Getting climate communications right

A company without a climate pledge is no longer taken seriously.  Getting climate communication right is now business critical. In the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres, "Let's face it, we have no time to lose."

Madrid, December 2019. The scene is set for an historic climate summit. Not for new targets but for a global reckoning on the state of the climate which is no longer one of change but one of crisis.

The Madrid Summit takes place on the tail end of September’s United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York which was preceded by a flurry of business pledges for zero carbon, including from Amazon and Google. 

More is expected of companies today than ever before as partners of government in addressing the climate emergency. Companies’ pledges, practices and public positioning are under the spotlight.

"More is expected of companies today than ever before as partners of government in addressing the climate emergency."

Does it add up to one coherent whole or is policy fragmented? Is there a disconnect between pledge and practice? Do employees walk the corporate talk? 

Grounded in 20 years of climate communication experience, here are my three climate actions that should be on everyone’s to-do list for 2020.

1. Harness employee activism for the climate 

In September 2019, the voice of climate protesters taking to the streets around the world resonated loud and clear. Several B-corporations including Ben & Jerry's, Intrepid Travel, Lush Cosmetics, Patagonia and Pukka Herbs participated in the Climate Strike, many closing shops and operations. German intercity coach network Flixbus offered free rides to climate change protesters; employees were allowed to miss work to attend. In the UK a reported 1,000 companies came out in support of the strikes.

Retaining and hiring committed employees means allowing them to express their opinions on the climate crisis, also at work. Harnessing employee activism around issues such as climate change can help raise corporate ambition and speed up action. 

How to get climate communication right

  • Ask the right questions.
  • Craft memorable messages. 
  • Strike up unlikely relationships. 
  • Solve complexity through agility.
  • Support the CEO in bold leadership. 
  • Harness employee activism
  • Communicate with integrity.

Workers from Google, Amazon and Microsoft joined the Climate Strike in San Francisco and Seattle, saying their employers had been too slow to tackle global warming and needed to take more drastic action. The day before the Climate Strike, Google announced its plan to make “the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history.” A walkout by the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice on the day of the global Climate Strike contributed to chief executive officer Jeff Bezos’ announcement of a pledge to make Amazon a carbon-neutral company by 2040. 

2. Align public affairs and public positioning 

Rewind 10 years and Europe was a very different place. Social media was in start-up mode and companies were not queuing up to demonstrate climate credentials. Instead many were locked in a disconnect between unicorn advertisements and defensive advocacy. Who can forget the billboard ads showing cars emitting flowers instead of emissions? These ads were on full display while behind-the-scenes emissions tests were being deliberately compromised, and the car industry was lobbying against climate legislation.

At the same time, European Union non-governmental organisations were pursuing a brand-new strategy to advocate for targets as a powerful mechanism to drive climate policy. The agreement by EU heads of state of their 20-2020 climate targets was a vindication of this new approach. The European Council targets were more ambitious than the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2020 taking 1990 emissions as reference; to increase energy efficiency to save 20 per cent of EU energy consumption by 2020; and to reach 20 per cent of renewable energy in the total energy consumption in the EU by 2020. 

Setting targets makes climate communication simple and accessible. Today many companies are pledging zero emissions targets and increasingly aligning public affairs and public positioning to communicate ‘as one’ on their climate pledges. No longer is public affairs a profession of ‘say no’ and ‘go slow’.

"Setting targets makes climate communication simple and accessible."

Instead, the smart lobbyists are embracing integrated communication, aware of the need for coherent corporate messages in the age of radical transparency. 

The new European Commission is also getting bolder with its climate targets. A European Green Deal with a goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 is the promise. Climate policy surged to the top of the political agenda after environmental concerns played a major role in the European election and took center stage in Ursula von der Leyen’s pitch to become European Commission president: “I want the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark”. 

Media headlines on extreme weather events have become dramatic: “the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas since records began”; “Since June more than 100 wildfires have burned in the Arctic circle”; “The Amazon is still on fire.” And then there’s the global meltdown: “40-year-old radar data shows Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is melting faster than we realised; The giant ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland contain enough water to raise sea levels by about 70m if they all melted.” The world is not on track to honour the global pledge of the Paris Agreement in 2015 to keep global warming to below 2°C or 1.5°C.

The industries under most scrutiny as heavy users, emitters or enablers of carbon emissions are many: oil and gas, automotive, aviation and shipping, plastics and chemicals, food and agriculture, textiles and fashion, construction, cement and steel, technology and data hubs. The same industries score high in resource use so they are equally challenged to deliver on circular economy commitments, also a priority for the new European Commission. Are there enough rare minerals on the planet for all the new smart phones and electric cars? 

We are facing an unprecedented crisis not only in climate but also in natural resources, which requires public affairs and corporate communications leaders to do things differently. Policy and marketing communication need to be aligned into one message, one purposeful narrative, one call to action, memorable targets, transformative policies, gripping storylines and A-Z employee engagement and activation. 

3. Partnering with nature on climate ambition 

At the COP25 Summit in Madrid, the UN International Panel on Climate Change will warn that we have 12 years to make the changes necessary to reverse and subvert global climate change before we hit a tipping point. As well as discussing emissions reduction strategies, world leaders will also discuss nature as part of the solution to climate change. With the backdrop of the burning Amazon rainforest, this is not a surprise; forests suck emissions out of the air, keeping air breathable and temperatures lower. 

Natural climate solutions will become a bigger part of the climate conversation. Living ecosystems like forests, mangroves, swamps and seabeds have the potential to take up significant quantities of carbon from the air and store them safely. Rewilding strategies are growing in popularity. There is a role for companies to contribute to protecting and restoring nature for its climate cooling and regenerative capacities. Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations, beamed onto the UN building in New York in September, gets the message across: a future-proof narrative is about a positive contribution to the planet.

“We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules.
Because the rules have to be changed.
We need a system change, rather than 
individual change.
But you cannot have one without the other.
And so I ask you to please wake up and make the changes required possible.
To do your best is no longer enough.
We must all do the seemingly impossible.
Everything needs to change.
And it has to start today." 
Greta Thunberg 

Jo Sullivan

Jo Sullivan is a senior advisor on sustainability and strategic communication for corporate, NGO and EU Institution leaders. Jo founded Conscience Consulting in 2007 as the first activist agency in Brussels, and in 2014 co-founded the Transition500 Alliance, a global network of sustainability communication consultancies. Previously as campaigns and communications director for Friends of the Earth, Jo created the 20.20.20 campaign for climate action which was rolled out across 27 European countries. Jo runs workshops on strategy, campaigns, messaging and influence across Europe, teaches at IHECS, the Brussels Communication School and delivers webinars on her book, Creating Employee Champions: How to drive business success through Sustainability Engagement.