Climate communications: the pros and cons of different ‘frames’

This is one of a series of posts entitled Principles and Advice for Grassroots Climate Communicators, in which I share and reflect on a range of ideas within the field, with a view to helping grassroots activists and groups communicate effectively. For an overview of approaches and challenges in the field, please see my post Climate Communications – An Overview.

I start this post with the table that you may already have seen in the first post in this series. After that, I reflect on the pros and cons of the different frames, to help you think which ones best resonate with you and your community. A summary of key points can be found at the bottom.

What is a frame?

Because climate change is multifaceted – almost all encompassing – there are many different ways to look at it and climate communicators and campaigners tend to select a particular ‘lens’ or ‘frame’ through which to look at it or to focus their activities. A ‘frame’ is essentially a way to simplify a complex phenomenon, perhaps claiming that such and such an aspect is at the heart of it, or is the best way in to understanding it or affecting it. Frames commonly used in climate communications include the ones below. I have put them in a table with the main assumptions underlying each frame on the left, as I see them, and an example of a practical application on the right.

Frame with its core assumptionExamples
Information: people need to know the facts about global warming in order to appreciate how serious the situation is.The Carbon Literacy Project proposes that every citizen should have one day’s training covering the basic facts of global warming,  tailored to be relevant  to the specific audience.
Persuasion: people need to be persuaded to face the issue and take action, either through some kind of reward or through appeals to their deeper values and identity.Climate Outreach proposes that climate communicators research the interests, values and needs of particular communities, and try to link climate action with what matters to them. At a commercial level, advertisers are increasingly using ‘green’ language and imagery in order to persuade people to buy their products.
Conversation: human beings aren’t atomised individuals, we form our views through dialogue with others.Carbon Conversations is a six session course designed originally for community settings. The participants explore the facts and their feelings about cutting their carbon footprints through conversation and enjoyable games. I myself have run a simpler version, called Climate Conversations,  focusing down on teaching skills in listening and constructive argumentation. In the political arena, Hope for the Future has developed a model for the constructive lobbying of MPs,  based on the Non-Violent Communication approach (NVC).
Emotion: on the one hand, climate change raises strong negative emotions which block people’s engagement (‘disavowal’), so the way forward has to include confronting those emotions; on the other, it is positive emotions that motivate people.The Active Hope approach involves running workshops where people are taken on an emotional journey,  facing up to their repressed fears, expressing their grief and working through to ‘seeing the world with new eyes’.
Reason: although it may be limited, human beings are capable of reason; the climate crisis raises both profound philosophical questions and challenges us to think logically and strategically.Grace Lockrobin and other ‘community philosophers’ are running events online, in communities and in schools that support and challenge participants to think about environmental issues critically and philosophically.
Choice: the climate crisis confronts us with difficult choices, including technical, moral and political.David McKay and Mark Lynas ran an event at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield where they challenged the audience to think through the difficult choices that will be need to be made if renewables are to replace all fossil fuels.
Storytelling, Imagination and the Arts: Human beings don’t live by logical arguments, we live by myths and stories – about our own lives, about our societies and about the meaning of our lives – and we are moved by images. Art is a fundamental part of who we are. If you want to reach people you need to stimulate their senses and imaginations.Community artists draw on a wide range of art forms to connect with people’s subconscious, personal icons and imaginations. Michigan University runs an online course in Storytelling for Social Change. Marshall Ganz and others run workshops to help activists discover and/or write their own ‘story’ as social change agents.
Action: a surfeit of words is off-putting to many, they would rather be drawn into doing interesting things and by acting they will feel both purposeful and hopeful. Activities which help people to ‘fall back in love with nature’ maybe particularly effective.The Transition Town movement focuses on practical activities such as growing organic foods that can draw people in. Trees for Life takes groups out into the woods to learn forestry skills and also hold dialogues away from the stresses of urban life.
Empowerment: the problem isn’t knowledge or understanding, the problem is people feeling that they can do nothing about it, so climate communicators should focus on giving people the tools and skills they need to change things.Many Transition Town projects teach practical skills, especially relating to working in nature. The Carbon Conversations course includes auditing your own energy use, travel and purchases, and supports participants to develop practical action plans. My own Climate Conversations courses teach skills in listening and dialogue.
Motivation: people need appealing visions, encouragement, inspiration and other rewards such as enjoyment in order to want to engage with what can otherwise seem a daunting task.The Active Hope approach aims to inspire people by taking them through a challenging but liberating emotional process. Many writers have produced books full of good ideas and lively imagery for young people and for adults. Extinction Rebellion has stated its aim to promote a ‘regenerative’  culture to reduce the risk of burnout amongst activists.
Leadership development: climate communicators should place the emphasis on those most likely to lead the transition to sustainability, the others will follow.Former US Vice President, Al Gore, has created the Climate Reality programme  which trains people up as climate leaders and communicators, especially young adults.
Political mobilisation: commentators frequently emphasise that the biggest obstacles to change are a lack of political will and/or vested interests. Moreover, individuals and communities have limited power to change the wider society, so people need to understand the need for political action.Environmental activists continue to campaign in various ways, increasingly seeking to attract attention through eye-catching creative actions.  Historically, they have tended to come from the left of the political spectrum but increasingly activists in the centre and centre right are speaking up (e.g. the Conservative Environment Network.) Hope for the Future is promoting a conciliatory approach to lobbying. Community Organising is one of many approaches to grass roots political engagement.
Emergency mobilisation: the situation is perilous and the emphasis should be on communicating urgency and generating absolute determination across society, akin to mobilising a society for war.Climate Mobilisation and Extinction Rebellion seek to draw the general public’s attention to the need for urgent and radical action.

