We Need to Change the Way We Talk about Climate Change

I have the bad habit of checking my phone immediately after waking up every morning. The algorithm has my interests dialed in, and bombards me each day with the worst climate-centric headlines: 94 percent of coral reefs could erode by 2050. New Belgium’s Scorched Earth beer gives us a taste of climate change (shocker alert, it’s awful). New NOAA climate normals demonstrate our long-term weather trends are far outside the realm of normalcy.

Negative, attention-grabbing headlines are not unique to reporting on the environment. There’s a compelling logic behind these headlines, a logic that assumes people will be more likely to act when they’re confronted with a chilling truth. This reasoning is reinforced by a media ecosystem that pays for attention, however it’s gained. But while gloomy headlines grip our attention, focusing solely on the negative isn’t a good strategy if we want to change behavior. Rather than continuing to confer additional anxiety, scientists, leaders, and journalists must change how we communicate climate science if we want to inspire behavior change. Climate change is dire—but the way we talk about it doesn’t always have to be. What should we do instead?

Focus on the positive

The terms we use to describe climate change—existential threat, climate emergency, global crisis—are intended to convey a sense of urgency and spur action. However, in many cases they might be doing exactly the opposite. When people become overwhelmed, they’re more prone to fall back on old habits, disengage, and deny. Those who focus their climate-change messaging on fear and worry often fail to provide adequate directions for how to navigate the information they’re sharing. 

Rather than continuing to confer additional anxiety, scientists, leaders, and journalists must change how we communicate climate science if we want to inspire behavior change.

Rather than focus on doom and gloom or finger-pointing and shaming, we should focus on cultivating positive emotional associations among our audience to broaden and build useful skills and social bonds. Unlike negative emotions, positive feelings allow individuals to open up by inspiring creativity and openness to new and different options. We can begin by encouraging people to build climate-positive daily routines, in which individual actions limit collective contributions to emissions and environmental degradation. Now in the mornings, instead of endless doom-scrolling I start by focusing on the pro-climate actions I am going to take today. I meal plan to reduce waste, tend to my apartment garden, and often use the time to simply reflect on what areas of my life might be opportunities for improvement. I’ve found this routine has given me a much greater determination to bring about change, even if it’s just one plant-based meal at a time. How else can we leverage climate positivity for broad change?

Use context changes as a springboard

We can spark the necessary changes to decarbonize our lifestyles through disruption—not by causing it, but by leveraging times of transition. Researchers have demonstrated that significant context changes, whether they be physical, social, economic, or emotional, can be powerful motivators of new behaviors. For example, interventions aimed at increasing sustainable behaviors like public transportation usage and conserving water and energy were far more successful when targeted at people who recently moved.

We have fostered enough interest and concern for the environment over the past decade that a significant disruption to daily life—like the one we’ve experienced these past two years—could drive and support significant behavior change. Researchers and scientists can help build upon the climate-friendly behaviors people have tried out during this pandemic. Many people have replaced carbon intensive trips to distant places with exploring their local area. Gardening, baking, and other homebound activities have been slotted in for entertainment. Daily commutes are being replaced by morning walks. While the COVID disruption will eventually end, these types of behaviors can continue if properly supported and encouraged.

Help cultivate enjoyable climate behaviors

Much of the media we consume about climate tells a story of what we must lose: restricting our diets, buying less goods, or forgoing vacation and travel to name a few. But there is good reason to think that a message of abundance and pleasure would be a more effective way to encourage the adoption of new, climate-positive behaviors. Rather than focusing on all the bad things we do that impact the planet negatively, one way to channel positive behavior is by cultivating pro-climate behaviors that we like—not necessarily for their benefit to the planet (though that is a plus), but simply because we enjoy doing them.

There is good reason to think that a message of abundance and pleasure would be a more effective way to encourage the adoption of new, climate-positive behaviors.

Starting with easy, enjoyable climate behaviors can also produce a spillover effect into related activities. For example, I may gain a great amount of pleasure from gardening, so I may explore composting to enrich the soil I use to grow crops. Both of these actions have external social benefits, such as reduced carbon emissions from trips to the grocery store, more food being consumed from local sources, and a healthier ecosystem from proper stewardship. And while I’m acting in my self-interest by partaking in activities that I enjoy, my neighbors ultimately benefit, too.

Shifting narratives to focus on enjoyment, rather than curtailment, can also allow us to engage with audiences that are not necessarily environmentally conscious or performing actions for the sake of mitigating climate change. For example, I enjoy cooking and love a good challenge. Eliminating meat from my diet was a logical crossroad to connect existing behaviors to ones that can be more beneficial. I get to express my creativity through new dishes while drastically reducing my emissions impact by not buying the pack of beef at the grocery store. For others, it might be the pleasure of not having to drive to work, the delight of finding something secondhand, or the satisfaction of saving money through energy conservation behaviors. Such changes in how we approach climate communications can also help bring those who are disengaged from the topic into the fold in our journey towards carbon neutrality.

Reduce uncertainty through simplicity and feedback

Rather than attempting to intervene based solely on motivation or fear-based appeals, a better strategy is to support individuals in trying out the behavior we’re aiming for. We can do this by providing “how-to” knowledge and giving frequent feedback on performance without emphasizing rewards or punishment. Utilities often use this kind of approach to facilitate energy conservation by providing useful tips, displaying real time data on electricity usage, and comparing household consumption to neighbors and peers.

Other programs, like gardening workshops, give individuals a safe space to learn and try out the behavior with an expert nearby to provide guidance. Providing low-stakes opportunities to try out new behaviors can increase individual’s competence, build mental models, and reduce uncertainty. By creating a space where the consequence of failure is low, people can begin actively seeking out new behavioral adoptions and rapid progress can be achieved.

“Burned out people can’t save the world” . . . We must shift our messaging around climate change to a more positive approach.

Learning a new sustainable behavior can be likened to how we learned to tie our shoes. We were shown a model. We learned what happened if tied our shoes poorly (tripping, and maybe ending up with a skinned knee). If we failed the lace-looping sequence, we were hopefully given the lesson as many times as we needed. At no point do we give kids knot encyclopedias, present them with alarming statistics of injury rates associated with loose laces, or ridicule them for failing to learn the first time they are shown.  

Of course, solving climate change isn’t as easy as learning to tie our shoes, but it still helps demonstrate some of our failures as members of the scientific community. We’ve provided people with a climate encyclopedia and shame and frighten those that fail to change, despite never having given them real guidance on how to do so. The general public understands the risks of climate change, but we have not provided enough procedural knowledge of how to contribute to positive change. Telling people to eat less meat is one thing. Providing them with tasty and nutritious alternatives to replace meat in some meals is another. Simply finger-wagging about the high carbon intensity of animal agriculture and shaming those who don’t adopt a new restricted diet will likely result in avoidance or even increased consumption. Conveying climate science in this fashion simply does not work, unless your goal is to overwhelm individuals into hopelessness.

From defeatism to optimism

Even though it may be well intended, how we are communicating about climate change is contributing to our failures. I liken climate alarmism to defeatism for this very notion—negativity drives exhaustion which feeds inaction. There is no denying the severity of the effects from excess greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, however, this approach is broadly failing to drive the necessary behavior change to avoid the worst impacts. A former professor of mine always used to say, “burned out people can’t save the world.” How we’re discussing climate change is burning people out as fast as we are burning fossil fuels. To begin altering behaviors in the direction of a more sustainable future, we must shift our messaging around climate change to a more positive approach, support actions, and take away the shame of failures to promote long-lasting behavior change.