Framing the Climate Debate with Something Other than Fear

Sometimes when I find myself thinking about climate change all the time, and the many things we can all do to mitigate disaster, and I see how small my actions are and how the major power players–corporations, governments, and the mass of most people–are just going on with business as usual, I feel insane. I am always searching for ways to motivate, rather than terrify, and this was a big issue when I wrote the book. It was clear to me that hitting people over the head with facts and dire predictions would do to them what it did to me–freak them out and make it impossible to take action.

And yet, the time for action is way past NOW. We have to figure out how to inspire and lead individuals, families, communities, regions, etc… toward a more ecologically possible future.

This article written by Susan Strong of the Metaphor Project,, was really inspiring and motivating in this regard and I reprint it here in full.

Framing Climate Change Action Now
by Susan C. Strong

There is evidence that a number of American citizens know we have a climate change problem. But many of them experience it as something we can’t fix technically, socially or politically. So they ignore it to keep going day by day. Among the already convinced, that’s where the issue is stuck. But we also have fellow citizens who haven’t heard or thought much about the issue, and of course, we’ve got the fossil fuel gang still funding denial. Recent research shows that the public is primarily focused on jobs, the economy, and D.C. gridlock instead.

So, to make any headway on this issue, we will have to get a lot smarter about framing climate change problems and their solutions. For too long climate change activists and professionals have been talking to each other and to the sympathetic. It’s time to get serious about framing the issue in a way that reaches mainstream America.

Let’s start with educating the convinced about possible fixes. Years of research have shown that trying to motivate people on this issue by scaring them fails. Up-to-date framing research proves that people respond better to a “prevent damage” message than to an “avoid risk” one.(2) So, the real focus of our framing on this issue should be action to prevent more damage to our economy: who can do what, who is doing what, what is working now.(3) Americans are pragmatic, action-oriented optimists.  We need to pose the climate change problem as a challenge we can all meet.

Along these lines, some language picks I’d make from the Metaphor Project’s “American Story” lists include these: being prosperous, saving money, being clean, safe, and healthy, being free, and doing it ourselves. Big political change in this country always starts with the grassroots. That bottom-up path calls on our most prized national traits –doing things in our own communities, being part of a grassroots groundswell, being innovative, pragmatic, showing can-do, rolling-up-our sleeves, helping to reinvent a new, healthier economy from the ground up. “

So much for educating the convinced about solutions. What about convincing more of our fellow citizens that the problem is real? First, we need to bear in mind the fact that most Americans are primarily extroverted sensing types—they require proof about the reality of a problem from their five senses. Climate change is a bit like cancer—it’s silent, and it’s been happening somewhere else. The warning signs are easy to miss for the average American. So be understanding of anyone who honestly seems to be unaware or incredulous. Start by talking about how much we all want a prosperous new economy. Then describe climate change as the “growing climate crisis that threatens our economy and our way of life,” because for some it may not seem like a full-fledged “crisis” yet. When we get to the moment for going into detail, we need to use stories about what’s already been happening to other Americans lately: increasing drought, mega-storms, floods, fire storms beyond anything we’ve seen before, rising sea levels, bad changes in local weather patterns and their costs. Once you get people’s ear this way, you can quickly move on to talking about suggestions for positive action. (If you encounter a Fox News denial fan, just laugh, and say, “Oh, you’ve been watching Fox News!” and then walk away laughing. Don’t stay to argue. Especially don’t argue about what the majority of scientists say. Don’t waste your energy on hardcore deniers.)

If you need to give a cause for the climate change problem, describe it as the result of too much carbon getting into our air. (To learn more about natural ways to get carbon back where it belongs in plants and in the soil, see Note 4.) Pollution is something everyone knows is dirty and bad for your health And please avoid talking about “greenhouse gases.” To the general public, greenhouses are good things that help you grow more food! (It would be nice if even the experts stopped saying “greenhouse gases” to each other too. That unfortunate metaphor inevitably slips out in public and harms the cause of reform. I like “hothouse gases” better, because it sounds more like the real thing and nasty too. Also please avoid using any evidence that relies on pictures of or references to the fate of the “environment,” or of other species of all kinds such as polar bears, penguins, etc. Avoid talking about polar and glacier melts, using charts or graphs, and talking about CO2!” Everyone who can be convinced by the means I’m criticizing here is already on board.

