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How to talk about climate change?
Between hope and fear

How to talk about climate change? In August this year, the IPCC released its latest climate report focusing on the physical science basis of climate change. It warns that without immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C as set out in the Paris Agreement. And even staying below 2°C might become difficult.

This didn’t come as a surprise to me. Like most people who work in the environmental field, I am aware of the climate emergency.

So, when I read the newspaper headlines the next day I was disappointed to see so much doom and gloom and so little on the solutions.

Shouldn’t we talk about solutions to climate change rather than adding fuel to the fire (pun intended)?

I started looking into it and tried to understand why climate change news so often chooses doom and gloom over a more hopeful vision of the future.

Why the doom and gloom?

The most obvious reason is of course clickbait. From a communications point of view, clickbait is of course a terrible reason. Fortunately, clickbait is not the only reason.

After the release of the IPCC report, many (online) newspapers quoted UN Secretary-General António Guterres who said that the “IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’”.[1]

It’s a powerful quote showing that the climate situation is serious and a wake-up call for those who are not aware of the climate emergency.

It creates a feeling of urgency – We have no time to waste. However, it also creates fear.

I am an advocate of solution-oriented communication. Using fear to communicate an environmental problem seems counterproductive to me. But sometimes, a bit of fear might be needed. Talking about solutions to climate change doesn’t make sense if people are not aware of the problem and fear can help to create such awareness. [2][3] 

Yet fear should be used with caution. If the tone is too negative people may get so afraid that they distance themselves and ignore an issue completely. For many people thinking about climate change causes so much stress that they give up and try to think about something more rewarding instead. [2][3] Telling those people about “code red for humanity” will most likely only reinforce their behavior of avoiding the problem.

We need solutions to talk about climate change

The aim of climate change communication should be to inform and make people take action. But climate change is complex and can be overwhelming.

Negative news without solutions makes people desperate. Even if they don’t decide to ignore the problem, they don’t know what they can do about it.

So while fear might help to increase awareness, it should always come with solutions. Focusing on solutions and positive framing can be a lot more effective than emphasizing the problem. [2]

That’s why talking about solutions to climate change is so important. It creates hope and telling people how they can get involved empowers and gives them agency.

So how to do it?

The aim of good climate change communication should be to create awareness and make people take action. It’s important to find the right balance between hope and fear.

Climate change is serious and we have to talk about it without sugarcoating or downplaying. People need to understand how serious it is.

But people also have to learn about solutions and about concrete things they can do to fight climate change. Bland taglines such as “But there is hope” or “There still is time to act” are not enough, as they are too vague and don’t say much. [2] 

Instead, it’s important to be precise and tell people exactly what they can do. How can they change their behavior, or what projects and initiatives can they support? [3] It’s important that people feel empowered and don’t see themselves as weak bystanders.

A different frame – Changing the narrative

To many people, however, behavioral change feels like something they have to do and not something they want to do. To change this perception a different framing can help. When we talk about climate change we need to tell compelling stories of hope and opportunity that inspire and motivate people to act.

Climate change is serious and for many people, it’s an existential threat. This is a truth we can’t deny and changing the narrative of climate change won’t change it. However, what changing the narrative of climate change can do is spark action.

Change often seems scary. But change can be a good thing coming with new and exciting opportunities. The changing climate is maybe not a good thing. But the things we can do to halt climate change and adapt can be.

A positive angle to climate change action

Let’s try using a different frame to talk about climate change and tell the same stories from a more positive angle.

To halt climate change we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and step over from fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. It’s a challenge but we can do it and stepping over to clean energy doesn’t only counteract climate change but also reduces pollution and hence improves human and environmental health.

Another example is reducing consumption. Overconsumption causes a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. But reducing our consumption, at first sight, seems like reducing our quality of life. The opposite is the case though. Many people who have reduced their consumption feel happier. [4] By focusing for instance on experiences rather than things, our lives may become more meaningful, while also contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

There are a lot more of these examples:

Reducing cars in cities reduces pollution while creating more space for the people, which allows social interactions and improves mental health.

Preserving and rewilding nature helps to sequestrate CO2, contributes to healthy and resilient ecosystems, and results in recreational areas. All of this benefits human wellbeing.

So a lot of the things we have to do to mitigate and adapt to climate change are things that benefit human wellbeing on many other levels too. Especially wealthy nations and people have the power to change things for the better.

So what is our excuse not to do so?


[1] McGrath (2021). “Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’”. BBC News. Accessed 03. November 2021

[2] 1. Chen (2021). “What Gets People to Act: Doom and Gloom or Rainbows and Sunshine?”. Sustainable Brands. Accessed 03. November 2021

[3] 2. Borgstrom (2019). “Cutting through the doom and gloom – how psychology can be used to promote climate action”. Envirobites. Accessed 03. November 2021

[4] Mark (2020). “How to be happier by consuming less”. CBC Life. Accessed 03. November 2021.