As California burns, we need a new climate change narrative to spur action

“When I was younger, we did have some extreme weather, but it was a rarity,” Laura, a conservative from Glendale told us in a focus group last week. “But now it’s constant. Constant. For example, the fires used to be every once in a while. But now it’s not a matter of ‘if’ — it’s a matter of ‘when,’ and ‘how close it is to you.’”

“In my opinion it’s absolutely climate change,” Maria, a moderate from Van Nuys added. “And now, where can we go? Now there’s a fire here and a fire here and a fire here and a fire here.” From our focus group facility in Encino, she pointed up, down, left, right. “There are only so many ways out. Where can we go?”

Over the last week, we at Potential Energy have been speaking to dozens of everyday Californians in focus groups, and hearing from thousands through quantitative surveys. We heard harrowing stories of families fleeing for their lives, losing everything in the process. We heard about the pain of not being able to enjoy the outdoors, the sadness of losing California’s natural beauty, the stress of mounting A/C bills, and, perhaps more than anything, the fear for the future. “My biggest concern is how it’s gonna be for my kids,” Tara, a moderate from Oceanside told us. “I see the changes. We all do. So how’s it going to be when my kids are older? And, my god, when their kids are older. I don’t see us reversing this. Government, the big companies, they’re just letting it happen.”

Over 80% of Californians understand that the increases in extreme weather are caused by climate change. What they don’t understand is what the government is doing to help, and what more is planned.

“It just doesn’t seem like anyone’s looking out for us on this,” Robyn, a conservative from Encino told us. “We’re just fighting fires and droughts and all this heat, but nobody’s looking ahead, to try to maybe stop it from getting worse.”

On many metrics, California is looking ahead — with ambitious clean energy commitments, bold electric vehicle mandates, a booming Clean Tech industry — but we found most people don’t grasp that. Therefore, we think a new narrative on climate change could be effective, one that anchors in what everyday Americans tell us they need.

Below are three possibilities, starting first with a human need (protection, action, vision), and highlighting the role that an effective narrative can play.

PROTECTION

“It’s destroying things that we’re never going to get back. Even just think about the redwoods. And if this is what it’s like today, I don’t even want to think about what it will be like for my kids, and their kids. Why aren’t we doing anything?” Robyn, a Republican from Northridge

Narrative Emphasis:

Let’s Safeguard Our Remarkable State.
Save the California We Love

ACTION

“Politicians, well, they all like to talk. But this — we can’t just have them talking. They talk and nothing gets done. They are more about pointing fingers at each other than doing anything. We need action. 83 people died in Paradise. We cannot wait anymore.” Loretta, 62, a moderate from Encino

Narrative Emphasis:

Action in a World of Talkers
We Can’t Afford to Wait Another Day

VISION

“A lot of people look the other way. A politician who talks about climate change — well that, to me, is somebody who’s not just thinking about right now. They’re planning for the future. They’ve taken the time to educate themselves, and they’re gonna be a real leader.” Christina, a Democrat from Citrus Heights

Narrative Emphasis:

Leadership for a Better World
How Will History Remember Us?

It’s clear from our qualitative and quantitative research: people need a guardian, a do-er, a bold leader. Aligning a narrative around one or all of these focal points could help unite the country around ambitious (and essential) climate change policies. On the ground, climate change is not a divisive issue. If anything, for people living through the effects, it’s common sense, a moral obligation, a public health necessity, and truly a defining issue of our time.

Potential Energy is a nonprofit coalition that brings together America’s leading creative, analytic and media agencies to shift the narrative on climate change.