Making Climate Change Sexy: A Journey

As a cartoonist working on climate change communication for three years now, I’d like to share a story about what I’ve learned making a book about climate change into something people actually want to read.

On November 30, 2018, I launched a book on climate change called Eerste Hulp Bij Klimaatverandering in Dutch, or First Aid for Climate Change. The first printing consisted of more than two thousand copies and they sold within two months. I’m a nobody and I have no publisher. I made this book together with five other nobodies. Nonetheless, we sold over a thousand copies before the book was even finished. I’m still baffled by this. Proud of course. But mostly, I’d like to share some insights on how I’m trying to make climate change sexy.

Climate change communication is a science too

Back in 2015, nine months before the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21), I got involved with climate change activists in the Netherlands, where I reside. After feeling lonely and disempowered for most of my life, it was great to finally find a crowd of people who cared as much as I did about the biggest challenge of our time. But it also struck me that we weren’t reaching a big enough audience with our actions. Since I already had an interest in psychology, I enrolled in a course about Psychology for Sustainability, offered by an initiative called Impact Academy in Utrecht. I vividly remember sitting in the room together with sustainability professionals and being told that all of us present were a complete underrepresentation of the larger population. We all suffered from a condition, scientifically known as “morally deviant behavior.” If there was one insight that helped me most, it was this one: Not everybody thinks like… me.

Studying the psychology behind climate apathy, I learned that most people simply avoid depressing news. But, people sensitive enough to engage with climate change and feel the pain, anguish, and terror that comes with knowing our window of opportunity to save the planet is closing fast while politicians argue over semantics, don’t avoid it. So there’s a gap there that’s hard to bridge. It turns out that there are effective ways of communicating climate change and downright useless ways of doing it. Because when you try to communicate, the most important lesson is to know your audience.

Learn from entrepreneurs

Caring about the person you’re directing the message to isn’t something activists are generally very interested in, and neither are artists. But there’s a group of people that does nothing else: entrepreneurs. Having been an entrepreneur myself, I was acquainted with some marketing literature and tricks of the trade. That’s why I started with defining a target audience. This quickly became: People who care but are too overwhelmed to become active. Who feel guilt and shame for not doing enough. The goal of the book: to deliver something that would make people happy. No guilt. No depression. Sounds impossible, so it gets the attention right away. A neat marketing trick.

I call the book a tongue-in-cheek self-help guide for people suffering from Pre-Traumatic Climate Panic. It’s a book for people who love the planet… and a good steak. People who care about coral reefs so much… they want to fly there. There’s no judgement, just acknowledgement that it’s a hard position to be in. The book addresses this cognitive dissonance with cartoons to make the subject matter easy to digest and fun to look at. Also, by making fun of literally everyone – activists and deniers alike – people won’t feel excluded.

However, the book is most definitely about system change and taking responsibility. It never shies away from the urgency of the issue. But it focuses on happiness, values, and purpose to help the reader carve out a new life that will not only be more sustainable… but also much more fun. It’s about compassionate, non-judgmental activism.

First the audience, then the product

Getting a book, any book, to sell like ours did, without a publisher, is no small feat. It doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s been three years of campaigning: social media posts, meeting other people, talking about the project at gatherings, building a newsletter fanbase, testing the concept, engaging with potential audiences. During this time, I stretched beyond my comfort zone and took up stand-up comedy, to further develop my presentation skills. Storytelling is everything.

This work made crowdfunding to cover sustainable printing costs in the summer of 2018 a smooth ride. We got 130 percent funded and the more people supported the project, the more people got interested. Harnessing herd mentality: another marketing trick. We received generous support from leading Dutch sustainable entrepreneurs, and major Dutch NGOs placed large pre-orders. As for the book itself? I drew 80 percent of it between July and November 2018. In my humble opinion, the biggest lesson for anyone doing climate change art is: don’t focus on climate facts or on your product. Focus on people and relationships.

Rise to attention

The day after the book launched, we were featured in one of the largest national newspapers in the Netherlands. We captured a lot of people’s attention. With climate change now firmly on the agenda, thanks to Greta Thunberg and Youth for Climate, media attention continues. Our book has been given to members of the City Council in Amsterdam, libraries are purchasing it, even the National Meteorological Agency of the Netherlands has ordered copies. Now that our second edition is out, we are planning for an English translation.

Our success is not only due to the quality of the book, of course. Great timing is essential and can hardly be planned. But it does make clear that in an era where the debate on climate change is often heated and filled with hatred and fear, the power of art can still make a difference.

I hope sharing this journey can help you bring your own project to life!

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Anabella Meijer works as a visual storyteller, cartoonist, and graphic recorder, which basically means she gets paid to doodle during meetings. Turning complexity into attractive visuals is her core business. Besides that, she’s been specializing in psychology and communication on climate change since early 2015. Because she hasn’t always felt empowered about system change, she has a keen intuition on how to get there. For this book project, she joined forces with co-authors Rolf Schuttenhelm (science journalist), Hille Takken (human interest journalist) and Neža Krek (career choice mentor). Tim Witte (campaign video), Ruben Stellingwerf (overall concept and design), Ditta op den Dries (editing) and Aral Voskamp (sales and logistics) further supported the project.

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