The 51 Percent: A climate communications project to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy

Did you know that the Institute for Sustainable Energy has an incredible group of Non-Resident Senior Fellows? These are people who have risen to high levels in their field – with their focus areas spanning business, policy, and technology — and are now using their expertise and experience to address the challenge of creating a sustainable world in collaboration with the ISE.

This summer, we were very fortunate to add two new Non-Resident Senior Fellows, one of whom is Sarah Finnie Robinson. Sarah, a climate-solutions investor and behavior-change expert, is launching “The 51 Percent Project,” a data-driven communications initiative to engage a cohort of concerned Americans who are ready to become active. ISE is delighted to support this work, which is so important today when the range of viewpoints on climate change feels harder to span than ever before. We look forward to engaging with everyone who already thinks about or who is moved to consider this important topic.


By Sarah Finnie Robinson

I sat next to a silver-coiffed retired bank CEO at a dinner, and we got to chatting about the weather. (Lately it’s been hot). I asked him what he thought about climate change. “It’s happening,” he said. “I get it. But don’t try to change the mind of someone my age. It’s too late. They don’t want to hear it.”

As it happens, most people of any age or socioeconomic status have a very hard time knowing what to do about climate change.

In partnership with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, the Yale Program on Climate Communications has studied Americans’ attitudes on climate change since 2005. Directors Anthony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach and their teams study “The 6 Americas”: classifications ranging from “dismissive” to “alarmed,” with “cautious” and disengaged” comprising the soft mid-section.

Image of Six Americas survey results

Depending on where you live, where you work, and other factors, like health issues and income, we’re each impacted differently by extreme weather and its consequences. There is no one message that will work to mobilize public demand for solutions.

A UPS delivery person in Arizona (high temp 115°F on July 5, 2018) will face different route obstacles than his colleague in fire-prone Colorado; or in Boston, where extreme precipitation and sea-level rise produce “100-year floods” with frequency.

Here’s one unpleasant reality: migration or “managed retreat” may have to become the norm among coastal residents. 123.3 million people, or 39 percent of the nation’s population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010, and that percentage is expected to rise to 47 percent by 2020. Migrating inland or uphill might be easy for some: sell the house, buy a new one, call the movers. For others, not so much.

Nobody of any age wants to talk about this. Of course they don’t! It’s terrifying, inconvenient, expensive, potentially catastrophic, and all-around depressing as hell.

The YPCCC/GMU researchers have identified a critical mass: 51% of Americans who are “alarmed” or “concerned”. This critical segment is aware that the climate is changing, can see impacts for themselves every day, understand the basics of global warming, accept man’s role in it. They know this isn’t going away, they want to do something, but they’re not sure what could possibly make a dent. Much of what they see and read is simply terrifying, and consequentially they don’t talk about this much.

What does impactful action to address climate change look like?

Change to efficient light-bulbs and appliances, use water carefully, eat less meat, use less plastic, for sure — and also:

  1. Talk about climate change with friends and family. Acknowledge the emotions you and they are feeling on the topic.
  2. Know your own emissions profile.
  3. Be involved in politics, e.g. vote thoughtfully, advocate for clean-energy policies and other forms of climate action (carbon fee and dividend, for example).
  4. Know what the reliable news sources are.
  5. Invest thoughtfully, and encourage your organizations to do so as well (your employer, medical complex, alma mater, pension fund, religious affiliation, etc.).
  6. Request clean-energy choices from your electic utility.
  7. Social media can be powerful. Share useful information there and among your offline networks—in your community, affinity groups, clubs and associations, etc.
  8. Take consumer action: find out which brands are serious about reducing emissions and other waste, and buy from them. Be alert to “green-washing.”

“More than half of those who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).”[1] 

Maybe we need more, better, and easier ways to have the conversation. Why not take advantage of established climate communications academic and scientific research, which is often dense and unknown to the average person, to inform effective content. One objective for The 51 Percent project is to mine gems from this broad body of work; and another is to use it to help our communicators (media, writers, film-makers, producers; and also ad agencies, brand marketers, social media experts, NGOs, etc.) use these best practices and principles to guide their messaging and campaigns.

Our vast body of academic and scientific climate-communications expertise should provide a foundation for efficacious content to reach and activate the educated, aware general public.

That’s why I’m launching a digital showcase of best practices for climate communications, such as the 7 Climate Visuals principles; and outstanding examples of messaging that moves people to action –– images, data, data visualizations, graphs, gifs, headlines, stories, video, audio, posters, t-shirts, meatballs, neckties. Sweeping strategies like #WeAreStillIn, the RE100, and the Consensus Project. Stunning art like Lorenzo Quinn’s hands in Venice and Follow the Leaders.

Whatever works. Our scientists warn that the clock is ticking.

Stay tuned, and please email or dm me with leads at @SarahFRobinson.


Sarah Finnie Robinson is the founding partner at WeSpire and a senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University. Bostonian by birth, she is active on the Boston Harbor Now climate task force. An English major (Princeton BA, Middlebury MA) and reformed litterer with roots in mainstream media (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, iVillage), she invests in large-scale climate solutions and hunts down best practices for communications to solve the challenge of global warming. She blogs on HuffPost, Medium, and mindbodygreen. Off-duty, she tends an organic garden of edible leaves and enjoys a nice glass of wine that was not grown using chemicals.

[1] http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-spiral-silence-america/