Thinking Bigger On Solutions

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We all know that we need big, systems-level change in our society in order to address climate change and create a better future. This requires high-impact collective actions that create change at the cultural and public levels by bringing people together (Frameworks).

The challenge is, most of us have an easier time coming up with individual actions we can take, such as personal lifestyle choices that feel positive and manageable, but these actions are incommensurate with the global problems we face. Our culture emphasizes individualism and consumerism to the extent that most people have trouble imagining what collective solutions might look like, how feasible they would be or what impact they could have. So how do we slide the public along the engagement continuum to help them participate in more meaningful action on these issues? (Amel, E., Manning, C., Scott, B. Koger, S., Science 2017)

Building Familiarity With Solutions At A Community Level

Image of alternative transportationWe need to help people think like citizens, and we can start by demonstrating the impact of public engagement and helping people to consider that collective action can happen within what they already recognize as their existing spheres of influence: places where they have the highest levels of confidence, like their school, business, church, neighborhood, or friend group. By working together, we can scale our impacts up to better match the scale of the problem. And communicating effectively about these types of solutions inspires hope and action by showing that the problem, though big, is readily solvable.

The solutions story the public needs to hear from us is the value of the BIG changes we can make when we work collectively in our communities, instead of just as individuals or consumers. Collective actions challenge us to start with thinking about what the world really needs, rather than what consumer choices are currently being presented to us. And instead of blaming each other as individuals, we should work together to address the underlying challenges in our society. (The Story Of Stuff Project). Together, we can change the decision making context so that more Americans can easily make sustainable choices. 

This is like the difference between riding your bike to work and advocating for better bike trails in your community or bike racks at your office so that everyone in your sphere of influence can more easily do this as well! It’s the difference between choosing plant based foods and supporting the addition of more plant-based menu options in your school cafeteria. Or the difference between installing solar panels on your own roof and joining local sustainability groups in spreading the word about community choice energy options that could offer renewable energy to everyone.

While the individual actions we take to reduce our carbon footprints are valuable and a good starting place, ultimately, learning to think about solutions like a citizen is an important part of the solution in and of itself. These issues are a marathon, not a sprint, so real solutions come from getting engaged and staying engaged with others in our communities. Once we have a better understanding of what’s possible when we work together, the remaining challenge is building our confidence about the prospect of engaging with others on climate change, which, frankly, many of us might find a bit scary!

Addressing Perceived Social Barriers To Engagement

Social discomfort can be a barrier to "influencer behaviors", which require us to engage with others around solutions. Common perceptions that hold us back include a sense that others are not likeminded, a lack of confidence and fear of negative impacts in communicating and a lack of belief in our ability to influence others, including elected officials (Amel, E., Manning, C., Scott, B. Koger, S., Science 2017). But research shows us that much of our anxiety over connecting with others on climate change is unfounded. The majority of Americans underestimate the extent to which others agree with their views on climate change (Stanford).

For example, did you know that right now, in America, 83% of Americas support funding research into renewable energy sources? Or that 72% of Americans support regulating CO2 as a pollutant? If these statistics were surprising to you, that’s a demonstration of the current disconnect between perceived and actual public opinion. But where does this trend come from, and how can we fix it? Here’s a hint: 65% of Americans discuss climate change “rarely” or "never” (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication).

If we want to engage more people in climate solutions, we’ve got to change that statistic. The issue is far less politically polarizing than we perceive, so if we can just break the cycle of self-silencing, we might actually eliminate these inaccurate perceptions for good (Amel, E., Manning, C., Scott, B. Koger, S., Science 2017). Influencer-type behaviors as part of collective action are low risk, high efficacy behaviors, but public perceptions do not yet match this reality. We can help bridge the gap when we use tested tools to model that these types of conversations don’t have to be to be scary, complicated or polarizing; they can actually be empowering.

Tools For Communicating About Collective Solutions

It always helps to start any communication by focusing on what we have in common, so an important tool in advocating for climate solutions is using shared values to make the case for why solutions matter. Social science research has identified two values, “protection” and “responsible management”, that appeal broadly across demographics and political persuasions by tying into deep-seated motivations common to the human experience: like the desire to safe-guard the well-being of the people, places and things we care about, or the conventional wisdom of using step-by-step approaches to address problems today for the benefit of future generations. These values help us see the common ground that all people have on these issues. When we know we’re starting from shared values, we realize our actions are low social risk.

When we communicate about solutions, we also want to offer examples of existing, feasible community-level solutions and be specific about the impact they’ve made, as well as how we want our audience to engage. And to reduce perception of risk, we want to present these stories as a growing trend that people and communities all around us are already engaged with, rather than as an extraordinary and groundbreaking new undertaking. We want people to feel like they're just being asked to add momentum, rather than really go out on a limb. (Frameworks) And if the solution you’re promoting asks people to engage with their elected officials, it’s helpful to have some stories on hand about times in the past when similar efforts have made a real difference. Connect with local groups in your area to hear about their success stories, and share these in order to help people believe in their own power.

Communicating effectively about climate change solutions can go a long way toward advancing a better future for our communities and our planet. So, what solutions story will you tell? 

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