Communicating the climate crisis

Communicating the climate crisis is a critical part of moving policy solutions forward and gaining the collective buy-in necessary for creating a future that is not dependent on the heat trapping gases that have resulted in this crisis. However, this is where many of us in the advocacy, policy, and education space continue to struggle. For a long time, climate communication has been highly scientific, and has focused on an informational deficit approach that assumed relying on logic and facts-sharing was enough to move people towards action. But we know that reason is not necessarily what drives human behavior. 

At first glance, communicating the climate crisis is about educating and informing people about the systems and behaviors that have led to the ecological and climatic issues we face today and in the future. However, climate change communication is shaped by our different experiences, mental and cultural models, and underlying values and world views. 

Bringing CXC’s research and advocacy to the public in an engaging, accessible, and evocative way is critical to the success of our mission. We study everything from the psychological understanding of how we receive data and information, to what inspires and moves people to action, and how to best work with different stakeholders to craft a message that resonates with people.

This webinar first delves into the historic and still present challenges we face when communicating the climate crisis, and then presents some lessons on how to change our communications approach to be more effective. One of the tools that is often emphasized is the power of storytelling — how to spread a climate message through stories, which are much more easily digested by people, and can lead to widespread awareness and action. 

To delve deeper into this important tool, we spoke with Josthna Harris, Community Engagement Manager at Climate Generation. She shared some impactful stories and walked us through ways in which we can all begin to think about climate impacts in our own lives in order to craft our personal climate stories.

Climate Communications: challenges and best practices

Communicators often assume that a lack of information and understanding explains a lack of public concern and engagement, and that more information and explanation is needed to move people to action. This assumption has been widely studied, and is known as the knowledge or information deficit model. We fall into the trap of believing that simply communicating science is enough to move people to act. In communicating the immensity of climate change and the need for action, we have gotten too lost in the data, the fear, and the need to tell people how bad things are.

Some of the most prevalent challenges are:

1. Spatial and Temporal Dissonance

There is a temporal and spatial dissonance when it comes to how we talk about climate change and therefore, how people think about the threat. We tend to think that climate change is a thing of the future, that it won’t happen now, but even if we do think it will happen now, we don’t think it will happen to us, and even if it does happen to us, our brains rationalize that it won’t possibly be that bad. Even if we know better, we still refuse to truly internalize the facts, and let it alter our behavior. It hasn’t really helped that we have largely focused on sharing images and stories from very far away. 

2. Language barriers

Another challenge when it comes to language in communicating climate change comes from communicating scientific findings with the public. Language is incredibly imprecise, and is something we usually do not tend to think too much about. Susan Joy Hassol from Climate Communication has made a career out of studying how to — and how not to — use language to most effectively communicate climate science specifically to a broad audience. 

3. Logical fallacies and a dichotomized perception of climate action

We’ve run into an issue of framing. We have bought into this dichotomized idea that climate action is about tough choices. For example, the discourse around reducing carbon emissions has been framed in a way that sacrifices economic growth. We also have failed to integrate solutions in an accessible way to both policymakers and the public alike. This resulted in a dissonance between the larger problem and the tangible actions people can take to address them.

Lessons to carry forward 

The good news is that there is a lot that we know about how we receive information and react to risk

1. Provide a vision for the future and reiterate that we are well on our way to get there

 There is a lot of fear, despair, and disillusionment in the climate change conversation, but hopelessness has never moved anyone to action. Hope on the other hand, is a powerful emotion, one that has the potential to transform fear into something productive, and one that can give us back agency and a plan of action to deal with this. 

We are well on our way to creating a more sustainable future and making that a part of our message is incredibly important. People are more likely to engage with an issue and work towards it if they believe they are not starting from scratch, but have a head start. And we do have an incredible head start in terms of technology development and deployment. Even in terms of legislation, we have some groundwork to build from.

2. Connect the dots on the things people already care about

Climate change is not an isolated issue, and not an issue we need to tackle onto itself, but rather it is something that affects our everyday lives. The most important thing is to recognize that solving climate change can and should help us address so many other issues that have, by history and design, left some of us worse off. So when we think about transportation, housing, urban planning, and access to clean air and water, there is a big element of social, racial, and gender inequity. If we get to rethink these systems to make them resilient to climate change, we can also rethink them in a way that is equitable. 

We therefore need to be making very emphatic connections in the way we talk about how the climate crisis is inextricable from almost every issue of social injustice in the United States, and globally. This also presents an opportunity to work with people who are doing work in all these other fields, because when we take a step back, we can understand that really, the challenges we currently face are very much interconnected, and need interconnected and collaborative solutions. 