There are strengths and weaknesses in each of these frames; given that a frame is a selective tool, this is not surprising. In the discussion below, I share my own reflections, in the hope that they will stimulate you to think which frames best align with your own values,  context and priorities.

The frames that I discuss below are generic and it is not an exclusive list. We could add to it specific sectors or needs, such as health or food. Where the general public does not respond to the rather abstract concept of climate change, it may respond better to a frame that is clearly of immediate personal relevance. For example, a group of General Practitioners in the UK have formed Greener Practice to draw the attention of both their colleagues and their patients to the healthy co-benefits of sustainability, such as ‘active travel’, meaning walking and cycling – helping people stay fit whilst also reducing road pollution and carbon emissions. (


The premise here is that people need to know and understand accurate information about global warming and the predictions that the experts are making in order to appreciate how serious the situation is. They also need accurate information in order to understand the potentials and the limitations of technological solutions.

However, many members of the general population find science and technology off-putting or they do not understand scientific method, especially the way that risks are assessed, so they switch off, get confused or are easy prey for denialists.

Part of the answer lies in presenting information in attractive, creative and interesting ways, tailored to the specific audience. The Carbon Literacy Project, for example, proposes that every citizen should be given training to understand the essential facts about climate change, but they emphasise that the design and delivery should be relevant and appealing to the particular audience.

To assist with translating information into action, your group could perhaps consider recruiting a number of good communicators of science and technology –  not academics but people with practical skills. I have found, when facilitating Carbon Conversations and climate conversations courses, that it has been enormously helpful to have somebody there with knowledge and expertise in such matters as home insulation that I am no good at.

(Ideally, information about the climate and the ecological emergencies should be moved to the centre of both educational curricula and journalistic programming. They should no longer be seen as abstruse scientific topics; they should be seen as central to our human endeavour in all fields. But that may be beyond the scope of the your group’s project!)


Rooted in the practices of social marketing, the persuasion approach is based on trying to make pro-environmental behaviours seem attractive, in the same way that goods are advertised. Not surprisingly, this approach is increasingly being used by businesses trying to tap into the new public awareness of sustainability when selling their products, and by businesses explicitly marketing ‘environmentally friendly’ products. We are all deeply embedded in capitalist culture and, while some may not like the idea, consumer choices do interact with and affect social norms.

One version is ‘nudge theory’, premised on the idea that humans beings like to conform to what other people are doing – they will adopt sustainable behaviours if such behaviours seem like ‘the new normal’. “Nudge theory is based on the idea that little things can make a big difference and you only have to tip the balance slightly to steer people into making better decisions, especially if those decisions align with their personal values…  The theory argues that nudges should be easy, attractive and social.”[1] (The current UK government has a ‘nudge unit’ based on this theory.)

