In 2017 my 17-year old son locked me in the house for two days.
Why? Because I, like most in my generation, wasn’t doing anything about climate change. Largely uninfluenced by political filters, our kids have learned that something very troubling is happening to their future. He gave me 48 hours to do something meaningful.
As a 30-year career marketing executive and consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to help many of the biggest companies in the world tell their story, manage their brands, persuade their customers to buy new products and think new things. And as a professor of marketing, I’ve taught what’s on the forefront of the leading techniques in digital technologies. I’ve helped hundreds of millions of people know the credit card with the best points, the retailer that saves you the most money, the insurance company that looks out for your health. We’ve gotten pretty good at this as an industry.
But the most important communications challenge we’ve ever faced uses few of these techniques. The job of engaging people on the profound and irreversible impacts of carbon pollution have been largely in the hands of a small number of organizations, many carrying a left-of-center political lens. My son’s challenge: how do you get your average American to understand what scientists are teaching students these days? That on the current trajectory of inaction, we will see the average surface temperature on earth rise from 59 to the mid to high 60s by the end of the century. And that to hold it at 62 degrees, we have to move the entire global economy to clean energy in just three short decades. That without such action we will see massive food and water shortage, global instability, and population migration and significant economic losses.
The gap in public understanding is sobering. Our research tells us that only 24% of Americans believe there is scientific consensus that industrial activity is warming the planet. 27% are highly concerned. And 7% of us talk about global warming often. Clean energy has declined in cost by 90% over the last decade, but less than one in 5 Americans think it has gotten cheaper. Only a tiny portion of people even know what is causing the problem: two thirds think of it as a recycling or a plastics issue.
There is simply a massive gap in public understanding. It’s not that people are dense or in denial, it’s that they have other pressing concerns — jobs, families, mortgages, health. For people to engage, this concept of climate change needs to relate to the things they care most about, to be relevant to them.
And it is relevant. The consequences are happening all around us, every day. 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since the year 2000. Farmers are worried they might not be able to grow food on their land. And yet, somehow this has become a political debate.
As a response to this, in my forty-eight hour lockdown, I cashed in thirty years of my rolodex, calling the most influential marketing leaders in America — the geniuses who sell us soap and bottled water and amuse us during the Super Bowl. I challenged them to sell the product currently branded “climate change.” The consequence of this weekend lockdown was Potential Energy — a coalition of business leaders in the marketing, technology and media industries committed to educating the public, in a balanced, non partisan way. Last October, over 200 CEOs in these industries, also recognizing the urgency of this moment, signed a pledge to donate significant resources to fulfill this mission, using the most advanced tools in media and marketing. And now we are turning to the important work of launching campaigns to help everyday Americans across the political spectrum understand how the issue actually affects them and what they care about.
Our goal is to engage people on their own terms so they understand how this phenomenon affects their lives and how to see themselves as part of the solution. To expand the tent to include all Americans. To simplify and depoliticize.
We can and must reposition climate change as a non political issue. It isn’t just for tree huggers and liberals. It shouldn’t be about sacrifice, guilt, not using energy. It should in fact be about a powerful economic opportunity. We need to communicate to America the massive growth potential that lies in front of us. That we can upgrade our economy to a cleaner, more prosperous one, where energy is cheaper and more abundant. Where we lead the world in innovation and technology. Where capitalism thrives in tackling even bigger consumer needs. Our data shows that what unites us is much stronger than what divides us. 93% of Americans believe that polluters should pay for their pollution. I hope the tools from the corporate sector can help create a more informed public that makes better decisions.
Today’s debate has confused politics with a progress agenda that’s distinctly American and very universal. This new effort isn’t about a political agenda. It’s about creating a better and more prosperous life for my kid. And everyone else’s. That’s a pretty universal, and entirely American, idea. I hope our country’s best marketers can get that across.
John Marshall is the founder and Chairman of the Potential Energy Coalition, a Senior Advisor at the marketing firm Lippincott, and Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Dartmouth College.