Turn on the television in Washington, D.C., and you will see ad after ad promising that America is being turned into a land of plenty thanks to oil, coal, and gas. We will be energy-independent, with jobs and prosperity for all, the actress in the ads assures us.
What you won’t see is the plain fact of physics that if we use more than a small fraction of these fossil fuels, our economy will go into certain decline, the Potomac will flood the National Mall, food prices will go sky-high, and the seas will swamp our naval bases. Our economic and national security is being put at grave threat unless we hasten a transition away from carbon-based fuels.
If you work in the White House, Congress, or the media, for a think tank, a lobbying firm, or any part of the entire policy establishment of our nation’s capital, that message will be largely invisible on television. This lack of focus on the urgent threat we face filters down to the rest of the nation, with the public continuing to rate action on climate change among its very lowest priorities.
It’s possible that the pope’s urgent warning recently about climate change will galvanize more communications action and spending by nonprofits and foundations. That would be most welcome given how urgent the situation is.
Grant makers and charities vastly underestimate the damage that the communications-savvy energy industry is doing to the climate-change debate. Buying advertising — indeed, the use of systematic modern communications and marketing in general — is not in the DNA of people at nonprofits. And people at nonprofits tend to overestimate what it would take to do something about it.
When I ask people at foundations what it would cost to buy a 30-second TV ad on Fox News or CNN in Washington, the usual answer is $20,000 per spot. But the truth is, it costs about $200 a spot. So cost is not the reason philanthropy isn’t engaged in effectively countering fossil-fuel propaganda. We can afford it. The reason is deeper.
People who work at foundations and nonprofits come mostly from the sciences, law, policy, and the academy, where they have been taught that presenting the facts will win the day. But climate-change activists are up against marketing geniuses from business school at the fossil-fuel companies, who know the human brain is not fueled by facts alone, but responds best when they are embedded in simple stories and moral narratives.
In the nonprofit world, most leaders are allergic to simplifying things, fearful that this will lead to distortion. But only simple messages, repeated frequently, move people to awareness and action. One can be ethical and accurate while simplifying. Nonprofit leaders also tend to assume that people already know what they do, instead of ensuring that target audiences are reached effectively and repetitively. The other side makes no such assumption.
On climate change, it is remarkable to note that people at nonprofits have never agreed upon a simple message or visual metaphor of how humans are changing the climate that all groups use all the time. Until that happens, we will not chip away at the almost 40 percent of Americans (and 50 percent of the U.S. Senate) who don’t yet believe humans are changing the climate.
Foundations and nonprofits have also not created and ensured the repetitive delivery of a simple message on how to solve this crisis. They have not put forth a simple, memorable vision of where the nation will get its energy and what it will cost. A nation can’t get to some place it cannot envision.
There aren’t enough well-known spokesmen carrying the message on climate science and solutions to it. Al Gore has done yeoman’s work, but he is not enough. There are some great spokesmen, and techniques exist for how they could become much better known.
What’s more, philanthropy has done little to support a robust communications program to consistently reach conservatives on climate-change issues. Yet unless many more of them get on board, there will be little progress. Almost nothing is being done to counteract the confusion and disinformation that’s spread by the nation’s biggest and most influential newspaper, The Wall Street Journal (with 3 million readers a day) and by Fox News, which is helping to shield parts of the public — and Congress — from the scientific and moral truths.
Foundations are not helpless when it comes to tackling these problems. But they need to start making the modern use of communications a priority in their philanthropic support. Foundations and nonprofits have spent enough on developing public policy. It is time to create policy demand by convincing target audiences of the truth: We face a crisis, and time is running out.
David Fenton recently sold Fenton Communications, an adviser to many nonprofits and foundations, so he can work full time to help curb climate change.