Another version of the persuasion approach emphasises culture and identity, especially core values. If a climate communicator understands their audience well, they will use language and concepts that link pro-environmental behaviours to that audience’s values and beliefs. Climate Outreach, for example, has undertaken extensive research to test the messages that most appeal to different social groups, including faith groups and conservative groups who historically have tended to be opposed to climate action.[2] It is not so much a question, they say, of using particular words or messages to influence an audience, but of having the sensitivity to understand the audience’s worldview and to avoid giving offence and alienating them.[3] (Some examples are given in the box below.)

The downside of all these approaches is that audiences may feel manipulated – or may respond in a superficial way, for example, not appreciating the true depth of the challenges that face us. To counteract these risks, Climate Outreach emphasises the importance of employing ‘trusted messengers’ who come across as (and are) authentic, able to speak from the heart and build genuine, respectful relationships with audiences.

A different objection to the social marketing approach has been registered on an ideological basis. Some commentators see capitalism as the root cause of the climate crisis; premised on never-ending growth, capitalism can be seen as ‘extractive’, taking and using natural (and human) resources in order to grow profits and taking no responsibility for the ‘waste products’  of industrial processes. Seen within this frame, social marketing is an appropriation of methods primarily used in advertising to manipulate consumers. Such commentators are sceptical about the notion of ‘conscious consumerism’, the implication being that, in order to prevent disastrous global warming, we just have to persuade people to buy different things. What is needed is a whole new social and economic system.

The trouble with that approach is that it makes enemies of those who support capitalism or hope to reform it to make it more sustainable. Policies designed to decarbonise the economy are going to need the support of the vast majority, if they are to succeed. Surveys show that there is a strong correlation between political ideology and attitude to climate change – people on the right are more likely to oppose climate action; people on the left are more likely to support it. Climate communicators are still discussing how best to transcend these divides. The good news is that many more conservatives in developed countries are now speaking up about the problem. However, most of them place their face in market-based solutions, such as the development of new green industries and businesses, and the question of how extensive state intervention should, or should not, be is as yet unresolved.


In The #Talking Climate Handbook[4], Climate Outreach makes the case that what is most important at this point in time is to build a ‘social mandate’ for government action – in other words, enough people in the general population need to be calling on their political representatives for them to feel obliged and supported to take action. Their focus is not on promoting particular messages but rather on generating conversations. The handbook lays out some guidelines for successful climate conversations, emphasising respectful listening and asking interested questions.

In theory, this approach sidesteps the questions of having and giving information; it is enough to bring the topic into the light. But in practice, based on my own experience of running a short course with University students in this approach, people feel more confident to initiate conversations if they also feel confident of the key facts. So next time around, we plan to run two courses, the first one in ‘carbon literacy’, the second in applying that knowledge. The latter will include learning and practising communication skills as well as planning and engaging in practical actions to reduce the carbon footprints of both the individual students and the University overall.

Two key takeaways from this pilot climate conversations course which may be useful for climate communicators to bear in mind are:

  • The students very much enjoyed learning listening and questioning skills which they said would be useful for them in many areas of their lives, not only in climate campaigning;
  • They especially appreciated an exercise where they were asked to think about and share their own values – something that most of them had never consciously articulated before.[5]


A number of climate campaigners emphasise the importance of emotion. Rooted in psychoanalytic theory, they are interested in “the personal histories that lie beneath the surface.”[6] They say that human beings naturally put up psychological defences to defend themselves from painful realities. Most people are in a state of ‘disavowal’ or denial about the dangers of global warming and they won’t be able to take action until they acknowledge and confront repressed emotions such as fear and grief. Climate communicators therefore need both to share their own emotions and to support others to face theirs. This best takes place in a group where the process of sharing one’s own feelings and listening to those of others enables a range of insights and builds solidarity. Rosemary Randall refers to this as a ‘psycho-social’ approach. It underlies the Carbon Conversations model that she helped to create – a short course of six meetings in which a group of people support each other to examine climate information, share their feelings, and plan their personal carbon reduction strategies.[7] On the face of it a friendly, accessible course with a well-designed, informative manual, Carbon Conversations actually aims to go deep and potentially requires sophisticated group facilitation skills.

The emotion-based approach has a clear logic but it raises the Catch-22 problem of disavowal. How do you encourage people to face up to something they don’t want to face up to? Few people are going to eagerly embrace the idea of something like a therapeutic workshop. Recruitment is a major challenge to such groups and it is difficult to see how the approach could be scaled up.