Now it’s time to consider our third task, which is actually quite separate from the two previous ones above. As Bill McKibben and others have pointed out, we do have to hold the carbon crooks and climate crisis deniers up for public shaming. But even when your project is shaming the fossil fuel gang, it’s vital to start and conclude with a positive vision of the clean energy world and prosperous economy we could have instead. In between these two positive notes there are a number of classic American negatives you can sound: the deniers are “telling lies and betraying the public trust.” They are on the take, they are stealing subsidy money from the taxpayers, they are sabotaging our clean energy future, they are blocking progress, they are holding our country and our economy back or hostage, and they are profiting from damaging our health, our economy, and our country. Their CEOs are blocking the dawn of a new energy age, they are criminal cons, they have gone too far, they are corrupt, and as for their ‘wait and see” strategy—do you wait until your house burns down to buy insurance? They are costing us too much. You can also warn people that everyone will soon be selling their fossil fuel stocks and moving their money into alternative energy investments, because “the carbon bubble is going to burst.” (For more about this “divestment” strategy, see

So much for going negative. Always, whatever our messages or audiences might be, we must always start and end by returning to the positive: “We can do it, it will be good for us, it will prevent new damage, it will save and make money and jobs, save our health, our economy, our communities. We can improve our economy by meeting the climate change challenge!“

Let’s put powerful new American Story energy into all of our campaigns now and get the massive liftoff we so desperately need!

Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project,,  and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear.  The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.

1.This fact has recently been noted in “U.S. Energy Policy: A Bridge to Nowhere,” by Bob Burnett, on Huffington Post:
2. The following links provide details about the new research on framing climate change action:;;;;

3. For action ideas, see your community/ICLEI_Climate Communication_Local Governments.pdf

4. Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.)

Church of Latter Day Saints — Closet Ecologists Come Out

True or false: Ecological statement below written by conservative Christians.

(Hint: It’s not what’s you’d think)

The Earth flag is not an official flag, since ...


All humankind are stewards over the earth and should gratefully use what God has given, avoid wasting life and resources and use the bounty of the earth to care for the poor and needy.

God created the earth to provide a place for the human family to learn, progress and improve. God first created the earth and all living things spiritually, and all living things have great worth in His [sic] eyes.

The earth and all things on it should be used responsibly to sustain the human family. However, all are stewards — not owners — over this earth and its bounty and will be accountable before God for what they do with His creations.

Approaches to the environment must be prudent, realistic, balanced and consistent with the needs of the earth and of current and future generations, rather than pursuing the immediate vindication of personal desires or avowed rights. The earth and all life upon it are much more than items to be consumed or conserved. God intends His creations to be aesthetically pleasing to enliven the mind and spirit, and some portions are to be preserved. Making the earth ugly offends Him.

The state of the human soul and the environment are interconnected, with each affecting and influencing the other. The earth, all living things and the expanse of the universe all eloquently witness of God.

And thus, deep ecology, Buddhism and the Church of Latter Day Saints walk arm in arm into the 21st century. Awesome!



Science is Telling Us to Revolt

This would make Derrick Jensen breathe a sigh of relief, if that’s something Derrick Jensen ever does.


An awesome piece by Naomi Klein – “How Science is telling us all to Revolt” in the current issue of the New Statesman. This issue was edited by revolutionary comedian Russell Brand.


Naomi Klein Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone 2

Naomi Klein Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone 2 (Photo credit: david_shankbone)


Basic premise: the only way to stop the insane spiral of capitalism which is destroying the planet is to get down to some serious resistance and lay our bodies on the line. Nothing else slows the pace of destruction down fast enough to make a difference for human beings and planet earth.


Petaluma Intersection Repair project beginning

Come join us on September 26 at 5:0 pm at Aqus Cafe to begin a Petaluma City Repair project.

Intersection Repair is a multi-layered process where citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces they inhabit, and shape those spaces to create a sense of communal stewardship and connection.


Inspired by Mark Lakeman’s awesome work with City Repair, in Portland, Oregon, Check it out – gorgeous!


Rachel on Media Prepper Radio

Here’ another interview with Carolyn Evans-Dean, an urban homesteader and prepper in upstate New York. Her new radio spot features urban farm artists like Ruby and myself, doing what we can to respond to the moment with grit and grace.

Fight the Power

In the face of climate change and disruptions to the environment due to corporate predation, what’s a girl to do?

Fight the power:

Me and Dr. Prepper

Radio interview with Rachel Kaplan and Dr. Prepper, an old-time back to basics author and practitioner hailing from the hinterlands of Texas. We had a good talk about urban homesteading, heirloom skills and other practices of preparedness. And even though we live far from one another on the political spectrum, we found our common ground in the practices that support our lives. I appreciated the opportunity to talk with James Talmage Stevens, aka Dr. Prepper.

