By Michael Shank
Most cities that consider themselves environmental leaders have developed climate action plans that articulate how they’re reducing emissions, adapting to climate impacts, and promoting circularity and equity.
That a city has a climate action plan is no longer novel. But a plan alone doesn’t move the needle on decarbonization nor does it inherently motivate the city’s stakeholders—both public and private—to act on that plan.
While essential to a city’s sustainability and survival, climate action plans are usually long documents that few people read. They’re not written in bite-sized format, they’re not social media friendly, and they’re primarily about systems and structures that need decarbonizing. San Francisco’s climate action plan, for example, is 300 pages and not very digestible for the vast majority of residents.
That’s why cities like San Francisco, London, New York, and Helsinki are investing in campaigns to communicate their climate action plans to citizens. And they’re doing so not only to raise awareness about the plan but to identify easy, everyday actions that people can take to make it more tangible, relatable, and actionable.
That last bit is incredibly important, given that we need every ounce of inspiration, agency, and empowerment in this fight against climate change. Climate action and policy can feel overwhelming at times and lonely at others, so any effort to build a citywide community to make it clear that we’re not tackling this work alone is beneficial.
San Francisco’s Environment Department is no stranger to creative climate communications; a few years ago, it launched a successful “Refuse/Reuse” campaign to discourage disposables and encourage reusables in the city. This year, the city took a page from its own book and launched another campaign to raise awareness on its climate plan and encourage individual action.
San Francisco wanted to popularize the plan—which addressed energy supply, transportation and land use, housing, building operations, responsible production and consumption, and healthy ecosystems—while identifying relevant individual behavior changes that would support those goals.
In building its campaign, the city did extensive background research to understand residents’ perceptions on climate change and actions they were taking. They conducted that research in the three most common languages in the city: Spanish, Cantonese, and English.
The research findings were unsurprising for the city. Like the majority of America, most San Franciscans believe that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by humans. But where that awareness gets derailed is how discouraged residents feel with all the bad climate news, which happens all too frequently these days. All the doom-and-gloom headlines were making them shut down instead of taking action.
In response to these findings, they came up with a tagline meant to offer hope, instead: “Thanks to you, The Plan is working.” They knew that even if people didn’t know what the plan was, there’s a good chance it would spark their curiosity and they’d seek out more information. This idea is supported by research from the American Psychological Association, which found that piquing people’s interest can encourage them to make healthier and smarter decisions.
The campaign’s main message was shared across a series of print ads, billboards, bus shelters, social media, and community newspapers—all in multiple languages. It was also paired with an individual action. For example, one ad said, “You go meatless on Mondays. Thanks to you, The Plan is working.” Another said, “You’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by almost half, SF. Thanks to you, The Plan is working.”
You name the individual action, and this campaign covered it. “Your dream car is electric.” “You prefer fixing it over replacing it. ” And on it went. They made some of the ads even more forward looking, featuring a woman from the future thanking residents for doing their part to, well, save the future. The campaign cost the city $500,000, which included everything from market research and building a new website to developing the ads and buying the ad space.
The investment by the city paid off. Social media impressions exceeded expectations and click through rates were significantly higher than previous climate campaigns, showing that San Franciscans resonated with the message and were receptive to it. It even inspired city staff internally, according to the Environment Department, which is also a much-needed boost in this work. And now that San Franciscans have engaged with the campaign, the city plans to track behaviors to see if it also results in meaningful action, looking at things like food waste, mass transit trips, and renewable energy upgrades.
For cities and citizens everywhere, campaigns like this can be an essential complement to any climate action plan because they help build community, convey individual agency, and empower the citizenry to do more together. It’s worth taking a moment to thank your community for what they’re doing. And as San Francisco illustrated, a little thanks can go a long way.
Michael Shank is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.