However, the principles of this work can perhaps be applied across a variety of contexts by a skilled climate communicator. The Active Hope approach developed by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone offers a useful framework for taking people on an empowering emotional journey:

  1. expressing our gratitude for the things that we love in the world; 
  2. making a safe space to recognise and honour the painful feelings we have about the emergency;
  3. opening our eyes to discover new things about ourselves and what we can contribute;
  4. going out to take action.[8]

Even where the circumstances are not conducive to a deep examination of this journey, climate communicators might apply it in miniature, even within a single conversation, the fundamental aims being to (a) help people to face up to what is happening but also (b) feel empowered to do something about it.

Psychologist Heather Hunt comments: “A useful part of Joanna Macy’s approach is honouring our feelings. If we feel grief about extinctions, for example, then that means we feel deep love for nature. If we feel anger, then we want justice. This perspective gives the positive emotions as motivation.”[9] It does seem to me that the psychoanalytically based commentators focus too much on the problems of negative emotions and disavowal; what is missing from this discussion is the engagement of positive emotions, as Hunt says. It is one reason that Climate Outreach and others advocate ‘telling your own story’, speaking from the heart, because that way you can arouse empathy in others.

Asserting the value of the emotions for social and political engagement implies a place for rhetoric in our campaigning and projects, and a place for drama. Skilled rhetoricians know how to engage the public’s passions, and we should not eschew that opportunity. Stephen Duncombe points out that some campaigners are fearful of rhetoric because they associate it with appeals to mindlessness, to prejudice and unthinking populism. He proposes that ‘progressive’ campaigners should learn to use rhetoric (and spectacle too) rather than be afraid of it.[10]

One solution to the problem of disavowal may be to offer non-threatening activities and use them as the opportunity for gradually deepening conversations as the trust builds. Whatever the way in, climate communicators do need to be prepared to support people to deal with what is increasingly called ‘eco-anxiety’ which may surface at unexpected moments. People at all levels of engagement may suddenly have a perception of how deep the problems are,  they may move into a personal space of existential crisis. It is probably advisable to build some kind of listening/counselling support into all activities, a bit like First Aid, to be called on if and when necessary. (This post does not go into eco-anxiety in any depth – I may write more on it in the future.)

For further discussion of so-called negative emotions, see my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.


An approach to climate communications perhaps still emerging is one based in reasoning. In recent decades, psychological research has increasingly emphasised the non-rational side of human beings, how most of our behaviour is led by ‘what is beneath the surface’ (to quote Ro Randall again.) But in my view, that understanding only heightens the need for us to maximise the limited rationality that we are capable of, as part of a multi-pronged approach. As philosopher, Grace Lockrobin, says: “Philosophical, political, emotional and practical issues run through any discussion about climate change, so there is a need for multi-layered discussion and exploration, combined with the commitment to critical examination of one’s own assumptions, biases and allegiances.” Along with her colleague Michelle Sowey, Grace co-convenes an online group ‘Community Philosophy and the Climate Crisis’.[11] Both Grace and Michelle argue that philosophical enquiry is a vital part of climate education. Grace advocates climate enquiry with children still in primary school[12], while in a recent interview, Michelle interviews a philosophy graduate and activist who talks about “how studying philosophy [had] helped her come to terms with the climate and ecological emergency, how it opened her eyes to the failure of the social contract, and why she now sees civil disobedience as a moral imperative.”[13]

At a more instrumental level, the critical thinking skills developed by philosophers are still not widely taught within western education systems. Many of us are not well-equipped to make and evaluate logical arguments, to appraise evidence, to understand statistics, to assess risks or to develop complex strategies. Critical thinking challenges inevitably surface in climate education activities, whether the main focus is on information, emotion or practical action. The risk here is that the general public is turned off by something that can seem academic, especially if formal terms are used. But my contention is that there is nothing more exciting than a revelatory critical examination of one’s own or others’ arguments, providing it is handled in a constructive fashion. Adopting the so-called ‘principle of charity’ under which one seeks, as one’s top priority, to understand the arguments, beliefs and values of one’s opponents makes it more likely that constructive dialogue can take place, transcending the tribalistic boundaries of typical political discourse.[14] “We find ourselves in a dilemma,” Grace says. “The climate emergency is now so urgent that we are torn between the desperation to see rapid action and the knowledge that hasty action might be counter-productive. Critical thinking is therefore required for us to achieve clarity; philosophical practice may take us even deeper, helping us to examine our values and beliefs, confronting us with difficult questions of priority, connecting us to different philosophical and political traditions from which we can learn.” [15]

John Cook also points out that critical thinking skills are needed to spot, explain and unpick the tactics of climate deniers (for more information on his ‘inoculation’ approach, see the box in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators.)