3. Speak for the data through storytelling

Climate change, and how we address it, is fundamentally a human question — one that challenges the way we live, eat, move, and organize. It cannot just be thought of as a scientific or technological challenge or issue because it is deeply rooted in our human and social systems. Therefore, the story of climate change needs to be re-told as such — a human story, with all its nuances and complexities. It all starts with how we incorporate stories into the narrative because stories are sticky and are much more easily absorbed by people.

Stories about climate change are going to come from conversations we have with friends, family, and colleagues — we need to all become multipliers of this message. And in order to do so, we need to think deeply about this issue and understand how it will affect us. So we need to think critically about what kind of story we are telling. Are we telling a story of despair and so-called inevitability? Are we telling a story about negative emissions, feedback loops, tipping points, or other things most people don’t understand at all? Or are we telling a story of hope, possibility, and human agency? More importantly, are we making it clear when we talk about this that there are choices that we can make, which will determine what kind of future we are going to have.

Climate Generation Storytelling

Finding ways to communicate climate change to a broader audience can be difficult, and climate stories address this by finding a narrative to impact public opinion. Storytelling puts the scientific truth about climate change into context, and makes the issue more approachable for people who may not understand how climate change affects individuals. 

Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy is a non-profit that empowers individuals and their communities to engage in solutions to climate change by offering them a platform to tell their climate stories. Community Engagement Manager Josthna Harris shared with us the best methods for individuals to understand and share their own story. 

“Stories are how we, as people, make sense of the world around us. They help us remember things, and they’re really how we think,” Harris said. When people emotionally connect to stories about climate change, this really resonates with others and can become a much more compelling call to action. 

Discover climate stories

Making Connections

We are all connected to climate change. The impacts of it are all around us — the past decade featured many of the hottest years on record, extreme weather events, draught, wildfires, and a long list of other negative impacts. 

Being able to make the connection between climate change and other issues, such as public health crises, agricultural hardships, business failures, or really any issue, is so essential when you are communicating the climate crisis. Individuals who work in those industries may not feel personally connected to climate change, even if they are. 

“We are all eyewitnesses to climate change,” said Harris, “and we all have stories we can tell.” 

How can you tell your own climate story? 

Identifying what your climate story is can be difficult. It is easy to feel like what you have to say isn’t important, especially when climate change affects some groups or communities far more severely than others. But climate change is something that truly does impact everyone and everything, and your story can still be impactful and resonate with others no matter what your experiences are. 

“We all have connections to climate change that are very personal,” Harris said, “and when we allow ourselves to reflect back on our own experiences, we each have really unique stories to tell that have shaped the person that you are.”

There are a number of different prompts that can be very useful to find the best climate story that will be able to impact others. 

The first: “Tell a story about an experience that helped shape the person you are today.” Any effective climate story is about the person just as much as it is about climate change, and starting with your own experiences is the best way to find something that matters to you. 

Building upon that first prompt, another question you can ask yourself when forming your own climate story: “What is your experience of climate change?” or, “How have you been thinking about climate change lately?” Understanding your own thoughts in relation to the issues at hand can help your story leave an impression.

Another prompt to consider:  “Tell a story about a time you felt resilient.” 

It’s important to remember that your climate story does not have to be optimistic. Stories are often thought of as having a clean beginning, middle, and end, but part of why the climate crisis is so complicated is that it is not that neat. We are living through climate change, and it makes sense that your climate story might be messy or confusing. 

This doesn’t mean that your climate story should be pessimistic. Human beings are resilient, and there is so much hope for the future. Thinking about a time that you’ve felt resilient, in relation to climate change or not, can be really helpful in finding hope despite how overwhelming the climate crisis can seem. 

The last prompt that Harris mentioned: “What would a better world look like to you? What role will you play in making it a reality?” Providing a vision for the future is really important, and having your own idea of what a cleaner future will look like can help you understand why solving the climate crisis is so significant to you. 

How can your climate story make an impact

Once you understand your own climate story, it is so important that you share it with others. Climate Generation helps individuals do this, by putting their stories on the radio or getting them published in newspapers. You can submit your climate story to them here

“It’s really not until we can share and elevate a variety of backgrounds and histories and perspectives that we can understand a broader range of how climate change is actually affecting us,” said Harris, emphasizing just how important it is for everyone to share their stories, no matter the impacts climate change has had upon your life. 

However, if you do feel that you haven’t felt the impacts of climate change as severely as others, there are other steps you can take. Being able to tell your own story and identifying that yours is not the only story to tell is super important. Using your own privilege as a platform for elevating the stories of others who may not be included in mainstream conversations is a great way to combat that feeling.