Another Medium ... The Same Message: Action on Climate

Musicians Inspiring Fans to Act On Climate Change Solutions

In 2007, Live Earth held massive climate change-themed concerts in stadiums around the world. The star-studded shows, broadcast globally, were intended to leverage the power of music to raise awareness, change individual behavior, and increase public pressure for governments to enact solutions.

How did the American public respond to the programming?

Not so well, according to a 2008 study by experts at Yale University, Gallup, and ClearVision Institute. “Live Earth appears to have had no immediate impact on American public opinion as a whole,” the study concluded.

Could it be? With an effort committing untold millions on A-level talent, and with global media coverage, could Live Earth have fallen so short?

With many mainstream news organizations in disarray, musical acts and events are joining with visual artists, sustainability experts, and others in developing greening strategies to educate fans on solutions even as they strive to reduce their own environmental footprints. The fate of Live Earth may offer them a powerful lesson: motivating fans to become a part of climate change solutions takes more than a concert with a cause.

The Times … and the Climate … are a-Changin’

The rising numbers of musicians and event producers who are moving decisively to help fill the science information void resulting from newsroom disruptions couldn’t come at a more critical time. Climate legislation on Capitol Hill is mired in delay, compromise, and needless controversy, leaving some pointing fingers at real and perceived news media shortcomings as responsible for inadequately educating the public on the urgency of the need for solutions. This even as polar ice melt accelerates at eyebrow-raising rates, economic growth remains a hostage of Oil Addiction as Peak Oil looms, and large swaths of the America public remain dangerously clueless about the potentials of – and critical need for – wise investments to jumpstart a new, clean tech-powered economy.

Those old enough will recall well the galvanizing impact of songsters and poets Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Woody Guthrie, and others from the 1960s. Back in the Woodstock Era, artists from Joni Mitchell to Marvin Gaye composed lyrics that are still as relevant now as they were then, such as these from Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”:

Together we’ll stand, divided we’ll fall
Come on now people let’s get on the ball

Can today’s music community again take up its historic mantle as a change maker?


Musicians: What They’re Doing Messaging Tips For Promoters

For proponents of action, the lyrics of Samantha Stollenwerck’s “Oblivious” may better reflect the challenges that the music community faces in motivating fans to get involved in climate change solutions.

Consider, for example, the results of a recent study finding that 39 percent of Americans cannot accurately name a fossil fuel, nor 51 percent a source of renewable energy. Climate change doubters, in particular, appeared particularly misinformed: 63 percent said drilling offshore and in Alaska would eliminate the need to import oil. That is, of course, a far cry from the estimate of the U.S. Department of Energy that such drilling would constitute about 0.2 percent of world production in 20 years – too small to have a significant effect on oil prices.

The study’s authors concluded that many Americans simply lack the basic knowledge about energy needed to competently influence policy decisions. Their conclusion may not come as much of a surprise to those concerned, given that some of the country’s most pervasive news organizations have inadequately informed the public on energy issues.

Enter into this climate and environmental communications morass increasing elements of the music community, striving to inspire fans to get involved in climate change “solutions.”

But are musicians making a difference? Who are some key players? How are they succeeding? What obstacles are they encountering? And what can they do better?

Rothbury Festival Website

Rothbury Festival’s ‘Think Tank’ and Greening

Seeing these challenges, Rothbury Festival co-founder Jeremy Stein dreamed up the “Think Tank.” “We’re in a phase where education is most important with the whole greening issue,” Stein said in a July 2009 interview. At the Think Tank, “you can hear some of the most advanced minds in the world talk about where they’re at with this subject … Our speakers … they’re the real doers. I think that resonates a lot, especially with the younger crowd … They want to hear what the real guys are doing.”

Of course, pioneering a “Think Tank” at a music festival – where mostly young audiences come precisely to NOT think – is no easy task. The inaugural 2008 Rothbury event, focused on “Finding Energy Independence,” included three panels per day, showcasing such sustainability experts as National Academy of Sciences member and Stanford climatologist Stephen H. Schneider, natural capitalist Hunter Lovins, activist Winona LaDuke, educator and climate activist Eban Goodstein, and others (see disclaimer below).

