Now that climate change has finally registered on the mass-media radar—thanks, in part, to the Trump administration’s showy efforts to prove just how much it doesn’t care about rising temperatures—it seems no one quite knows how to talk about it. Can fear be used as a motivator to prompt action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? What about appealing to people’s values? Is it counterproductive to make rational appeals based on the best evidence? What about apocalyptic scenarios? Will doomsday spur us recalcitrant humans into action? Maybe we just need an onslaught of hopeful stories about what ordinary people are doing to stem the tide.
These debates, which have roiled climate change activist and academic circles for years, reached a fever pitch last week, when New York magazine published its provocative cover story, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” It’s safe to say that the massive response—from climate scientists to researchers to this magazine—signals a new moment for climate communicators. It’s now easier to have an open conversation about the unthinkable implications of global warming. The blockbuster piece, alongside the rising tide of ‘cli-fi,’ is one more chip off the “climate fear taboo.”
Climate communicators suddenly have a new opportunity to shift the narrative about how we are supposed to be talking about climate change, and how it’s supposed to sound.
Environmental communications come with a quandary of emotional landscape. For too long, there’s been a preoccupation with a “hope and despair” or “doom and gloom” binary. Climate change is the ultimate communications challenge: How do you motivate action in the face of what can appear to be an overwhelming situation? How do you inform without scaring people into inaction? What’s the magic formula? Some fear, with a dash of hope? Go all in on talking about solutions? Lay it all out there—the good, the bad, the ugly—and trust people can cope with it?
As I’ve come to see after decades of working with environmental organizations and writing a book about the psychology of environmental news, it’s a lot more complicated. Actually, what you need is a little bit of All of the Above.
The preoccupation with how exactly to talk about global warming can lead to the environmental movement getting stalled out between two poles: Good news! Bad news! Corals are dying! Wind energy is accelerating! The temperatures are rising! Pet a turtle, watch a nature documentary, feel awe. On it goes.
But humans aren’t binary. Ricochet too much and you end up going in circles, a victim of emotional whiplash.
The way out of this endless cycle of hope-versus-fear is to blow up the dichotomy altogether.
If I’ve learned anything from my research in social psychology, it’s this: A more nuanced—that is to say, a more authentic and more human—mode of communication can actually enhance people’s capacities for response. It’s not about hope or despair or solutions versus warnings. It’s about openly acknowledging that climate change is a classic both-and situation. Yes, things are very bad, and yes, things are likely to get worse; and yes, many people are working on mind-blowing innovative solutions; and yes, humans have tremendous capacities; and yes, it’s also really hard and frustrating; and yes, you yourself as a citizen and an individual have a vital role to play in this unfolding mess. And yes, you may feel pretty bummed out at times. If climate change feels hopeless, that’s a natural feeling to have. All the more reason to come join us. You matter.
The surprising thing about such a both-and approach is that it helps us move through the harder stuff much faster and more readily than if we deny or keep at bay the scarier feelings that can come up. The task of telling the climate change story actually becomes easier, not harder.
I think of this as “The Golden Trine” of behavior change. Imagine a triangle. At the lower-left corner is the need to raise awareness, inform, and educate. On the right-lower corner is the need to take action. Then up at the top is where we process, engage, make sense of the situation.
IMAGE COURTESY OF RENEE LERTZMAN
Many people get stuck up at the top. This is largely because of the conflicts climate change can evoke between our attachments to everyday life and our desire to be part of the solution. Climate change can overwhelm and paralyze, leading to what psychologists call avoidance or disavowal. Disavowal is when we know what’s happening but choose “not to know.” This is because usually we are either presenting only feel-good stories or dire facts.
When we speak to the full spectrum, the yes-and, we have a much better chance at keeping people from stalling out at the top of the triangle. We can help one another handle the fears and anxieties while remaining active, alive and creative. It may sound strange, but when climate communicators speak to ambiguity, paradox, contradictions, and uncertainties openly, we are building cultural resilience to navigate the climate crisis.
Much of “The Golden Trine” is grounded in the neuroscience of learning and processing information. Researchers including Antonio Damasio and V.S. Ramachandran have spent their careers studying how humans learn and process complex and difficult information. The findings are clear: When we have visceral experiences of anxiety, fear, or shame, our bodies tell us this is not good for us. Depending on the context—if we are alone, what else is happening in our lives—information that generates fear responses can impair cognitive capacity. Fear and anxiety can have a repressive effect on our pre-frontal cortex. Simply put, fear makes it hard to think straight.
Does this mean that climate communicators need to only tell happy, positive stories? No. Does it mean that we have to avoid any and all apocalyptic narratives? Not exactly. Grim predictions—the storms and famines likely to come—and on-the-ground facts—the mega-storms and famines happening now—can deepen the climate change conversation. Fear also offers an opportunity to empathize: Are you scared? Me, too. Let’s hang and strategize.
Making all these connections is messy business. It requires a high level of emotional intelligence. It requires resisting the temptation to convince yourself and everyone else that people either only respond to good news or to bad news. It’s about finding that middle path—one that welcomes fear but doesn’t dwell there. The truth is, no one really knows the magic formula for motivating people.
But there are a few things we do know. Humans are motivated by love, belonging, meaning, and mattering. People love good stories—even ones (or especially one) that have shame, fear, guilt, and anxiety. To understand such stories, one has to have a conscience and care about the world.
There’s no need to sugarcoat the situation we’re in; let’s put a rest to that argument. What we need is heaps of fierce compassion and bravery.
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