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Field Notes

Climate Change Has a Branding Problem, Here’s How we Fix That

“Climate change has a branding problem.”

As a member of Generation Z, climate change has been a constant in the back of my mind for my entire life. I remember back in grammar school, logging the daily weather and seeing the average rise in temperature compared to previous years. Later, in high school, I visited Iceland. I remember standing on top of a glacier that had been encased in ice only a few years ago and boating across a lake that used to be solid snow. In my college near the Hudson River, my friends and I felt shocked when we saw a sea-level predictor map that showed where we were standing would eventually be underwater.

In those moments as a child, a teenager, and a young adult, I felt scared and hopeless, like nothing I could do mattered. And still today, when I listen to news headlines about rising temperatures and unbridled corporate emissions, I feel myself slipping back into that fear and hopelessness.

But fear is the antithesis of climate action, because fear is immobilizing

And that’s why, “climate change has a branding problem.” This is just one quote from Rutgers Media and Communications Professor Melissa Aronczyk from Comnet’s Communicating Climate Change webinar that I attended in February. I keep thinking about that quote. It’s stayed with me, as did the rest of Professor Aronczyk’s talk.  

During the webinar, she presented what she calls the three realities of climate change:

  1. Climate change affects everything.
  2. Climate change is something everybody needs to talk about.
  3. Climate change is very hard to talk about. 

That third reality is the one that she focused on in her discussion. It’s an idea that we’re well acquainted with here at Constructive, since we partner with some of the leading organizations on climate change communications

Climate change is indeed hard to talk about. Negative communications framing–albeit realistic–can exacerbate fear and hopelessness. Professor Aronczyk presented multiple different ways that climate change communications can utilize positive framing to instead encourage hope and increase action. 

Intrigued by what I learned and knowing that I could discover more, I dove into climate narrative framing techniques after the webinar. And what I learned from several of our partner organizations is that positive framing can make a world of difference in how we talk about (and listen to) climate change information. 

So here are some of the lenses you can use to positively frame your climate communications to increase effectiveness–and this is just the tip of the iceberg! 

We should focus on a climate imaginary, rather than a climate emergency

Like I said earlier, fear is extremely immobilizing, as is defeatism. This is why Professor Aronczyk suggests reframing the “climate emergency,” and instead considering a future where our society and our planet strike a sustainable balance: the “climate imaginary.”

We need to use our communications to bridge the gap between people’s individual lives and the state of our planet. Once we do, we can increase people’s understanding of the crisis as well as their commitment and willingness to act for the Earth. 

Research conducted by the leading research nonprofit and one of our partners, The FrameWorks Institute, certainly echoes this idea. Their research report on the ways we can change hearts and minds about climate change explains how to meaningfully demonstrate a reciprocal relationship between humans and the Earth. A changing climate has health consequences for humans, and humans are negatively affecting the climate’s health. 

People can feel very psychologically disconnected to the climate, believing that it is not something that affects their day-to-day lives. But phenomena like extreme weather and flooding are real, observable manifestations of our changing climate with consequences for all of us. Our communications can help people to see just how deeply connected we all are to the planet. They can also help people imagine what a future working with our climate rather than against it looks like.

We can reduce polarization by centering scientific consensus and collective action

Many members of the general public see climate change as a “problem” that should have “solutions,” while others don’t even agree that climate change is happening at all. 

Professor Aronczyk wonders what would happen if we frame climate change not as a “problem,” but as a reality, and our responses as “actions” rather than “solutions.” This framing shifts focus toward increasing understanding, clarifying climate change’s scientific consensus, and discussing collective, effective actions.

It’s easier to focus our communications on audiences that already believe in and understand climate change, but we need to mobilize far more than existing believers. More than 97% of scientists agree that human-caused global warming is happening, but in a 2018 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, members of the public guessed that only between 44%-84% of scientists believed in global warming. 

When YPCCC conducted a study to try and bridge the gap between the public and scientists, they learned that by simply sharing the correct scientific consensus percentage (97%), people across the political spectrum were receptive and demonstrated increased understanding of the overwhelming scientific consensus. 

Once we frame climate change as a reality, we can then focus our messages on collective action to bring people together. FrameWorks also suggests that by normalizing smaller climate actions and demonstrating that many people are already working in climate, we can encourage climate action without overwhelming or dividing people. We can also avoid partisan clues (more about this here) to create a feeling that we’re all in this together. 

Communicating abundance and equity rather than scarcity is key 

Consider framing a carbon offset initiative. You could describe the work as “reducing harm and greenhouse gas emissions,” or, you could frame it as “protecting forests, creating cleaner air, and making Earth more resilient.” Which statement is more inspiring to you? 

A lot of our current climate change communications are written with a scarcity mindset, focusing on how our actions deplete resources and our quality of life may be decreasing soon. Simply put, this framing of information causes panic. It also downplays the important work of many climate organizations through their own communications. 

Focusing on abundance for all is key, especially for organizations with commitments to equity initiatives. In a FrameWorks Research Report, experts found that communicating climate change through a fairness lens was the most effective approach. It shifted public thinking and increased support for more climate health funding. 

Frameworks’ fairness lens told members of the public that, “Americans, regardless of where they are in the country, deserve to live within environments that support positive health outcomes.” The public tended to agree. Respondents’ commitment to better environmental health discipline and public funding increased in a statistically significant way. This is positive framing at work. 

And this is also exactly the type of equity lens American Forests uses for their Tree Equity Score tool, which shows the lack of tree cover across many socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States. The campaign very effectively communicates that all Americans deserve access to trees, clean air, and the health benefits of greenery regardless of their socioeconomic status. In its first year, the initiative has completely transformed local municipalities by mobilizing lawmakers and members of local communities while bringing national attention to urban forestry. Another example of positive framing at work. 

My parting thoughts 

At the beginning of the ComNet webinar, Professor Aronczyk showed attendees some photographs depicting climate change consequences. Polar bears on melting icebergs, cars stuck in flood waters, energy plants emitting black smoke into the air. I once again felt how I did when I was a teen standing on top of a melting glacier (this was the effect she was going for). But by the end of the webinar, after learning about the power of positively framed climate communications, I was energized enough to do some more research and to write this article.  

The way we talk about everything matters, and the way we talk about climate change has existential consequences. Climate change doesn’t have a branding problem. Climate change has immense branding potential.  


In our day-to-day lives, we know how to make greener decisions (like recycling or shopping sustainably), but when it comes to our websites, the solutions aren’t so clear. Here at Constructive, we’ve compiled six steps you can take to make your website a little more eco-friendly this Earth Month.

About the Author

Kaylee Gardner

Kaylee Gardner

Kaylee is Constructive’s Digital Strategist, specializing in combining quantitative and qualitative research to drive audience engagement and sustain brand relationships that create positive change. She combines analytical and creative thinking to identify trends and patterns—translating what the research can tell us to deepen understanding of how social impact brands can connect with the needs and motivations of their audiences. Kaylee is a graduate from Stevens Institute where she received a B.S. in Business and Technology with concentrations in Marketing and Information Systems, and then an M.B.A. in Business Intelligence and Analytics. As a student she dedicated herself to volunteer work—serving for four years on a student advisory board focusing on school and student experience improvement, curriculum changes, and bringing administrative attention to student concerns. Outside of work she can be found taking dance classes, working on crochet projects, reading, or drinking iced coffee year round.

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