If they won’t get vaccinated, how can we get them to take action on climate?

by Aug 11, 2021

Shelton Stat of the Week

80% agree that we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it. — Eco Pulse® Wave 13, December 2020

There are a few stats in our ongoing Pulse data that have troubled me for quite some time:

  • 70% of people living in America say they feel moderately to very strongly responsible for changing their daily choices to positively impact the environment.
  • 77% say the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce their environmental impact (though this is down from 90% in 2016).
  • 80% agree that we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it.

I’ve been troubled because it’s not what’s actually happening. We don’t see three-fourths of the American population taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint (beyond recycling or wishcycling). Even in our own studies, only 26% of the American population can name a brand they’ve intentionally purchased or not purchased because of the perceived environmental or social record of the manufacturer. And while 26% is a great number — and headed in an upward right trajectory when you look at the data over the last 13 years — it’s still not 70-80%.

So our stats trouble me because I think they’re platitudes. Or examples of people giving the answer they think they’re supposed to. Or projecting a noble idea of the people they wish they were into their responses. And given the dire IPCC report this week, it’s critical that we move people to action.

A lot has been written about the intention-behavior gap, and those of us in the sustainability community have a penchant for rationalizing it away with statements like, “It’s hard for people to see a direct cause-and-effect relationship between their actions and climate change, so it’s hard to motivate them to action,” or “Millennials and Gen Z are really green, and since they will feel the impacts of climate change in their lifetimes, they’ll close the gap with more actions.”

But then came the pandemic. And the politicization of vaccines.

There is indeed a cause-and-effect relationship between being vaccinated and not dying, and between being vaccinated and getting our society back to “normal.” It’s pretty clear. Yet as I write this, only 50% of people in America are fully vaccinated. And the whole thing about those young people who will save us from climate change? They’re the least likely to be fully vaccinated. While a whopping 92% of people in the 65 to 74-year-old age category are vaccinated, only 54% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 58% of 25 to 39-year-olds are.

So much for young people taking action.

I sure don’t have the silver bullet for how to get people to get vaccinated, but I do think we can learn some things from that struggle that we can apply to motivating people to take action on climate.

For starters, I see a lot of parallels in the language used to try to encourage vaccinations and the language used to encourage action on climate.

Think of language like “for the greater good…for our children….to protect our future…” Maybe some of those messages could work, but it’s all about the messenger. Our latest Pulse data shows that the most trusted messengers are family, friends…and then members of the military. Politicians and company advertising are low on the list. So we need to identify the most influential influencers and get them to promote climate-positive actions via social and digital channels. That will reach our friends and family, who will then influence us.

We also need to more fully leverage members of the military as spokespeople on the dire challenges of climate change. As a marine I heard speak years ago said, “When the waters rise, people get their guns, and we get called in to keep the peace.” Military spokespeople framing climate change as a national security issue could go a long way towards getting broad swaths of Americans on board who otherwise wouldn’t be.

I also think we’ll see that a “stick” is super helpful.

I applaud what organizations from the federal government to the NFL to United Airlines are doing to either mandate vaccines or make the pain and hassle of not having a vaccine great enough to move people to action. That’s new, so we’ll see how it plays out.

In the sustainability arena, we’ve long seen that the absence of the “bad option” moves people to the “good option.” So as companies fulfill their commitments around carbon neutrality and circularity, people will come along because they have no other choice.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is this.

If what ultimately gets us to a 70-80% vaccination rate is a combination of government and business mandating vaccinations, then we should follow that template to drive action on climate change.

News of the Week

The ‘green influencers’ targeting the TikTok generation
The Guardian

The upcoming generation isn’t moved by the same arguments and messaging around climate change that older generations have heard for decades. This new wave of “green influencers” are taking to social media platforms to leverage their access to millions of followers for climate activism. No longer just a place for selfies and shots of your dinner, argues the Guardian, social media is the go-to platform combating climate change.
Read more…

‘Climate change is going to cost us’: How the US military is preparing for harsher environments
Defense News

The US military is on the front lines of more than just battles, they are directly dealing with the consequences of climate change. From the fallout of increased extreme weather to sea rise eroding military bases, the US armed forces have real world problems right now, not at some vague point in the future. Defense news relates how they are handling the immediate challenges, and how they are planning for the future.
Read more…

Good Company

Americans are putting their wallets where their values are. They buy brands (or those brands’ competitors) based not just on corporate behavior, but on how that behavior is perceived.

So how do you protect your bottom line and safeguard your reputation, all while making the world a better place? Well, good works. That’s the simple truth, and as you’ll learn in this report, Shelton Group has the research to back it up.

You’ll also learn how your brand can apply our insights to share your good stories in ways that captivate the public’s passion – so you can gain a market advantage.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Gord Cooke

    Great article, thank you. Once when doing a training session on energy efficient housing, a homeowner, who was attending the session, approached me at break. He noted he was a retired marine and very earnestly said he wasn’t sure he really was that interested in environmental issues, other than the fact he was absolutely sure that Zero Energy housing was a “matter of national security”. He added it was also a personal security issue. His rationale was clear, it is in the best interest of individuals and countries to have “energy independence”. He had signed up to build a Zero Energy home – and that was 15 years ago, before there was a Zero Energy program. He noted the $40,000 premium at the time was a small price to pay to know he, and the country, didn’t need to be beholding to foreign actors who may not have his best interests at heart

  2. Bruce Henry Glanville

    SEEED is in the process of building a Zero Energy home on Texas Ave in Lonsdale. It will be a solar home. They are training local kids on construction, hands on, with the help of Habitat. My HERS Index model is 50 before solar. This is a great way to inform that community on the value of fossil free homes.

  3. Will HInson

    I agree with your frustration but I am not surprised by the lack of vaccinations in the younger populations. So many factors play into this but if I compare this generation to mine (Boomer), we were just as, or more rebellious. It’s one of those factors we just have to account for in our society.

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