One tool for improving critical thinking and discussion that I think could be very useful to the climate movement is Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. For those who don’t know this useful model, the different colours of ‘hat’ refer to different focuses for thinking and discussion. The white hat represents facts – in our case, the science, the evidence. The red hat is for feelings; there are plenty of those around this issue, and I’m not sure they are yet being handled with emotional intelligence. The yellow hat is for optimism and in contrast, the black hat is for pessimism, for critical judgement. We need both of these in the climate movement and there is a false polarisation between those who assert that we must be positive all the time and those who say we must face up to the worst possible scenarios all the time. In fact, we need to move thoughtfully between the two positions. The green hat is for new ideas and there is a plethora of them out there – which should give us some optimism! (Of course, we need to be putting the most promising of these ideas into action.) Lastly, the blue hat is for process, as when you take on the role of a chair in a meeting and you stand back to consider where the discussion is going and what next step would be most productive. (For more info on the 6 thinking hats model see:


Heather Hunt proposed to me that I should add choice to my list of frames. She points to the book entitled ‘The Future We Choose’, co-authored by Christiana Figueres, a key figure in the international climate negotiations in Paris in 2015.[16] In the table above, I give the example of a presentation by David McKay and Mark Lynas in which they confronted us in the audience with difficult choices about renewable energy. Making choices and decisions is one aspect of critical thinking, as it is now commonly understood: critical thinking is not just a matter of understanding intellectually or philosophically what the dilemmas are, it is the weighing up of evidence and priorities with a view to making a decision and taking action. The climate and nature emergencies confront us with many tricky choices. A classic example is nuclear power: is it ‘sustainable’ or not? Does it solve all our problems – or does it create more? In the end, politicians have to make decisions about such matters, and so do voters, when it comes to elections. As Stuart Hanscomb points out in his book, Critical Thinking the basics[17], it is not that critical thinking procedures will necessarily reveal a perfect solution to complex problems, but there is a better chance of a ‘best fit’ solution if the evidence and view points have been thoughtfully weighed up through constructive critical dialogue.


Contextualising climate communications within a framework of practical action may serve to engage people in a meaningful – and perhaps enjoyable – way, developing their sense of ‘perceived behavioural control’, self-efficacy or agency, and contributing to measurable carbon reductions. Moreover, each new project, whether at community level, in industry, in commerce or in policy, brings new learnings. In a sense, a society-wide research project is taking place;  the challenge of decarbonisation is unprecedented and the more people who are engaged in investigating it, the more we as a society will understand about what does and doesn’t work.

The theory of change here is that, once engaged in a localised but purposeful, communal endeavour, people will become more aware of the wider implications. They will be more likely to ask questions, to seek answers and to get more involved – especially if they trust and respect the integrity and expertise of those running the project.

A prominent strand of thought within the climate movement is to encourage people to ‘fall back in love with nature’.[18] The thinking is that many people in industrialised societies have lost a sense of connection to the natural world. Engaging people in enjoyable and/or challenging activities in the outdoors, especially those that involve a stewarding role, may help them to reflect on the bigger picture of the climate and ecological emergencies, whilst also reminding them of the intrinsic pleasures of physical activity in the outdoors. David Attenborough has said: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Considering action as part of climate communications potentially takes us over a boundary, moving beyond engagement (getting people’s attention) towards politicisation. Action of course is not a single thing; there are many different types of action possible and these could be seen in a ladder or progression. A very simple version might be: 

  1. Easy/quick things you can do 
  2. Getting more active / contributing to the movement 
  3. Becoming a leader for sustainability 

Embracing active care for the climate and all living things may also take us into spiritual territory. In recent years, different faith groups, such as Muslims, Jews and Catholics, have publicly stated their conviction that humans have a responsibility to be stewards of the earth.[19]

Action can help climate communicators in another way: Roger Hallam, one of the founders of the Extinction Rebellion movement, has recently pointed out that people become more engaged if they physically move around! His  comments are a critique of dull political meetings where people sit still. This is one reason why creative activities may be an important feature of the climate communicator’s toolkit (see also Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?.)