Joined by musicians from performing groups and Rothbury attractions such as Widespread Panic, Spearhead, The Crystal Method, The String Cheese Incident, Citizen Cope, and STS9, panel discussions about climate change solutions, energy independence, and how to motivate change covered a wide range of issues for audiences consisting primarily of “20 somethings.”

Rothbury Think Tank Website
Rothbury’s Think Tank

In the July 2009 second Rothbury Festival and its related “Think Tank” – themed “Joining the New Green Economy” – planners had to deal with significant budget cuts resulting from the difficult economic climate and with festival management’s reluctance to spend money on a program whose impact on ticket sales is, to say the least, hard to measure.

After the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) stepped in as a sponsor and saved the Think Tank from possible cancellation, organizers developed a more diverse program designed to reach more fans. They cut panels to two per day – each featuring musical participation, including by members of The String Cheese Incident, Guster, STS9, Railroad Earth, Toubab Krewe, Four Finger Five, and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. They added components such as interactive skills workshops in green jobs; home energy savings; organic gardening; and what turned out to be a very popular green fashion show.

To reach beyond panels and workshops, Think Tank speakers made daily calls to action from two of the festival’s big stages. Joined by HeadCount, the Think Tank held a “Vote With Your Actions” photo contest – rewarding winning fans with VIP treatment for submitting photos of themselves engaged in green actions, hundreds of which were showcased on FaceBook. To reach fans during musicians’ evening programming, the Think Tank joined forces with Our Future Now to produce inspirational video messages. The 2009 program filmed each panel, and plans are in the works to encourage festival attendees and fans to view and share clips of Think Tank speakers year-round.

Involving more of the Rothbury Festival’s most popular headliners – such as the Dave Matthews Band in 2008 and Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and The Dead in 2009 – remains a challenge. This is an unfortunate obstacle to reaching more fans, as Think Tank panels featuring the biggest-name musicians have consistently been the best attended.

Singer-Songwriter Jack Johnson
Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson – letting his lyrics make his case

In many cases, the challenge with such headliners is that their busy touring schedules have them in and out of the Rothbury Festival grounds too quickly to participate. In other cases, an artist comfortable singing or playing into a mic just isn’t big on speaking.

That’s not an uncommon barrier after all. Friends of singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, for example, say he does not feel comfortable preaching, but rather likes to set the example by letting his very impressive green actions and lyrics speak for themselves.

Rothbury Festival organizers say they expect to unveil new program components in 2010 to further tailor the Think Tank to its western Michigan festival setting.

The Path Forward – Partnerships with Experts

They say that even the worst of enemies can dance to the same song. In that context, the music community can be an especially appropriate vehicle for informing the public and inspiring support for bold climate solutions.

Currently, however, many in the music community aren’t actively talking to their fans about climate change. Rather, they are focusing their efforts on greening tours and events to reduce their own environmental and carbon footprints. And in that respect, events from Rothbury to Bonnaroo are making important progress, some quite creatively so. Even for those who are working to educate fans, however, most lack the time and resources needed to measure whether their messaging is motivating action, a key for assuring their time and resources pay off and make a difference.

If they are to achieve their promising potential of having a game-changing measurable impact on advancing climate change solutions, musicians and promoters should aim to pioneer new and innovative partnerships with respected science and policy experts, and also with funders, the latter always a challenge.

There are many promising matches to be made, as partnerships with musicians and major events can offer corporate sponsors valuable branding and public relations benefits. Additionally, these partnerships can provide grant makers with innovative ways to support initiatives that help them achieve their program goals.

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Jon Gelbard, was the director of the Rothbury Festival “Think Tanks,” and the editor of The Yale Forum was among the official participants both in 2008 and 2009.


Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Conservation Value Institute in El Cerrito, CA., which works through its Entertainment Industry Partnerships program to leverage music to inspire fans to act on climate change and sustainability. He produced and directed the Rothbury Think Tank and served as sustainability producer for Green Apple Festival from 2007 – 2009. Jon blogs at Conservation Value Notes.

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