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What ‘Schitt’s Creek’ can teach us about climate action

Schitt’s Creek has risen in the ranks as one of the most popular TV shows of the past decade, reaching its pinnacle at this year’s Emmy awards, where the show swept the comedy category. A significant part of the Canadian sitcom’s appeal lies in the utopian world that writer and producer Dan Levy created—a world where everyone belongs and a world where frankly, everything is better than the reality we all occupy. By reimagining how queerness is portrayed in television, Schitt’s Creek invites us to a story, a family, and a town where being gay is not accompanied with struggle and where coming out does not necessitate strife. 

The result is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s essay, Decay of Lying, and its concluding revelation that “the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art.” Put simply, we must believe we can live in a beautiful, accepting world before that world comes to fruition. In creating Schitt’s Creek, Levy put pen to paper to let the world know what society could look like with less judgment and prejudice. The way this alternative approach to society’s challenges resonated with audiences has been dubbed the “Schitt’s Creek effect.”

Communicators should take note, as the efficacy of this approach likely extends well beyond television to some of our world’s most pressing social issues.

Let’s look at climate change through the lens of the Schitt’s Creek effect.

There is virtually universal agreement in the scientific community as to the human-driven causes behind our rapidly changing climate. Climate change should not be up for debate, but too often the conversation focuses solely on the veracity of claims about the climate crisis, hitting an immediate roadblock and inhibiting our ability to further the discussion on possible solutions. 

As companies move forward with bold climate action, communicators should create social impact messaging that focuses on the opportunities and benefits of client climate initiatives. Doomsday messaging may be accurate with regards to the gravity of the problem at hand, but it holds little sway over a public wracked by empathy burnout.

Undoubtedly, more severe hurricanes and raging wildfires are very real impacts of climate change that have already disrupted and even taken lives, with climate impacts disproportionately affecting communities of color. But especially in a year that has brought so much grief, uncertainty and destruction, people do not want to hear that they must change their habits before their house burns down or is swept away by rising seas. 

We must recognize that fear tactics are not the only tool in our arsenal. 

To create a better climate future, we’ll need to bring everyone to the table. Business leaders, policymakers, and consumers—many of whom hold differing perspectives—will all play a role in our collective response to climate change. But just as Levy approached queerness in Schitt’s Creek, we’ll need to imagine and portray that ideal, collaborative climate response before it becomes our reality. 

Which unlikely allies could come together to advance meaningful climate action? What real- world benefits will Americans see from strong mitigation practices? How will our natural areas be prettier, our food healthier and our water cleaner? 

Our stories should encourage folks to get creative. Imagine taking your families to their favorite campsite along the coast or hiking through the Sierra Nevada foothills. In urban areas, envision cleaner air on your walk to work or at the neighborhood park where your children play after school. Messaging should be showing policymakers and business leaders the opportunities that will be created by a major investment in clean energy—more jobs, healthier workers and communities, more stability and greater energy independence.

We must take it upon ourselves to remind people that these benefits are directly related to the decisions that companies are making now. The holdup on climate action is not in the science; it’s in the public’s reception of climate change and what a response will require of them as individuals. A little bit of idealism will go a long way in softening the ground on a daunting issue. 

Too often, we solely approach big issues from where we are. It’s time to start working back from where we want to be. The public needs to see more of that ideal, and it’s our job as communicators to make that happen. 

Lindsay Singleton is managing director and Sammie Yeager is an account executive at ROKK Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. Singleton leads ROKK’s recently launched Social Impact Communications practice. 

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