How Emotions Shape the Climate Debate

Last week, MPs in the UK Parliament unanimously approved a motion to declare a climate and environment emergency. Though this does not compel the government to any specific action, it does demonstrate the will of the Commons and is, as Jeremy Corbyn said, “a huge step forward”.

Debates around climate change elicit strong emotional responses and it is interesting to consider how far these emotional drivers can lead to behavioural changes. In previous blogs, we have looked at the role sentiment plays in purchasing habits — how, by ignoring your customers’ emotional responses, you are failing to fully understand their experience of your organisation. Can feelings, therefore, help the environment?

The two principal emotions that dominate the climate change narrative are fear and hope and, arguably, neither of these emotions is universally helpful in leading to sustained and important behavioural changes. Fear works for some. David Wallace-Wells, author of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ draws parallels between the response required to effectively deal with this climate emergency and the global response to Nazism during the Second World War. The huge mobilisation required to combat the latter, he argues, would never have happened had people not been scared. Similarly, climate change, also posing an existential threat, will naturally engender fear in some which could prompt action.

However, if fear is the dominating emotional drive, many become dispirited and believe that the problem is insurmountable. Fear then unhelpfully leads to inaction. Indeed, there are many that even object to the term “emergency” levelling claims of fear-mongering and implausibility which downplays the threat and gives more airtime and column inches to semantics than to action planning.

Hope is the other principal emotional catalyst to change. However, though effective for some, an overly optimistic outlook can minimise the perception of risk which is potentially damaging when action is required immediately.

It would seem that a combination of both emotional drives is required. We need to fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation, yet feel that it is worth taking action — that there is a future worth making changes for. I’m sure many people who are invested in reversing the damage caused by climate change will keep spreading the message of positive changes as often and in as many ways as possible.

To finish on an optimistic note, we, at Square Systems, are pleased to hear that on 30th April, Bristol City Council unanimously backed a motion put forward by Green Party Councillor Carla Denyer, to make the city carbon neutral by 2030. This is 20 years earlier than previous targets and hopefully, other towns and cities will be inspired to follow suit.