Many people like to make and do. Moreover, creative activities can engage the imagination and emotions, enhancing meaningfulness. In ‘Paradise Is Here, Building Community Around Things That Matter”, Ruth Nutter lays out some principles for creative forms of community engagement, including: being visible in daily life, inviting openly and instructing clearly, giving permission to think and do differently, connecting with care and using plenty of paper.[20]

I think action is very important but it does not mean ignoring the other frames. It is up to the skilled practitioner to explore how best to integrate within practical activities scientific and technological information, opportunities for conversation, critical thinking and emotional reflection, and questions for philosophical or political investigation. There is much to be learned here from the expertise of community and educational arts workers. It may be that one of the keys to success is collaboration – designing projects which bring together creative practitioners with partners with sector specific knowledge and skills (e.g. in sustainable construction), as well as skilled climate communicators, all of them working closely with the participants to go on a shared journey of discovery.

One caveat is that some people feel threatened by activities that look artistic, performative,  embarrassing or personally exposing, so it is important that the initial offer is non-threatening, enjoyable and free from pressure.

A distinct realm of action is political protest. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future have been widely acknowledged as having successfully raised the issue in the general public’s awareness through non-violent direct action. However there have been some criticisms. At a recent webinar on climate communications, Rosemary Randall suggested that it is important to have calm conversations with members of the public while engaged in such protests, to explain the rationale behind them. Stuart Capstick was concerned when the public itself felt targeted by non-violent direct action; he thought it was better to target the media, the financial system, etc.[21]

Please note that some commentators argue that climate advocacy efforts focused on the actions of individuals simply makes people feel guilty, while acting as a distraction from the role of big polluters in driving climate change and the need for wider system change driven by governments.[22]

Politicisation and the role of the arts and creativity are discussed further in:

  • Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?
  • Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?

Empowerment and motivation

Some climate communicators may prioritise the aims of empowerment (giving people the knowledge and ability to contribute effectively) and motivation (stimulating people’s passion and determination.) Again, these frames take us over the boundary into politicisation; in my post on that topic I refer to some examples of different approaches. Common threads seem to include: listening to people’s concerns, understanding their needs, respecting their values and building solidarity, whilst providing opportunities to experience participating in actions that have an impact, building confidence and resilience.

I am intrigued by Marshall Ganz’s idea that motivating people means moving from a focus on the self to a focus on the collective, telling ‘the story of us’. This is a different perspective from the Community Organising one that says that human beings are inherently self-interested and will only do things if they perceive a personal reward.[23]

Leadership development

Experienced climate activists and communicators may decide that the most useful frame or focus for their communications is to nurture the next generation of leaders, at whatever level of society. The enormous impact of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement that she inspired has awakened many older politicians and activists to the significance of the younger generation, who are increasingly spelling out that they are the ones who are going to have to live with the impacts of climate change. In Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?, I quote Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition), European Climate Foundation, who told me that upcoming leaders need to have a credible theory of change and the ability to think strategically over the longer term – qualities that often seem to be missing from our current, short-termist political leadership.

What are the implications at community level? I would suggest that the ethical leader is continually nurturing new leaders, modelling and teaching skills in engaging, inspiring and empowering others. The process may start small, giving people simple but responsible tasks to carry out, only offering more challenging tasks when the person has built up their confidence. Given that it seems likely that the social transformation required can only happen if it is supported by all sectors of society, nurturing the leadership skills of those who are often overlooked or disparaged may be particularly important.[24]

A more aspirational manifestation of this ambition is Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps. The website states:

“We believe real change comes from the ground up. We know that a small-but-committed critical mass of activists can not only transform society, but change the world. That’s why we recruit, train, and mobilize people to become powerful activists, providing the skills, campaigns, and resources to push for aggressive climate action and high-level policies that accelerate a just transition to clean energy… Alongside these efforts, our dynamic communications initiatives connect climate and behavioural science with the emotional power of compelling stories, raising awareness and inspiring action in online audiences everywhere.”[25]

I don’t know how well the Climate Reality project is going down in the UK; I have a suspicion that it might come over as rather American and un-English but I would like feedback from somebody who has been directly involved. Personally, I like the idea of climate leadership programmes for young people and I know that there are various models out there. One question I would have is whether they tend to attract middle-class people – which is fine and appropriate for people who want to work with and influence middle-class people; but wouldn’t it be great if your group could engage working class people too?  This is one reason why I have included the notes on community organising in my post on Politicisation.

