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COAL + ICE: Overcoming Barriers to Spark Climate Action

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from the [IPCC] report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.


Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report warning that urgent and “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required to avoid a catastrophic climate breakdown as early as 2040.

Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest global threat of our time – so why don’t people seem to care? While I often ponder this question, I began to explore it more deeply when I attended the U.S. premiere of COAL + ICE in San Francisco.

COAL + ICE is a documentary photography exhibition and climate festival that seeks to address this disconnect by overcoming the top two barriers that typically deter people from engaging with the issue: the sense that the effects of climate change are a long way off in time and distance, and the feeling of hopelessness about whether there is anything we can do.

I drew two communication takeaways from COAL + ICE that can help your organization spark climate action right now.


Barrier #1: People view climate change as a distant problem that they don’t need to address now. How to overcome it: Frame climate change as an immediate threat.

More than half of Americans don’t believe that climate change will affect them personally because they perceive it as a future and distant problem. This is because climate change is often framed as a threat to future generations, rather than an immediate global crisis.

Sharing the stories of people who are facing devastating consequences of climate change in their own backyards can help shift the narrative and inspire climate action.

Featuring the work of more than 40 photographers and video artists from around the world, COAL + ICE leveraged visual storytelling to demonstrate the consequences triggered by the continued use of fossil fuels. As I walked through this dark, solemn and immersive space, I felt more deeply connected to the reality that communities around the world are experiencing.

The Coal + ICE Project in San Francisco.

From photographs of people waist deep in floodwater to videos of hurricanes destroying coastal communities, COAL + ICE brought climate change to life and helped me empathize with those experiencing it in their own homes. Seeing the perils of climate inaction with my own eyes made me feel more strongly that we must urgently pursue solutions – and made me hopeful that others would feel the same.

Another recent example I really appreciated was the strategy Representative Beto O’Rourke used in his campaign the U.S. Senate in Texas, where communities are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey. O’Rourke framed climate change as a problem affecting voters right now and held climate deniers like Ted Cruz accountable for making the problem worse. Highlighting the tangible consequences of climate change through personal narratives is key to activating your audiences and inspiring climate action.


Barrier #2:  Climate change makes people feel overwhelmed and hopeless. How to overcome it: Inspire courage by focusing on climate solutions.


Because climate change is a momentous challenge, it often leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair. Individuals tend to disengage and resort to apathy instead of action when a crisis feels largely out of their control.

I’ll admit that fighting climate change will not be easy. It will require a great deal of courage on behalf of global and community leaders to cut carbon emissions as fast as possible, while simultaneously racing against the clock to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. To create equitable solutions, it is particularly important to amplify the voices of low-income communities and communities of color – who are disproportionately affected by climate change – and work with them to best address their needs.

As essential as it is to discuss the challenges and illustrate the consequences of climate change, organizations should also use personal stories to highlight the actions that they and other leaders are taking to pursue climate solutions. Organizations should feel empowered to share their stories and discuss how their work is making a concrete difference in the lives of communities at risk.

The majority of the COAL + ICE exhibition demonstrated how human activity has harmed the environment and human health. But as I walked past the black curtains at the end of the exhibit, I entered the Solutions Zone, a bright room filled with natural light, plants, and optimism.

The exhibition culminated in an exploration of viable solutions and major efforts at every level of society working to address climate change. It focused on techniques, technologies and big ideas being used to mitigate climate change, including systems of circular and regenerative economics (i.e., circular systems that enable existing materials to be used over and over again), ecological connection and community engagement. Seeing this momentum made me feel much more hopeful that solving this crisis is not only possible – but happening already.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit explains that “climate change is an inescapable present and future reality, but the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst.”

The COAL + ICE exhibition left me feeling more optimistic that, by using storytelling to frame climate change as an immediate but solvable crisis, organizations can activate audiences not only to care about this issue but take action to address it head-on.

All of these strategies are applicable to issues that experience similar communication conundrums. To learn more about crafting effective communication strategies and activating audiences, download The Smart Chart® and the Activation Point™.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 08:00 am and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.