Later is too late to act on climate change: Messaging takeaways

Anna Triponel

December 3, 2023
Our key takeaway: Does the world want action on climate? How can we motivate the public to accelerate progress? These were questions that a global message testing study conducted on climate change sought to answer. Surveying 60,000 people across 23 countries, the results are clear. Over three-quarters of people surveyed feel that it is essential that governments do whatever it takes to limit the effects of climate change. However, how we get there is another matter. Messages like the creation of green jobs, economic prosperity, ending injustice and even fighting the costs of extreme weather - that are typically used by policy makers to advance on climate action - are in fact not very effective. Worse, they can lead to backlash and backsliding. The good news: there is one single message that brings all people together - irrespective of their differences and where they come from. The message is this: it is this generation’s responsibility to protect the planet for the next generation. The message of protecting the planet for the next generation, and that later is too late, is THE message that galvanises the world to action. This is an important finding in light of the fact that a growing number of climate actions will need to be borne by individuals themselves. Let’s remember why we are doing this: we are the only generation who can.

Potential Energy, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Meliore Foundation has published the results of their global message testing studies conducted on climate change, ‘Later is too late to act on climate change’ (November 2023). They tested multiple framings of 18 different policies with nearly 60,000 people across 23 countries — which collectively account for 70% of the world’s population. They found that global support for climate action is high. On average across the 23 countries in the study, 77% of people agree with the statement, “It is essential that our government does whatever it takes to limit the effects of climate change,” and just over 10% disagree. At the same time, they found that the right messaging makes all the difference:

  • The right framing and messages increased public support for policy action in every country studied. In randomized controlled trial message tests, the most effective narrative — the urgent generational message — lifted the level of global strong support for climate action by an average of 11 percentage points. In every country in the study, the “later is too late” narrative outperformed messages focused on economic opportunity, fighting injustice, improving health, or even preventing extreme weather. Many countries at the lower level of support “have higher political polarization and high fossil fuel intensity.” For instance: “although comprising 25% of historical carbon emissions and 25% of the world’s GDP, US citizens’ support for 18 climate policies is the lowest among all countries measured.”
  • “Framing can dramatically alter support for climate policies”: the data shows that framings of “upgrading, setting standards, making solutions accessible, and reducing dependency” are significantly more effective than framings of “mandate, ban or phaseout.” The study finds that “framing is a key difference maker and can turn policy winners into losers.” This finding is particularly important as climate action will start to move “from the ‘behind the scenes’ territories like clean energy standards to the policies that more directly affect individual citizens’ lives – in their kitchens, homes, garages and farms. The one limitation that does work: pollution.”
  • “The data clearly showed that one message moves the whole world significantly: protecting the planet for the next generation”: The data finds that “[a]cross every country, love for the next generation was the dominant reason for action on climate change. This reason was 12 times more popular than creating jobs.” Put differently, messages like “green jobs, economic prosperity, ending injustice and even fighting the costs of extreme weather” are not as effective - by far - as the message of protecting the future for the next generation. In addition, the data found that there was a strong alignment across countries - and bridged the divide “across age groups, levels of education, income, political affiliation, and family status.” “The world is united: it’s this generation’s responsibility.”

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