Political mobilisation

Policies designed to decarbonise the economy are going to need the support of the vast majority, if they are to succeed. Surveys have often shown a strong correlation between political ideology and attitude to climate change – people on the right more likely to oppose climate action, people on the left more likely to support it. The picture seems to have changed somewhat since 2018, however. The growing visibility and immediacy of extreme weather events and the high-profile impacts of Friday for Future, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough and others has hopefully put climate denial beyond the pale. Increasingly, citizens agree that they are concerned about climate change. However, they (we) demonstrate a considerable gap between concern and action (the ‘value/action gap’) and the politicians who are best equipped to lead on systemic change are only just beginning to demonstrate a commitment to transcending tribal divides and opposing the vested interests of powerful climate deniers.

Climate communicators are still discussing how best to approach the political question. For some, it is a moral imperative to contextualise climate and ecological action within a ‘progressive’ vision of wholesale social transformation, rejecting capitalism either substantially or totally. On the other side are those who see capitalism as an eternal verity and advocate pragmatic changes to steer it in a more sustainable direction.

At a basic level, one thing that community climate communicators can do is to help citizens see the importance of lobbying their political representatives, whichever side they may be on. When asked what was the single most impactful action for ordinary citizens to take, Al Gore said to get your political representatives to pass laws.[26] The thinking here is that only governments can pass laws to restrain the fossil fuel corporations and other polluters, creating a ‘level playing field,’ and to convert infrastructure to prevent carbon emissions.

The climate scientist, Michael E. Mann, warns that the new strategy of the fossil fuel lobby, now that denial is a difficult position to uphold, is to give the message to citizens that they should focus on changing their personal carbon footprints, because this distracts them from the greater truth that systemic change is required.[27]

I share and discuss some different approaches to this matter in my post Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?

Emergency mobilisation

This is such an important frame that I have written a separate post about it.[28] It only comes at the end of this list because all the other frames above can be seen as falling within a common ‘gradualist’ approach which emphasises being accessible to different audiences and not scaring or overwhelming them. The emergency mobilisation approach is far less reassuring; in fact it is all about telling people just how serious the situation is – with a view to galvanising them into determined action. I go into the pros and cons of this approach in my other post; for now, the brief summary is that climate communicators need to learn how to convey both urgency and agency (the latter overlapping with my comments on empowerment and motivation above.)

So, which of all these frames should your group focus on?

The purpose of these posts is to throw that question back to you – both your steering group and the comms practitioners on your team. Each of the frames has its merits but also its downsides. Probably, as skilled climate communicators, you would want to work in more than one frame, in order to maximise your effectiveness, but you need to be led by consideration of your audiences and your high-level aims and objectives.

In Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, I have tried to synthesise the communications advice proffered from many different quarters into a single set of recommendations. This may seem a mistaken project, because of the differences between the frames. But my take on climate communications is pragmatic; I assume that a variety of different methods will be needed to reach different people in different situations at different times, and that the essential attribute of the good communicator is summed up in Stephen Covey’s aphorism, “Seek first to understand; and then to be understood.”[29]

And despite the differences in emphasis, it seems to me that a number of shared concerns run through many of the frames, e.g.

  • the importance of engaging citizens in conversation and reflection
  • the importance of understanding each audience and adapting your approach to suit
  • the need for sensitive and skilful facilitation with individuals and groups, including ways of countermanding disavowal and supporting people with eco-anxiety
  • the importance of balancing urgency with agency

Finally, one other shared perception gets to the heart of what we are doing as community-based climate communicators: wider public engagement is needed. This is so for at least two reasons. Firstly, the society-wide political and economic changes that we need can only be put in place by governments. But, as Sheffield politician Paul Blomfield has emphasised, MPs are elected to represent their constituents’ concerns; if their constituents are not pestering them about climate change it is hard for them to prioritise taking action on it. But secondly, and more profoundly, the changes will not be possible without widespread public support; no government can order radical change from above if the people do not understand the reasons why and see the benefits to them individually, and to their communities. This is not to lay the emphasis on individual change when clearly our loudest call must be for system change led by government; however the two are symbiotic, as a recent report by Climate Outreach asserts.[30]


