To Give Life to the Paris Climate Agreement, Connect on Personal Values

As 150 governments including 40 heads of state are expected to join together in a signing ceremony at the United Nations this Friday for the Paris climate accord, I was privileged to spend time this weekend with a number of the faith leaders who helped generate the momentum that brought this agreement to reality.

Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C. is an annual gathering of hundreds of faith leaders committed to living out their commitment to justice. As part of that commitment, this event hosted the workshop “Global Climate Justice: Ensuring the Wealthiest Countries are Doing Their Share.” I joined John Hill, Assistant General Secretary for Advocacy and Grassroots Organizing, Rev. Levi Bautista, Assistant General Secretary for United Nations Ministry of the General Board of Church and Society, and Rebecca Barnes, Vice President of Environmental Ministries, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. My thanks to Shantha Alonso, Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries and a member of the Blessed Tomorrow Leadership Circle. for inviting me to participate in this important panel to make more explicit the links between climate and justice.

John provided an excellent framework for Christian community engagement on climate change, laying out the links between climate and the four Christian principles of sufficiency, sustainability, stewardship, and justice. He explained the importance of fully funding the Green Climate Fund that will raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries as they reduce their climate pollution and make their communities and cities stronger and more resilient to climate changes. John also shared UMC GBCS’s important work at the Paris talks

As a longtime policy expert, John highlighted that the Paris agreement, like other agreements, is nothing unless we build the support for the policies that we will need to make the promises of the agreement a reality. So the big question for lovers of justice is, how do we give life to the Paris climate agreement?

Levi Bautista shared his firsthand account of farmers in the Philippines whose real-life situation illustrates what others will encounter with climate change impacts. Suffering from reduced rice yields due to persistent drought, 5,000 farmers and their families peaceably assembled to demand their promised rice allotment from the government. The government met them with water cannons, truncheons, and bullets, leaving three dead, 18 severely wounded, 93 injured and over 100 missing. Those who were able took sanctuary in the local United Methodist Church and Office of the Bishop. The oldest were not able to run/walk away fast enough, so they were scooped up by the police and are now incarcerated. Their families are seeking to raise bail money so their grandmothers, grandfathers, and elders can return home. The protesters, United Methodist Center, and the Bishop who provided sanctuary are now threatened with a lawsuit by the government.

My job at the workshop was to share effective climate communications and messaging tools for policy advocates to use to connect more strongly with the values, identities, and priorities of those they are seeking to influence. In so doing, they will be even more effective in inspiring hope and agency to engage the many others we will need to achieve the climate policy solutions we seek. John and Levi had already embodied some of these best practices by appealing to the moral values of their audience, and telling stories to help make climate impacts more personally relevant.

The tools, detailed in the Let’s Talk Climate report published by ecoAmerica in November 2015, are effective ways to engage those who have already made the links between climate and justice, as well as “persuadable” Americans who are registered to vote and believe climate change is happening, but are not yet sure if we can do anything about it. The tools are also effective when talking with elected officials who need to communicate climate solutions in ways that are palatable to their constituents back home. 

A key finding from the report is the importance of connecting with personal values that people already have, versus trying to elevate climate as a standalone priority:

Climate change” and “global warming” are now politically loaded terms. When we make climate change an urgent, top priority, it competes with the stress in everyday life – our more immediate concerns. Therefore, many Americans turn away from the conversation. We have the opportunity to change this with values-based messages that draw personal connections to climate. Values are relatively consistent in adulthood. They drive how and what we hear. 

So rather than trying to compete with the daily concerns of the already overfull and overstressed days of those we are trying to reach, we will be much more effective in motivating greater support for the Paris Agreement and other climate policies by connecting climate solutions to values people already have.

Here are some effective ways to connect climate with people’s existing values. You can find more in Let’s Talk.

  • Persuadable Americans express higher urgency and support when we talk about climate action as a moral responsibility for future generations. For people of faith and lovers of justice, linking to the values of justice, sustainability, stewardship, and sufficiency, as John did, is a powerful motivator.
  • Persuadable Americans react with more urgency when climate change is connected to protecting family health or preserving family well-being, especially related to children. 
  • Make climate impacts personal – for example, by telling stories of people you know who have been impacted, as Levi did with the farmers in the Philippines, or highlighting one or two impacts in your community. But move quickly to solutions, since Americans are overwhelmed by negative information on climate change which can cause them to disengage.
  • Americans think action on climate change will cost them personally. However, message resonance improves greatly when people hear how they can personally benefit from locally made energy from wind and sun that will save money, create jobs and provide healthier communities. 

It was great to hear Levi and John speak, and be with so many who are passionate about justice. They are my greatest inspiration and hope that we will achieve the climate solutions that will bring us all a better world.

Kara Ball is the Program Director of Blessed Tomorrow.

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