Climate change and the problem of nihilism: towards a language of climate resilience

The biggest threat to meaningful global action on climate change is a collective shift towards a nihilistic stance from people who have previously shown concern and a willingness to act.

A recent issue of Radiolab called ‘In the dust of this planet’ touches on this issue, and suggests that there is already a notable gloom in the global mood which can be attributed to the fact that “we are in the middle of an uncomfortable shift when it comes to the way we talk about climate change”.

The noticeable change in language that was been used in the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been remarked upon by many commentators, with some suggesting that the shift in focus from ‘prevention’ to ‘adaptation’ reflects a larger, global, mood shift from cautious optimism to hopeless inevitability. One of the report’s authors, Dr David Victor, agrees:

“The report says that if you put into place all these technologies and international agreements we could still stop warming at two degrees. My own assessment is that the kind of actions you’d need to do this are so heroic that we’re not going to see them on this planet.”

Those of us who communicate on the topic of climate change need to take these insights on board and adapt to a new way of framing our communications about climate instability. If we fail to take heed we run the risk of losing the engagement those who have previously been our most active supporters.

With this in mind, I’ve put together some key points that have been useful to me in reframing the way that I communicate about climate change.

1. Stop wasting time on the wrong people

There is no longer any point in attempting to influence climate change skeptics (and agnostics). The people who have actually been travelling with us to this point now need our attention the most. Don’t bother with debates over the validity of climate change science — it’s just a distraction. When you’re under attack in the social media sphere simply ignore the deniers or, if you have a robust community, trust your supporters to engage on your behalf. Better still, keep a pile of IPCC reports next to your desk and just chuck a volume at anyone who uses the phrase that ‘the jury is still out’ and then just keep doing whatever it is you were doing.

2. Stop being so damned defensive

For those of us who have worked in the sector for a while we’re conditioned to being defensive. Yes, when we first started out there may have been a little cloud of doubt over the validity of our claims. As a result, many of us got into the habit of writing a little defensively about climate — using phrases like ‘possible’ and ‘potential’ and ‘worst case scenario’. Things are different now and the sharpness of the language from the IPCC signals that it’s time to stop this defensive dialogue. Pay attention to whether you’re writing defensively about climate issues and, if you are, correct it immediately. Climate change is no longer a nebulous ‘future threat.’ It’s a fact.

3. New problems require a new paradigm

Communicators in the not-for-profit sector are often indoctrinated into using a [problem / solution (+ urgency)] structure when attempting to elicit support . This approach is proven to be very effective in garnering support for ‘causes’ and is characterised by the use of emotive language such as the ‘terrible plight’ of refugees or the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of logging old growth forest. This approach only works when you have a genuine problem and solution scenario. If a child is starving to death, the solution is clearly to do what you can give her food, and to do it right now!

The issue that climate change communicators are faced with is that we have a big problem, a whole lot of urgency but no solution and everybody worth talking to already knows that. By emphasising the enormity or seriousness of ‘dangerous climate change’ we will only overwhelm people and fast-track their journey to nihilism.

Just last week at the third United Nations Conference on Small Island Developing States, I watched a brilliant presentation from Ms Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) talking specifically to Leaders of small island developing states about the inefficiency of focusing on climate change as a problem.

“Stop lamenting the fact that you are the lowest emitters in the world yet you stand to suffer the most. it’s just a fact. Let’s start talking about opportunities.”

On that note, let’s take her advice and do exactly that.

4. Start talking about opportunities

Ms Figueres’ comments on this subject echoed a message given by Strategic Communications Consultant, Ms Anat Shenker-Osorio, at the Progress conference in Melbourne in December last year. When asked about how best to frame messages on climate change Shenker-Osorio was specific and emphatic:

“Stop freaking people out! Urgency is fine but if you generate a sense of crisis you’ll scare people away. People need to be reassured on climate change. Stop saying ‘oh man, we’re all screwed’ and start saying ‘hey guys, we can do this!’”

5. Start using the language of resilience

I’m not an educator but I’ve got a couple of school-aged kids and a few years ago I observed a distinct shift in tactics used by Australian schools on the issue of bullying. Instead of talking to children about how bullying is really bad and bullying has to stop, they shifted to teaching them about the importance of personal resilience. And they used exactly those words. Why? Because building resilience in young children (and teaching them the language to describe it) reduces the severity of negative impacts that bullying may have. This, in my opinion, is exactly what we need to do when we’re communicating on the topic of climate change.

Our message should not be about what climate change looks like but what climate resilience looks like. This message is optimistic and brilliantly scalable — applicable on an individual, family, community, national and international level.

6. Out with the old and in with the new

Reframing the dialogue from ‘scary and depressing climate change’ to ‘optimistic and hopeful climate resilience’ is surprisingly easy and enjoyable. And it puts you in a great mood — ready to face the future! Here are some suggestions:

Climate change > Climate resilience
Doom and gloom > Opportunity and hope
Hopelessness > Potential
Unfairness > Opportunity
Danger > Resilience
Disaster > Disaster risk reduction
Carbon emissions > Sustainable energy
Predictions > Reality/Fact
Dependence > Sustainability
Finger pointing > We’re all in this together

So what does climate resilience look like?

Climate resilience looks like renewable energy, sustainability — any activities that de-link economic development, and indeed the economy, from carbon dependence.

It looks like disaster risk reduction and strengthened meteorological services — activities that build our capacity to withstand an unstable climate.

Climate resilience looks like marine protected areas. It looks like rain tanks. Like planting mangroves. Riding a bike to work instead of driving. Drought-resistant crops and flood-resistant housing. Using abundant and/or invasive plant species to make biofuel.

The language of climate resilience is optimistic and empowering. And in the words of Anat Shenker-Osorio, Instead of saying “Oh man, we’re screwed!” the language of climate resilience is a rallying cry of “Hey guys, we can do this!”


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