  • There are many different ‘lenses’ or ‘frames’ though which to look at climate communications, including: Information; Persuasion; Conversation; Emotion; Reason; Choice; Storytelling, Imagination and the Arts; Action; Empowerment; Motivation; Leadership development; Political mobilisation; and Emergency mobilisation.
  • Each frame has its strengths and its weaknesses; some frames will align better with your own audiences, values and priorities.
  • The most commonly used frames share the gradualist approach. However the emergency mobilisation approach is important and has become stronger in recent years.
  • As skilled climate communicators, you will probably want to work in more than one frame, in order to maximise your effectiveness, but you need to be led by consideration of your audiences and your high-level aims and objectives.
  • A number of concerns unite many of the frames, including: engaging citizens in conversation and reflection; understanding each audience and adapting your approach to suit; the need for sensitive and skilful facilitation with individuals and groups; and the importance of balancing urgency with agency.
  • An over-arching concern for all community-based climate communicators is that wider public engagement is needed.


[1] Green and Ethical checklist supplement in The Guardian 03.04.21

[2] See Appendix C for some notes on appealing to particular audiences’ values.

[3] Corner, Adam and Clarke, Jamie. (2017) Talking Climate, From Research to Practice in Public Engagement. Oxford. Palgrave Macmillan.


[5] Climate Conversations pilot course run at the University of Sheffield November/December 2020, facilitated by Nick Nuttgens and coordinated by Alice Potter. A summary of the evaluation is available upon request.

[6] Rosemary Randall, Scientists for XR webinar “Beyond Optimism or Doom”,  April 7th, 2021.

[7] Carbon Conversations:;

[8] Macy, Joanna & Johnstone, Chris. (2012) Active Hope:  How To Face The Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. Novato. New World Library.

[9] Personal communication.

[10] Duncombe, Stephen. (2007.) Dream – Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy. New York. The New Press. See:



[13] Discussion in “Community Philosophy and the Climate Crisis” email group, April 3rd 2021.

[14] Hanscomb, Stuart. (2017) Critical Thinking, the basics. London, Routledge. P.96

[15] Personal communication, January 2020.

[16] Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. (2020) The Future We Choose / Surviving the Climate Crisis. London. Manilla Press.

[17]Hanscomb, Stuart. (2017) Critical Thinking, the basics. London, Routledge.

[18] Perhaps first put forward by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nat Hanh. See video:

[19] e.g. Catholic:; Muslim:; Jewish:

[20] Nutter, Ruth. (2020). Paradise Is Here, Building Community Around Things That Matter. Sheffield. Guild of St. George.

[21] Beyond optimism or doom: How can we communicate the need for urgent climate action? XR Scientists webinar April 7th 2021.

[22] A useful document on this is ‘Linking individual action and system change in climate advocacy’, produced by Climate Outreach:


[24] I owe these tips to Re-evaluation Counseling, a political therapy organisation I was involved with in the 1980s. I left it because I decided it had cultish traits but it did/does provide an excellent training in engaging people at the emotional level.

[25] Accessed 14.04.21.

[26] In his film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)

[27] Mann, Michael E. (2021) The New Climate War, The Fight To Take Back Our Planet. London. Scribe.

[28] ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions – to be found on my blog site:

[29] The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People:

[30] Lifestyle change and system change are two sides of the same coin:

Author: Nick Nuttgens

Nick Nuttgens is a retired facilitator, trainer, teacher and theatre maker, now focusing his attention on climate communications and visual art projects. His eclectic career included periods in the arts as a performer, director and choreographer, in the voluntary sector as a manager and trainer, and in education as a primary teacher. At one point, he was the Director of the Creative Partnerships programme in Sheffield, UK, leading on the development of creative approaches to teaching and learning in 75 schools. He was studying for a PhD in creative methods of communicating about climate change until he got cancer (luckily now in remission.) He is one of the co-convenors of a voluntary group based at the University of Sheffield called the Climate Communications Hub. Recent projects include a study group on critical thinking as applied to the climate emergency and ‘climate conversations’ training courses. More about his background, philosophy and values can be found in the About section of this blog.

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