult topics and move audiences from denial and fear into inspiration and action.

    As climate change curators, we are conduits that will inspire the future. We are privileged to channel our passion and skills into solving the world’s single biggest existential challenge. I can think of nothing more rewarding than committing to this mission together.

    So join me in mobilizing change. The next generation of solutions our species will dream up are ours to inspire. And to lead this charge is the greatest calling of our time.