Check it out:

Tallking About Important Things

“It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral resources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and competition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?”

Is Urban Homesteading enough? OF COURSE NOT. But is it one of a series of solutions that help us rise to the challenges of our time? OF COURSE IT IS.

Check out this article for more thoughts on conducting ourselves in the years ahead:

Governance in the Long Emergency

I recently read a great article about governance during the “long emergency”.  It addresses questions of true participatory democracy, and how we might conduct ourselves in a civic way in the presence of ongoing resource shortages, economic hardship, corporate predation, et al. While not filled with simple solutions, it does clearly point in the direction of urban homesteading, and other DIY community-based solutions as one route forward.

to wit.. “Toward the end of his life, historian Lewis Mumford concluded that the only way out of [our current] conundrum is “a steady withdrawal” from the “megamachine” of technocratic and corporate control. [i.e. Urban Homesteading, and other DIY and Do It Together strategies.] He did not mean community-scale isolation and autarky, but rather more equitable, decentralized, and self-reliant communities that met a significant portion of their needs for food, energy, shelter, waste cycling, and economic support. He did not propose secession from the national and global community but rather withdrawal from dependence on the forces of oligarchy, technological domination, and zombie-like consumption. Half a century later, that remains the most likely strategy for building the foundations of democracies robust enough to see us through the tribulations ahead.

“In other words, the alternative to a futile and probably bloody attempt to forcibly redistribute wealth is to spread the ownership of economic assets throughout society. …We know that revitalization of local economies through worker-owned businesses, local investment, and greater local self-reliance is smart economics, wise social policy, smart environmental management, and a solid foundation for both democracy and national resilience.

“Simultaneously, and without much public notice, there have been dramatic advances in ecological design, biomimicry, distributed renewable energy, efficiency, ecological engineering, transportation infrastructure, permaculture, and natural systems agriculture. [THAT'S US, you guys.] Applied systematically at community, city, and regional scales, ecological design opens genuine possibilities for greater local control over energy, food, shelter, money, water, transportation, and waste cycling. (See Box 26–2.) It is the most likely basis for revitalizing local economies powered by home-grown efficiency and locally accessible renewable energy while eliminating pollution, improving resilience, and spreading wealth. The upshot at a national level is to reduce the need for government regulation, which pleases conservatives, while improving quality of life, which appeals to liberals. Fifty years ago, Mumford’s suggestion seemed unlikely. But in the years since, local self-reliance, Transition Towns, and regional policy initiatives are leading progressive changes throughout Europe and the United States while central governments have been rendered ineffective.

“One example of this approach comes from Oberlin, a small city of about 10,000 people with a poverty level of 25 percent in the center of the U.S. “Rust Belt.” It is situated in a once-prosperous industrial region sacrificed to political expediency and bad economic policy, not too far from Cleveland and Detroit. But things here are beginning to change. In 2009, Oberlin College and the city launched the Oberlin Project. It has five goals: build a sustainable economy, become climate-positive, restore a robust local farm economy supplying up to 70 percent of the city’s food, educate at all levels for sustainability, and help catalyze similar efforts across the United States at larger scales. The community is organized into seven teams, focused on economic development, education, law and policy, energy, community engagement, food and agriculture, and data analysis. The project aims for “full-spectrum sustainability,” in which each of the parts supports the resilience and prosperity of the whole community in a way that is catalytic—shifting the default setting of the city, the community, and the college to a collaborative postcheap-fossil-fuel model of resilient sustainability.

The Oberlin Project is one of a growing number of examples of integrated or full-spectrum sustainability worldwide, including the Mondragón Cooperative in Spain, the Transition Towns movement, and the Evergreen Project in Cleveland. In different ways, each is aiming to transform complex systems called cities and city-regions into sustainable, locally generated centers of prosperity, powered by efficiency and renewable energy. Each is aiming to create opportunities for good work and higher levels of worker ownership of renewably powered enterprises organized around necessities. The upshot is a global movement toward communities with the capacity to withstand outside disturbances while preserving core values and functions. In practical terms, resilience means redundancy of major functions, appropriate scale, firebreaks between critical systems, fairness, and societies that are “robust to error,” technological accidents, malice, and climate destabilization. In short, it is human systems designed in much the way that nature designs ecologies: from the bottom up.

Check out the full article. Interesting.


Urban Farm Tour 2013