From Science to Action: Effective Communications on the Climate Challenge

The science is clear—we must act now to hold the global mean temperature rise to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels to avoid unprecedented climate risks to society and business. What is less clear is how to effectively communicate this urgency to business, which in turn communicates with consumers. How can we translate these risks to businesses across industries and consumers to accelerate progress on the global climate challenge? Join this one-hour conversation to learn how BSR and others have contributed to simplifying the complex language of science to empower business and consumers to action.


  • Jeff Nesbit, Executive Director, Climate Nexus
  • Joydeep Gupta, South Asia Director, The Third Pole
  • Andrew Revkin, Senior Fellow, Environmental Understanding, Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Writer, Dot Earth blog, The New York Times Op-Ed
  • Melanie Janin, Managing Director, Communications, BSR (Moderator)


  • Communications must be relevant for the lives of people, include both threat and opportunity, and show that action is possible and should be taken.

  • It is not necessary to convince everyone. In many cases on big issues like climate, only 25 percent of those who can act need to decide that it is time to act—the other 75 percent will follow.

  • Communicating is different in developing countries, where small and medium enterprises must be a focus of communications. Another barrier to progress in those regions is concern over changes in policy rather than opposition to the very existence of climate change.

Memorable Quotes

“It’s about people, not polar bears. That’s a central message. Defining how this issue affects people, communities, businesses, and how it’s a threat multiplier.” —Jeff Nesbit, Climate Nexus

“Things that drive people to the polls are ‘soon,’ ‘salient,’ and ‘certain.’” —Andrew Revkin, Pace University

“In the developing world, you don’t get so many climate skeptics … what is far more at stake is [what impact] a policy change could have on industry.” —Joydeep Gupta, The Third Pole


BSR’s Melanie Janin opened the session with a broad question: How do we acknowledge the science of climate change and move business to action? She told the story of friend who, during a hotel stay, was given a US$5 credit that could be used at the hotel’s restaurant for signing a card indicating they did not want housekeeping to wash the sheets and towels. The story, she said, illustrates the small moves by business that can motivate action.

Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times, continued with the hotel laundry theme. He noted that the trend started in the laundry room of Scandinavian hotels where workers raised the idea that some guests may not want their towels washed, and that asking guests their preferences could reduce costs, energy, and water use. The idea flowed through those hotels, and then spread to the entire hotel business. “It’s not about messaging, but how you communicate information,” he said of the ways in which we share information. He then shared examples of ideas, such as the differences between weather and climate that have been simplified and propagated via YouTube, to explain that the way that science communicates is just as important as its message.

People are looking for ways to connect it to their lives, Joydeep Gupta said. Gupta, who runs two climate reporting websites in India, showed pictures of flooding in Kashmir that recently devastated homes and local agriculture and a man standing by a stump that was once the foundation of his home engulfed in water due to rising water levels. “I hear from business that we have other problems, why worry about climate change? We’re talking about climate change because it’s a threat multiplier,” he said. He explained that reporters should be honest about uncertainties, such as the links between climate and individual weather events, but clear about the increases in threats, such as those to military supply lines and field conditions, from a changing climate.

Nesbit compared climate communications to his work in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to convince the agency to regulate smoking. At the time, there was significant public confusion about the links between tobacco and cancer, and uncertainty about whether the agency could regulate it. He learned three lessons that he applies to his work with Climate Nexus: End the artificial debate about its existence, make clear that it is a present threat, and show that it impacts people. Once we frame the discussion this way, Nesbit said, we can focus on real opportunities for action. “We have three unlimited energy reserves—offshore wind, the “wind alley” in the Midwest, and solar in the West—it gives us the apparatus to communicate and convince people that things are real and that they can change.”

Janin asked the panelists about the barriers to climate communications. Gupta explained that the majority of businesses in developing countries are small-to-medium enterprises, whereas the action is largely by big business. Nesbit described an informal poll he conducted with hundreds of soccer parents about why they do not care about climate change. “The answer was: ‘It’s not my problem.’ They genuinely believe that it’s not their problem or issue,” he said. Gupta responded by asking his copanelists whether serious weather events would change the minds of soccer parents. Both agreed that it was less effective in the United States, and Revkin added that focusing too much on weather events opens the risk of providing ammunition for opponents of climate action because of the scientific uncertainty about attributing specific weather events to climate change.

During the Q&A session, a Shell employee asked if starting with a threat narrative was necessary to discuss opportunities. Revkin responded that the energy opportunity narrative is appealing to most Americans, and polls show that energy efficiency, even with additional costs, cuts across political and social divides. Nesbit explained that threat and opportunity are both needed to break through the national divides. According to Gupta, bringing clean energy to the half of the world without access to reliable modern energy is a massive opportunity.

A representative of GlobeScan asked the panelists how to systematically reach people, especially those who feel governments would address climate if it were a critical problem. Nesbit described the 75/25 rule: When big issues reach the point where action can be taken, 75 percent of the population generally acquiesces to the other 25 percent with the power to act. He added that action on climate has hovered around that level for some time. Revkin stated that he believed the issue has never been salient, clear, and directly relevant to Americans since he began covering climate in the 1980s.

Janin then closed the session by saying, “Hopefully we can do our part to try to get companies to do more of that to make sure we are at that tipping point now.”


November 5, 2014