A woman reaches down into a body of water to hold a glowing orb.
Image credit: Hatice Baran on Unsplash

At the heart of what is known as Flash Flood Alley sits Austin, TX. In the past year, the city has experienced over 10 severe flooding events: climate change-driven events caused by drought, intense rainfall, and claylike soil unable to absorb the precipitation at the rate it falls.

These events leave residents in a bind, with their livelihoods, safety, and health hanging in the balance. To top it off, residents are mandated to buy flood insurance to cover any damages to their property, but many can’t afford the high lump-sum premiums insurance companies demand.

While community organizers such as coauthor Frances Acuña of Go Austin/Vamos Austin seek justice for their communities, most are met unfavorably or are outright dismissed by federal and state legislators. When Acuña tried to discuss the impact of climate change on her community and why legislation needed to make it easier for residents to get flood insurance, she got passed around: “I felt like a football,” she said.

This process, particularly for those new to organizing, can be disheartening. However, there are certain ways to approach messaging that aligns values across the ideological and political spectrum to increase the chance of making ground toward progress for equitable climate and health solutions—and benefit anyone seeking to advance justice through policy and practice change.

The Power of Reframing the Conversation

Throughout Acuña’s attempts to advocate for her community, from City Hall to Congress to FEMA, to insurance companies and back again, with conservative and progressive elected officials alike, she experienced the politician’s soft “no” while ushering her elsewhere.

Eventually, Acuña felt that making the case for climate justice was futile. She tried a different tack by framing the issue in the context of one thing she knew her elected officials cared about: the economic prosperity of all the communities they serve. She pivoted her talking points from a community-level concern to a districtwide benefit where most constituents could access and benefit from the same legislation that would also help her community. That’s when the conversation began to change.

“Now they notice me,” Acuña said. “I think they need me more than I need them!”

To depolarize the issue and win fresh support from decision-makers, we need to change how we frame the discussion.

While not every situation is the same, the crux of Acuña’s approach holds true for many who stand up for their community in the face of injustice. Her reframe followed one of the first rules of building political will: begin with the audience’s deeply held values.

Hastening climate justice is imperative given the toll climate impacts are having on communities—lives lost, economic hardship, and buckling infrastructure, just to name a few, all of which hurt some much more than others.

Many people and communities struggle to survive in the climate crisis, let alone thrive. These are the same BIPOC and low-wealth communities that have worked to survive for generations despite policies and practices that decreased their chances for health, safety, and prosperity and provided fewer opportunities to prepare for, protect themselves from, and recover after climate-related disasters.

Advice for Climate and Health Justice Advocates

To depolarize the climate justice issue and win fresh support from decision-makers, we need to change how we frame the discussion. The Kresge Foundation and Metropolitan Group, a social impact communications and strategy firm, have seen the power of reframing and leading with shared values through collaboration with grantee partners like Go Austin/Vamos Austin through Kresge’s Climate Change, Health & Equity (CCHE) initiative.

As such, we co-created a message framework that aligns values across the ideological spectrum to make progress on equitable climate and health solutions. While the following insights are relevant to those working in a climate- or health-equity space, we believe they would benefit anyone seeking to advance justice through policy and practice change.

Failing to name structural racism disappears the role racism plays in causing disparate levels of disease, injury and death.

First, we found that every decision-maker believes in core values that drive their policy and public funding choices. The value drivers that resonate best with both policymakers and grassroots organizations across the ideological spectrum are health, equity, prosperity, and safety. We should name these disparate impacts in ways that will resonate with conservative policymakers (for whom “fairness” is often salient) and progressive policymakers (for whom justice frames tend to work).

Second, we learned that regardless of where a policymaker sits on the ideological spectrum, many are still ill-informed about the role structural racism plays in policies past and present. This hampers our ability to discuss climate and its harmful health impacts in this context. Among conservative policymakers, in particular, the term “structural racism” inspires knee-jerk responses that counter the progress on equitable policies that climate advocates seek. 

This presented us with a conundrum. Failing to name structural racism disappears the role racism plays in causing disparate levels of disease, injury and death, and makes it easier for decision-makers to perpetuate their ignorance on the issue. However, there are times when being more explicit can shut down a conversation before it even begins.

Taking what we learned from the process and our success in the field, here’s our advice for those who want to speak up for climate justice: Get to know the person with whom you are speaking. You might be engaging with someone ready to talk about structural racism. In that case, name it early and often. Some are not ready for this conversation. In this case, tell stories about how generations of policies and practices—including too many policies enacted even today—are causing greater harm and death for the people being represented and served. Later in the conversation, after they have heard and hopefully been affected by these stories, explain that these are examples of systemic racism in practice.

For some policymakers, you might not earn their vote right away, but you will have helped to educate them about the racialized impacts of climate change on people’s health.

And in general, one conversation will seldom suffice. After all, conversations about evolving a person’s perspective are rooted in trust and understanding.

Our advice: don’t be discouraged from reengaging the same person or group of people to build trust and a foundation for effective conversations on climate justice. Trust is the reason we are successful in what we do. Acuña had to build trust with both the residents and legislators—getting to know their humanity and presenting her panoramic view as a human filled with empathy, care, and compassion.

The Messaging Framework

Climate change messaging is too often developed through top-down approaches that fail to capture the voice or experience of people living in affected communities.

To aid community-serving organizations in framing climate justice in the context of the shared values listed above, The Kresge Foundation and Metropolitan Group led the creation of a grassroots-oriented message framework on climate change, health, and equity. The framework includes:

  • Two problem statements: one on climate instability and the other on its disparate impacts
  • Supporting messages related to local climate impacts in the context of health and equity, prosperity, and safety
  • A solution statement about how we must design solutions by focusing on—and working in partnership with—communities to address the policies and practices that put them at greater risk based on race, ethnicity, or economic status
  • Additional messages about the benefits of taking action in the context of added values drivers
  • A closing frame to guide call(s) to action

For the past year, CCHE grantee partners have been applying this message framework with promising initial results. Examples include persuading a progressive mayor in a Northeastern state who had been antagonistic toward clean energy to pass local policies to adopt community choice energy, and preparing a network of climate advocates for engaging a legislature in a conservative Southern state.

Grantees’ success in engaging with elected officials and building coalitions with like-mission organizations is part of a larger shift in the narrative on climate, health, and equity. We don’t see this message framework as the final word at the intersections of these issues. Instead, it’s an important early step for informing difficult conversations at a time of incredible change in American politics and culture.