Why We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Climate Change

Dec 19, 2018 · 8 min read

The way we currently communicate climate change — be it through articles in the newspaper, conversations with friends, or billboard adverts — is fundamentally flawed.

Most discussions of climate change are framed negatively. Take the below screenshot from The Guardian’s climate change section for instance (as of 17 Dec 2018). We have climate change ruining dreams of a white Christmas, the message that the next two years will determine humanity’s fate, corrupted businesses, activists not doing enough protesting, and the end of blackcurrants. It’s no wonder most people fail to engage with the narrative around climate change: it’s simply all gloom and doom.

A similar narrative runs through adverts which aim to make consumers take action against climate change. This one, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), for instance, is pretty fatalistic: once the rain forests are gone, they’re gone. This might be factual, but it seems unlikely that the average person is going to be motivated to go and fight climate change.

For a final example, take the UK government’s ‘Act on CO2’ campaign. As part of the campaign they created a video where people leave footprints of crude oil behind them as they go about their day-to-day lives. I actually really like the message in this campaign, that everything we do has an environmental impact — but the unrelenting blame on consumers, and placing the responsibility to make change on individual people, seems a bit much coming from a government who actually have the power to affect change.

Conversely, if we look at the psychology of messaging, for instance the conclusions in the below table from a Yale Program of Climate Change Communication study, we see that to be motivated by a message, we need:

  • To understand the impact of a problem on individuals
  • To recognise that the problem will impact our local area
  • To recognise that the problem is a problem now, and not at some far-away point in the future
  • To feel some level of positivity (‘what can be gained, not what is lost’).

From what I can see, the current methods of communication around climate change just aren’t opening the dialogue in a way that the average person can relate to, and feel that they can make a positive change. Instead, we’re placing blame on one another, and creating an atmosphere of negativity that makes it very difficult to pluck up the courage to try and make a difference.

The current doom and gloom narrative of climate change

Even the language that we use to describe climate change is negative. I’ve already used the phrase ‘fight climate change’ within this blog, and this is how we tend to imagine climate change: as a battle, and we are the ‘eco-warriors’.

This language may have worked in the early days of the environmental movement, but today we aren’t trying to ‘sell’ climate change in the same way. We aren’t convincing people that climate change exists — most of us accept this (and we’ll come on to those who don’t shortly…), but don’t understand what we can do about it.

As humans we simply don’t respond to this type of wording, as demonstrated with the previous psychological study. We need to feel like we can make positive change, and if it feels like nothing can be done then it’s unlikely that we’ll feel motivated to act. So we need to turn this language on its head and sell the positive side of climate change: what we can do to ensure the continuation of our planet, to make sure that those living in vulnerable areas are safe, to maintain the biodiversity that we know and love. Instead of predicting the downfall of our planet, we create a pro-planet movement.

And don’t just trust me on my word in this. Recent research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has demonstrated that (among American citizens) worry about climate change is on the rise, and hope is decreasing. It also found that people who are hopeful are far more likely to try and convince others to make changes, and to support policies which will mitigate global warming.

And beyond research, if you look at the most successful marketing campaigns, you’ll usually find a positive narrative. Take, for instance, John Lewis’ Christmas adverts, which have become the sure-sign that the festive season is underway. Every advert tells a story of hope: the young boy who is excited about Christmas not to receive presents, but so that he can give gifts to his parents, Monty the penguin dreaming of love and finding a female penguin under his tree on Christmas day, and the boy who makes friends with Moz, the monster who lives under his bed. Nike’s iconic ‘Just do it’ slogan sends the message that anyone can get started with living a healthier life — their original 1988 video depicted an old man running over San Franciso’s golden gate bridge. The Always ‘like a girl’ campaign takes a phrase usually used negatively, and makes a positive message of teenage girls defying stereotypes and building their self-confidence.

The best way to communicate is through hope, not despair. With climate change, we need to target those already on board with the idea that climate change exists, to give them ways to help and the hope to do so.

Is ‘climate change’ even the right word to use?

For those who haven’t yet accepted the reality of climate change, our current language may not be enough to convince them. Marketing guru Seth Godin convincingly argued that if we’re trying to convince a mass audience that climate change is real, then our language needs to be more explicit. He suggests ‘atmosphere cancer’ or ‘pollution death’, because:

“Global is good. Warm is good. Even greenhouses are good places. So how can ‘global warming’ be bad?”

It’s true that ‘global warming’ is too subtle a term. Living in the UK, it’s not uncommon to hear people speaking thankfully of global warming — ‘finally, a warm summer!’ And ‘climate change’ is no better. The term was actually first suggested as a ‘less-threatening’ substitute to global warming in a NASA paper by Eric Conway, which is telling in itself. The inclusion of the word ‘change’ murkies the meaning: is it a positive change, or negative? It gives the impression that it’s still up for debate, which it isn’t: we have the scientific evidence of what climate change means for our planet and for us.

Both ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ describe symptoms or outcomes of the issue, but give little context to why the climate will change, or why the globe will warm up. Both terms make the problem seem unsubstantial, and to be a problem of the future rather than the present.

One of the issues with spreading the message of climate change is the need to make the problem relevant to individuals, something highlighted as a need in the psychological study previously mentioned. Climate change isn’t something that the average person can see happening, partly because the change is so gradual, and partly because the most vulnerable parts of the planet in terms of extreme weather events are less developed and less visible to the Western world. Lucy Siegle mentions this in her 2018 book Turning the Tide on Plastic, discussing the reason that the plastic movement has picked up so much attention this year. She suggests that plastic has the advantage of being visible on our beaches and in our streets, whereas climate change is an invisible problem, so harder to engage with.

Recent studies have backed this idea up. The Yale Program for Climate Change Communication, for instance, surveyed US citizens in different states about their opinion on the link between wildfires and global warming (scientists have asserted that the US fire season has become longer due to warmer temperatures and less precipitation). They found that in areas where wildfires take place, people are more likely to believe that global warming is increasing severity, in California (69% of public) and Colorado (66%) for instance. Where wildfires are not common, this is less likely: in Ohio just 36% of people believe wildfires are getting worse due to global warming. This suggests that people are much less likely to understand the consequences of global warming if they do not experience them personally.

Further, Professor Mina Tsay-Vogel, a Professor of Communication, conducted a study looking at videos of climate change. She found that videos focusing on global changes, such as a NASA study of CO2 in the atmosphere, were less effective than videos showing local destruction, such as the aftermath of a hurricane. Her conclusions were that ‘proximity is tied to certainty’ — the further away a climate-related event seems to be, the less certain views are that humans are the cause of it, and so they are less likely to feel responsible to do something about it.

So what can we learn? That for those who are sceptical about climate change, we need to use language which demonstrates the immediacy of climate change as an issue, and the problems that it will cause to an individual’s local area. But, we also need to give positive ways to improve the situation, and weave in that element of hope which we discussed earlier.

Conclusion: the best way to communicate climate change

Psychology tells us that the best methods of communication demonstrate positivity (gain) rather than negativity (loss), as well as being local and relevant to the individual. The current language and conversation around climate change isn’t doing this, and instead is spreading a narrative of doom, gloom, and despair. So what do we need to do? In every conversation you have about climate change, emphasise:

  1. The immediate impacts of climate change: what is happening right now as a result of global warming?
  2. The local impacts of climate change: what does it mean for your local area and home?
  3. Positivity: there are ways to turn it around and to ensure the longevity of our planet and of humanity.

Let’s make a message of protecting our planet the norm.

Tabitha Whiting

Written by

Rambling about climate change, sustainability, and communication🌱

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