What is Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching us about Climate Communication?

What is Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching us about Climate Communication?

In essence: That we are doing it wrong! The focus of « green campaigners » on future and distant threats, such as global warming, the rising sea levels or the end of polar bears is a strategic mistake. Of course, these are important issues, but people do not relate well to what will happen 20 years from now. Instead, he says, we should communicate on the “here” and “now”, with a particular focus on health.

If you ever attended a climate conference or read an article about climate change – they are easy to come by these days – you were probably confronted to global temperature targets, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and other facts and figures that dominate today’s climate discourse. Unfortunately, for most of us non-climate scientists, targets and metrics are hard to grasp. In fact, studies have shown that the less tangible or the further the message on climate risks is from our everyday experiences, the more likely we are to perceive them as distant and improbable phenomenon[1]. Researchers refer to this as “psychological distancing” and argue that it can ultimately reduce support for climate action and adaptive behavior. The same goes for catastrophic and apocalyptic scenarios, another type of discourse climate communicators and media like to throw around every chance they get. In an insightful TED talk, Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes explains that these attempts to motivate people to action often backfire because they lead to more hopelessness and less concern.

When asked what can we do to increase climate-positive attitudes and behaviors, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s answer is immediate: Frame climate change as a public health issue. “Failing to talk about health is why climate communication has been so unsuccessful over the past years, and we learned it the hard way in California” he says.

No on Prop 23: American Lung Assn (TV Ad)

In 2010, while he was Governor of California, out of state oil companies launched an initiative (Proposition 23) seeking to roll back on a landmark environmental law known as AB32. For a long time, the poll numbers where in favor of Proposition 23. “Traditional” environmental adverts had no impact against the simple message – protecting jobs and the economy – hammered by oil companies. It is only when Schwarzenegger and his campaign team ran adverts emphasizing the health impacts of air pollution that, all of a sudden, the poll numbers changed. “Health is what made the people of California overwhelmingly vote for a clean energy future. Not the rising temperatures, not the melting ice caps, not the polar bears” he told a captivated audience during the High-Level Presidency event on Health at COP23, back in 2017.

Aside from his Californian example, the health argument advanced by Arnold Schwarzenegger is supported by communication researchers and practitioners. Indeed, they have demonstrated that when climate change is introduced as a human health issue it makes it more relevant and emotionally engaging[2]. More encouraging, researchers have also found that a diversity of audience segments, even people traditionally disengaged or dismissive of climate change, respond positively to an emphasis on the public health consequences of climate change[3]. To top it all, in a COP24 Special Report, the World Health Organization recently provided more evidence, examples and stories on the health benefits of climate change mitigation. So, there is no shortage of arguments we can use.

In the end, what Arnold Schwarzenegger is teaching us about climate communication is pretty straightforward. Avoid using “doom and gloom” environmentalism, leave the climate go-to metrics – even though they make you look smart – and the polar bears on the side, and reframe climate change as a public health issue. If you really want to throw in numbers, focus on the positive things, such as the number of solar panels, recycling programs or green jobs created.


By Dino De Francesco, R20 Communications Manager

[1] McDonald, R., Chai, H and Newell, B. (2015). ‘Personal experience and the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change: An integrative review.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 44, 109-118

[2] Meyers, T., Nisbet, M. Maibach, E and Leiserowitz, A. (2012). “A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change.” Climatic Change. 113(3-4) 1105-1112

[3] Maibach, EW., Nisbet, M., Baldwin, O., Akerlof, K., Diao, G. (2010). “Reframing climate change as a public health issue; an exploratory study of public reactions. BMC Pub Health 10:299