Talking about climate change: walking the line between hope and despair

Photo: Charles Roffey

So how does the UN talk when it talks about climate change? A quick survey of our Twitter feeds gives us not one, but two big recent messages:

“UN warns of ‘Climate Catastrophe’.”

And:

“Climate solutions already exist. Together we can limit global warming to 1.5˚C, says UN.”

Both are true. But each takes a very different line. One way highlights the environmental devastation and threat to human life: rising seas and crazy storms are wiping out coasts and islands, while drought destroys cropland, kindles forest fires and drives people from their homes. Human action has wiped out on average 60 percent of all wildlife everywhere. People are sick and dying from water, air and soil pollution.

Climate change is contributing to devastating rainy seasons in Malawi. In January 2015 torrential rains caused dozens of deaths; floods displaced 174,000 in the Southern districts of Chikwawa, Nsanje and Phalombe, while infrastructure such as bridges and roads were destroyed. Photo: UNDP/George Ntonya

The other approach spotlights solutions and possibilities. Technological and industrial innovations, such as cheap renewable energy, are coming faster and faster. Local, city and national governments are committing to cut carbon, ban pollutants, protect species and replant forests. People are rising up in popular protests to pressure policymakers and companies to change direction.

Solar panels create cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, reliable sources of energy, at the Shabasonje Health Centre, Shibuyunji District Zambia. Photo: UNDP/Karin Schermbrucker for Slingshot

Both of these stories are true, and we tell them for the same reason: to spur action. The first approach is to make sure everyone is sufficiently alarmed, and knows how desperate and urgent the crisis is — so that they act. The second approach is to give people a sense of hope so that they know what actions to take that will have a strong impact — so that they act.

Forest fire aftermath in Georgia. Photo: UNDP Georgia; A tree planting creates hope in Georgia. Photo: UNDP Georgia/Vladimir Valishvili

Both communications approaches have dangers.

Reports of alarming devastation can lead people to feel that things are hopeless, which can paralyze them into inaction. We know that consistently communicating negative stories has this effect. This point was confirmed in a recent study organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which showed that audiences exposed to too many stories of people suffering stop paying attention. People feel: if things are always bad, then they always will be, no matter what I do. That why Al Gore’s grim warning about the looming threat of climate change — An Inconvenient Truth — ended with a flood of messages about what we as individuals could do.

That’s a reason to tell hopeful stories. Some media outlets have tried to make this into a business, such as the European-wide publication World’s Best News, which reports on things getting better. Or The New York Times, which currently offers its readers a “Week in Good News” newsletter, with the tag line “Get your happiness here”. This is UNDP’s predominant communications tone in our work on climate, to show successes that inspire, encourage and inform.

A happy story is of the once thought extinct Jamaican iguana, which is critical to maintaining the biodiversity of Jamaica’s dry forests. The reptile is making a comeback with the help of the Hope Zoo Iguana Head Start Project, supported by UNDP. Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: UNDP Jamaica/Dominic Davis.

Of course, the danger about too much good news is that people might think things are going to be fine after all. No need to panic! No need to do anything, it’s being taken care of.

And, finally, another danger, if you want to spur people to action, is that you have to remind people that there are powerful obstacles to change — which are more ‘bad news’ stories than good news. Deep vested interests are resisting climate action: those are the economies, businesses and political systems dependent on fossil fuels, polluting industries, or biodiversity destruction. Telling the story well means people are speaking truth to power. And, as the great American anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass said,

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

So which direction should we at the UNDP take? We represent the UN’s largest implementer of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. UNDP is the main advisor to many governments on their emissions reduction plans. How we talk about climate change and about our work on climate change is worth us thinking about deeply and strategically.

UNDP definitely has good news to talk about. Like progress in preserving more of Madagascar’s unique plants and animals and Paraguayan farmers using less water and protecting farmland so that more forests won’t be cut down. These successful and inspiring projects should be celebrated. As we noted, our top communications priority is to show those successes. But, sadly, they are not representative of what is happening to our planet at a global scale.

Edoard Schaffrath is a farmer in Naranjal, Paraguay who uses less water and protects farmland so that more forests won’t be cut down. Photo: UNDP Paraguay/Santi Carneri

Can we mesh the stories of success with the broader narrative of existential threat? Can we tell both stories at the same time?

We’ve tried that approach in our recent reporting partnership with National Geographic. You can see it in the first story from the partnership, on geothermal energy in Kenya. It tells how Kenya is investing in clean energy; but the initial investment is expensive and other investments are still going into the most polluting energy such as coal and oil.

This communications approach asks a lot of us. In general, people who have worked on a successful specific climate change-related project are going to want to talk about the local success; we want to see them also putting those successes in to a global context of daunting challenges. And our experts who document the overall threats of climate destruction and the difficult policy and practical changes needed to stop them, can give up a little of their air-time to highlight the progress that is being made, even if it is limited. It’s not quite a balance; overall, our approach skews positive.

In other words, it’s just as National Geographic tells the story: there are challenges and dangers, but there’s progress, a lot of progress. So, let’s get to work.

Steam rises from the Olkaria II Geothermal Power Station in Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya. In our recent reporting partnership with National Geographic on geothermal energy in Kenya, the story tells how Kenya is investing in clean energy; but the initial investment is expensive and other investments are still going into the most polluting energy such as coal and oil. Photo: Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic

By Mila Rosenthal, UNDP Director of Communications, and Jo Scheuer, UNDP Director of Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction.

Read more about the cascading effects of climate change.