How to Communicate About Climate: In Conversation With Brad Kahn

Brad Kahn is the founder of Groundwork Strategies, a communications firm that advances solutions for challenges facing our climate, cities, and forests. We’re big fans of Brad because he’s a great communicator who is in deep on an incredibly important issue, and he’s whip-smart and refreshingly low key about it.  Until recently, he shared an office with another Minerva friend and In Conversation With subject, David Brotherton.

We sat down to talk to Brad about his career path, tips for communicating about climate change, and what each of us can do to save the planet.


Tell us about your career path. How did you get from an economics degree at Brown to a career in environmental communications?

Well, it’s a long story. After graduating from Brown, I became a ski bum and a wilderness guide – depending on the season, guiding trips for teenagers and spending weeks out in the woods. I loved this but it wasn’t sustainable long-term.

As much as I like being out in the wilds, it wasn’t ideal for maintaining relationships with people who didn’t go off-grid regularly. So, I started to think of what I wanted to do as a career and decided to pursue a graduate degree in the environmental sector.

I was accepted into Yale and got my masters in Watershed Systems Management, which focused on social ecology, policy, and economics. After I graduated, I was interested in some of the environmental work in the Pacific Northwest around salmon and looked into opportunities here in Seattle.

After talking with friends, friends of friends, and anyone who would meet with me, I got connected to Pyramid Communications through a combination of personal connections and a bit of luck. Pyramid was looking for support with a project focused on watersheds in Southern Oregon that coincided with work I had done in grad school. I started with them and ended up spending 11 years at the job.

Before I worked for Pyramid, I was never formally trained in communications; it was a lot of learning by doing. But I realized that so much of communication is logically ordering the thoughts of people and organizations, and then disseminating and continually refining those thoughts so that they resonate with the right audiences.


Why did you start Groundwork Strategies?

In 2010 I was ready to do my own thing so I could make climate change the sole focus of my career. I want to look back on my life and say I did the best I could for an issue that matters.

I didn’t see many firms positioning themselves around climate, because bigger firms want and, in some cases, need to be everything to everyone to stay in business. Sometimes the politics of climate change can keep people from owning this issue as a sole cause. But for me, climate change is the issue of our time, so I wanted to make it the core of my work.

My sweet spot is translation. Climate change is underpinned by complex science that needs to be communicated to donors, companies, and policymakers – mostly on the city and state levels. My background and skillset allow me to be that link.


What would you say to climate change deniers?

Oh boy. Well, I don’t personally engage with a lot of people who are hard-core deniers. Climate has become politicized because it requires institutional and policy changes, and it requires us to work together at a societal level; those things currently seem anathema to the right side of our political spectrum.

While the economic case is straightforward – it costs a lot less to act aggressively now – it is hard to convince people to invest today for a payoff well into the future. Delayed gratification is not something that humans do well.

I think the change around climate will be generational; we can’t only focus our limited energy and resources on changing minds of people who are 50+ years old, where I see the greatest energy is among young people who have the most at stake.

We see this with the outcry against the Green New Deal. Older conservative politicians – and even some liberals – labeled it “radical,” but the Green New Deal is only a fraction of what we need to make a dent in the issue.


Speaking of making a political dent, how do you feel about climate advocate Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential run?

How can we address an issue that we can’t even talk about? Governor Inslee will be talking about climate change everywhere and this will force other candidates to talk about it and that’s a good thing.


Is there anything to be optimistic about with climate change?

Sure – young people care a lot about climate, they’re energized and that’s exciting. 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg sparked a global movement when she skipped class to protest climate change. We need to capitalize on and support the energy of these motivated young people.

Earth Day 2020, the 50-year anniversary, will be a huge opportunity for people who care about climate issues. The origins of Earth Day are about civil rights and climate coming together and it will be during the primary season for the 2020 elections. It could be a great moment for the planet.


Is there anything an individual can do that will make a real impact to improve climate change?

Yes. For starters, eat less meat, especially beef and pork. I’ve mostly cut out beef from my diet but it’s tough because I love a good steak now and then, and I’m a fan of bacon.

Don’t fly so much – I know that one is difficult for the travel lovers out there. And those here conducting this interview…

Most important, advocate. Go talk to your friends and neighbors about it. We live in a society drenched with fossil fuels and there’s no denying that. We need to stop having moral purity tests and recognize that everyone is part of the problem and everyone needs to be a part of the solution.

Ultimately, climate change requires institutional changes and policy changes, not only individual action. And for these big changes, we need to work together.


What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I like to go skiing in the winter and fishing in the summer. What I actually do is hang out with my kids and try to convince them to go skiing and fishing with me. That works sometimes. We’re at the part of life where it’s a lot of birthday parties and cheering on the sidelines of games. This is fun too, but not quite as relaxing.

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.