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Communicators are Confusing Our Audiences with Climate Buzzwords

With more than 2,000 companies setting carbon targets and nearly every large corporation issuing a sustainability report, C+C decided to dig into people’s understanding of, and feelings about commonly used terms related to climate change. We just completed a national study looking at what terms are understood, how our communication makes people feel, and who they think should take action.

Our survey, like every national survey, shows a majority of Americans believe we should be doing more to combat climate change.

But we wanted to dig deeper.

As we’re helping government agencies and businesses talk about climate commitments and their impact, and trying to explain why they matter, do people even understand what we’re saying? Are we inspiring action or anxiety? How can we leverage increased interest in climate action into support of specific actions and spur forward movement that makes a difference?

Here are some of our key findings.

Who Can Have the Greatest Impact?

A large majority (84%) of our 200+ respondents say it’s important to take action to address climate change. When we asked them whose actions can make a positive impact on climate change, most respondents said the actions taken by companies were most likely to make a positive impact, with actions by governments following closely behind. Local community actions ranked next, and they ranked individual actions least likely to make an impact. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in March, “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

There’s a rapidly evolving base of knowledge on effectively communicating with audiences about the urgency of climate change. The field is evolving quickly because we’ve never faced a challenge this daunting. Climate change is a long-term problem that will affect every aspect of modern life, yet it can be ignored day-to-day by most of us with privilege until the skies turn red from wildfires or we’re pummeled by three weeks of rain from atmospheric rivers.

Testing the Vocabulary

Thankfully, communicators are moving away from using the term “sustainable” because it’s become a meaningless buzzword, and our respondents validated that pivot. They felt generally positive about the word, but their definitions were wide-ranging, from being made of recycled materials to using solar power to buying carbon credits. Some respondents reinforced the belief that companies can have the greatest impact, saying, “Because if enough businesses adopt [sustainability], then maybe things can change a bit.”

ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: Communicators need to use more specific, concrete terms to describe their goals and actions.

Respondents found the term climate resiliency confusing. It’s a term increasingly being used by communicators to describe changes that help communities weather climate volatility. Some respondents guessed the meaning, but they were mostly unfamiliar with the idea. Though sentiment was mainly positive, this term also generated significant feelings of confusion, anxiety and worry. 

ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: If we use resiliency in our communications, we’ll need to clearly define what we mean, and explain how resiliency benefits the audience.

Carbon Neutral
Corporate goals and product claims frequently use the term carbon neutral, which our respondents found confusing. Their desire for climate action gave them positive, optimistic feelings, but the term generated the same sense of confusion as the term sustainable — carbon neutral has become a squishy buzzword. “I feel like at least they’re doing something good even if I don’t totally understand it.”

ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: If communicators use the term, we need to explain how we’re achieving carbon neutrality and why it matters. 

Communicating for the future
Our study reinforced the guidance from top climate communications experts such as Melissa AronczykLauren FeldmanRebecca Solnit, and Katherine Hayhoe:

The latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said we have all the tools we need to solve this problem, and every action we take will have an impact. Tremendous progress is happening!