The Haiku Test – driving action on climate change

Last week, the Division of Communications at UNICEF was fortunate enough to be joined by Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Anthony shared insights on communicating about climate change, based on his decade-long work in this field. His talk prompted a lot of soul searching from the campaigners in the room – particularly on the messages and methods that mobilize. 

  1.       The Haiku Test

Campaigners are keenly aware that to inspire action, our messages must be simple and achievable.

Anthony brought a new frame to this, sharing the Haiku – or the 17 syllables – that summarizes what we need to know about climate change

Scientists agree
It is real, it is us, it is bad
but there’s hope!

This approach carefully distills the meta ideas behind climate change into a simple, communicable message.

Almost one hundred years ago, the founder of Save the Children Eglantyne Jebb, observed that: ‘The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy’.

The Haiku test is a great reminder of this – prompting us to focus on what our audiences need to know, not what we think they should know.

  1.       Design messages based on insight not instinct

This is only possible if we first understand our audiences and then create messages that engage them based on evidence of what works.

This comes naturally to profit-driven organizations. For example, before launching a new product a company will conduct a thorough analysis of who is going to buy it and what will make them buy it. Their profitability – and therefore their business model – depend on this level of rigour.

Yet campaigners struggle with this. We know how essential it is, but organizational structures often don’t incentive or reward this approach. This is partly an issue of cost: it can be expensive. And partly because our success or failure is often less clearly defined.

But by taking the time to invest in detailed audience analysis upfront, we save a lot of time and money in the long-run. And when we’re talking about human survival, the stakes are arguably a lot higher than a bottom line!

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has used audience insight analysis to identify six different segments of the American public, based on their attitudes to climate change.

Climate Change Audiences in the USA

To be engaged, each of these groups needs a different part of Anthony’s Haiku:

  • If you’re Alarmed or Concerned, you need to know what to do and that there’s hope to avoid becoming fatalistic about the scale of the problem.
  • If you’re Cautious or Disengaged, you need to know why you should care about climate change.
  • If you’re Doubtful or Dismissive, you need convincing it is real and human caused. It is up to us to make the issue less contentious.
  1.   Avoid the factual basis of your argument becoming contentious

Time and time again we see issues that are grounded in fact and evidence, become mired in conspiracy and doubt. This is what opponents to change thrive on – and climate change is no exception.

As we discussed in the room – from the tobaccoindustry in the mid-twentieth century, to the fossil fuel industry now: doubt is a potent strategy for those who have a financial interest in preserving the status quo.

This is often fueled by the media, where opinion is pitted against fact for the sake of ‘balance’.

If an issue is up for debate, it allows decision-makers to shy away from the radical action required. It also roots issues in certain political identities, which then makes polarization more entrenched.

Professor Michael Porter from Harvard Business School has looked at this in detail, arguing that in a two-party system like the USA, it is in politicians’ interests to polarize their issues – convergence only increases the number of swing voters, making their seats less stable.

Equally, we all know that once an issue is perceived to be contentious, it becomes difficult to talk about – people don’t want to risk arguments with family and friends. This is a problem for climate change, as consciousness raising is such a critical part of the driving action.

  1.   Bring it close

But happily, this leads us nicely to our penultimate lesson – transform your issue into something that feels close to home. If an issue doesn’t touch us it is very hard for us to care. Think back to Jebb’s words of warning at the beginning of this piece.

There are so many ways for campaigners to bring our issues close to home:

  • sharing local stories of impact and action that root our campaign in people’s lived experience
  • encouraging our activists to have conversations with family and friends and equipping them with the messages that convince – we’re more likely to listen to the people we know and trust
  • making sure our messengers cut across various identities to neutralize and depolarize – this gives our audience the opportunity to see ‘someone like me’. 
  1.   Organize the already engaged

To me, Anthony’s closing message was the most interesting.

His advice to the room was to focus climate campaigning on the Alarmed group – the people already seized of this issue.

Rather than trying to actively convert sceptics, or even trying to grow our Alarmed pool, he argued we could have more impact on the political debate by helping the already agitated organize to demand their leaders act. 

When campaigners do professionalize our audience analysis, it is tempting to build strategies that focus on moving certain key segments of the public as opposed to mobilizing our existing champions.

There is absolutely an argument for both – but the former is much harder to do, and the payoff much less certain. Yet the lesson from so many successful campaigns is that a small group of “thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”.

However – this isn’t a free pass to undermine or alienate other key segments of the public. Whilst we seek to mobilize our most engaged audiences, it is critical we don’t undermine our wider cause and fall into the contentious trap by using messages or tactics that polarize.

So, in summary…

A simple message,
backed by evidence and close to home,


2 thoughts on “The Haiku Test – driving action on climate change

  1. Great insight and analysis. On the last point – the appeal of recruiting new people is my concern that sometimes (due to entrenched views) the already involved are unable to mobilize / campaign in ways that don’t alienate others. Did you discuss how to address that challenge?

    In the last decade I’ve been in or around environmental campaigning too often activists can behave in ways that alienate – the recent protest that tried to shut down transport to/from Canary Wharf, but which actually ended up preventing zero-hour contract cleaners etc from getting to work is one example. Another of course is the state of the Labour Party and how out of touch a lot of the membership is with the general public – seems to be a worrying lack of reflection and learning coming out of the recent election defeat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey David! I totally agree with your observation. We did touch on this a bit – but definitely not with sufficient attention. Tony’s advice was to involve as many different identities as possible in your campaign – so it is up to the campaigners to make sure their messages don’t come from homogeneous mouths. However, this obviously depends on the movement in question investing in keeping their movement diverse and being open to different views and different perspectives – something that is easier said than done. I’d love to dig into this in more depth.


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