October 16, 2013
By now we are all well aware that climate change has arrived ahead of schedule. To put a fine point on the emerging science showing us the impacts are here, the IPCC’s newest report tells us that this was the hottest decade on record, temperatures are rising and extreme events are more common than ever.
Regardless of the scientific facts, some people will try and claim that climate change is no big deal. Last month, some of these people in the U.S. House of Representatives decided to call a hearing on climate change. The intent of this mega-hearing was to call in all the federal agencies, grill them on their climate expenditures, and declare government funds spent on climate change are a waste.
In order to balance that skewed agenda, the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus held a forum on climate change. The idea of this Forum was to hear from a group of speakers who could bear witness to the impacts of climate change in their own lives. Regardless of your political affiliation or where you call home, odds are climate change has come to your town.
Knowing that Climate Nexus had put together a communications guide explaining how climate change is Right Here, Right Now, the Caucus turned to us for help finding people. Importantly, these people needed to be witnesses to climate catastrophe, but couldn’t be activists, since that would introduce unwanted bias.
Aware that we are but mere mortals, they also reached out to the Climate Action Campaign, who had their own success in finding voices. And because they know we’re awesome, they only gave us two weeks to do so.
While we were happy to help, there was a problem bigger than the deadline.
We’re not a very public group, and we don’t have a grassroots following. We don’t have a massive mailing list of motivated members. We don’t have a network of boots-on-the-ground troops who are ready to fly to DC at a moment’s notice. In short, we have no fan club.
What we do have is plenty of friends. Because our mission is to help others tell their climate stories, suffice it to say that we’ve done folks some favors.
So it was time to make some calls.
We rang up a bunch of local-level groups that we know and asked them for recommendations. After all, if they could identify someone who had been affected by extreme weather and knows something about the climate change connection, that would save us time.
In addition to the hyper-local groups, we called on some of the people we have more official partnerships or long-term relationships with, and Climate Access, the NAACP and Texas Drought Project all came through for us. (Thanks everyone!)
In an ironic turn of events, it was the national organization that relied on small, local groups for help in pulling off this national event. Despite the prolific campaigning and organizational abilities of national-scale environmental groups, stories on a personal level are even more powerful when it comes to climate change.
For example, when Stefanie Kravitz talked about Hurricane Sandy, one of the most compelling details was her sharing that ten days before the hurricane, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She told representatives, “I was having surgery on Nov. 30th, and my goal was to recover at home.”
Since the hearing, Stefanie has received a lot of follow-up by people drawn to her story, not least because of its uplifting ending: “Our electricity was turned on Nov. 27th, we moved home Nov. 28th, and my surgery was Nov. 30th. I am cancer-free, and our home is repaired.”
Now, to find Stefanie, that was random chance (she’s an old friend of one of our team members who just so happened to run into her!) but for others, we had to work a little harder.
Once we got some names and numbers from the local groups, we reached out to the potential witnesses. Over a series of phone calls, we assessed their stories and motivations. Only after vetting each witness’ ability to recount his or her extreme weather experience in a clear and dynamic way, did we feel confident about sending them to the Capitol.
As climate communicators, we had to make sure they weren’t going to say anything short of what the science supports. We had to make sure they weren’t going to ramble incoherently or crack inappropriate jokes. We had to do our due diligence to prepare them for center stage. And it takes no small amount of back and forth to prepare the average American to speak on the Hill.
But it sure paid off. In addition to follow-up on Stefanie’s Sandy Saga, Hugh Fitzsimons managed to spur a piece on fracking and water shortages in Texas in TIME. This should surely illustrate how quickly a good story can travel from the farm to the Capitol to the whole country.
And Hugh’s story wasn’t just good, it was great. Instead of the normal 100 baby bison, last April, Hugh’s farm only had seven. When you hear a man tell you he had to cull over two-thirds of his herd, it takes a second to hit you: cull means kill. The drought was so bad, and fracking so thirsty, he literally had to kill most of his herd. No wonder his story got picked up.
This is probably a good time to point out that what I’m describing may be unique (unless you get calls from Congress regularly), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to your work. In fact, you probably already know of a couple of good stories and a handful of great speakers.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them to tell their story in as many venues as possible. While it’s initially difficult to find stories, once you have them, the potential is nearly limitless. We intend to (and in fact already have) reach back out to these fine folks in the future for similar pursuits--op-eds, media availability, broadcast news interviews, etc.
Please use this as inspiration to elevate those local voices, as local stories always have the biggest impact. And local flavor always makes it more enticing to editors.
“Local flavor” includes accents. Regional dialects are something most Americans can identify instantly, so if you’re presenting a Texan who talks like a N’Yawrker, you’re going to look inauthentic.
At the same time, if an accent is too thick, you lose clarity. If the speaker’s drawl is so pronounced it lulls listeners to sleep, well that clearly is not the best choice.
Striking the perfect balance means getting someone like Reverend Tyronne Edwards from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Now the Reverend gave us a little trouble, because unlike the other speakers, he refused to write out a statement beforehand, preferring to speak off the cuff.
Naturally this was a little concerning, since we spent no small part of a weekend working on perfecting what our witnesses wanted to express. Like a jeweler with an uncut diamond, it was our job to polish these gems.
Mercifully, Reverend Edwards was great. A natural speaker, he spoke in an undeniably, passionately authentic way, but was still clear enough to avoid any possible confusion. And his statements needed no help, as his conclusion echoed throughout the room.
“Climate change is nonpartisan, it is not based on race, religion or sexual orientation. It affects all human beings, and it would be a shameful commentary on all of our histories if we didn’t do anything when we were in the position to. We must all get involved so the generations behind us have a safer place to live in.”
Philip Newell is a communications associate with Climate Nexus.