This is one of a series of blogs 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 have given space to examining this debate in some detail here because it is so live. Readers with limited time could jump to the section near the end which suggests some win-win communication strategies (‘Balancing urgency and agency in practice’.) A summary of key points can be found at the bottom, where you will also find an appendix about the pros and cons of appealing to people’s fears.
In contrast to the ‘gradualist’ approach, the Climate Mobilisation movement emphasises the urgency and danger of the climate and ecological emergencies. One of its leading spokespersons, Margaret Klein Salamon, emphasises the systemic nature of the problem and calls for a “World War II scale transformation of the economy and society.” Like Extinction Rebellion, she asserts that the starting point must be to face the truth that this really is an emergency. The question is not whether you are ‘ready’ to face it or whether you can ‘handle’ it; the question is whether you would rather protect yourself from painful knowledge or protect the entire human family from impending catastrophe. She quotes David Wallace Wells (“It’s worse, much worse, than you think”) and criticises many climate commentators for creating an unrealistically optimistic picture. Even the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates a systemic bias towards understatement, she says. But on top of that, the fossil fuel industry has carried out an extended disinformation campaign – and is still doing so despite its increasingly green rhetoric.
Salamon is a psychologist and she offers a psychological analysis. The denial campaign has been successful because it aligns with our desires and defences – intellectualisation, wilful ignorance, wishful thinking, etc. She criticises the dominant gradualist view that “we must not scare the public; they cannot handle it”. She attributes this belief to a cultural “fear of fear”.
A key premise invoked for her urgency is the anticipation of tipping points in nature if we don’t decarbonise quickly; she calls for a 10 year timeline and says 2050 is far too late. She points to alarming trends which suggest that “on our current trajectory, we are facing civilisation’s collapse.”
Salamon asserts that citizens’ feelings of powerlessness have been fostered by neo-liberal ideology and are unwarranted. Groups of concerned citizens have changed the world many times before and they have done it through the power of truth (a recent example being the #Me Too movement.) However, along with other psychologically-based commentators such as Rosemary Randall, Sally Weintrobe and Joanna Macy, she thinks that human beings do not find it easy to face up to painful realities; facing climate truth requires personal transformation. We need to face our feelings, especially fear and grief, before we can move on. We should not see fear or grief as an insurmountable barrier; emotions are not static, people can move through them.
Having faced up to our painful feelings, we need as individuals to reimagine our life story, to change our plans and expectations. But we also need a collective awakening, on the scale of a response to national attack, such as happened to the USA at Pearl Harbor. We need to enter into ‘emergency mode’, channelling our fear to fight the threat facing us collectively and creatively. “This is the opposite of panic mode, in which we either freeze or take flight,” she says. When a society enters emergency mode, it mobilises and works collectively to address and solve huge problems quickly – as the USA and other countries did during World War II. Individuals and groups enter emergency mode when they accept the reality of a life -threatening emergency and reorient their hierarchy of priorities, deploying all available resources to solve the crisis and seeking personal gratification through engagement with the emergency.
What does all this mean for grass roots communications? In complete contrast to the ‘gradualist’ commentators, Salamon advocates: “Start by telling the truth, loudly and all the time. This is the one mode of engagement that I recommend for everyone.”
She points out that, despite increases in general awareness, a 2019 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that only 8% of Americans talk about climate change at least once a week, and only 15% once a month. In other words, the gradualist approach seemed to be failing as much as the earlier scientific approach. I think her challenge deserves serious attention; we know that disavowal means that we are all to some extent hiding from the pain of facing up to the difficulties here. Gradualists surely have to acknowledge that it wasn’t a gently-gently approach that finally grabbed the world’s attention; it was the publicity-grabbing civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. If these activists hadn’t been brave and bold, it is doubtful whether politicians of all parties would be taking so much interest now. On the other hand, such people do tend to emerge into prominence when the time is right; no doubt the persistent chipping away by campaigners, researchers, committed politicians and gradualist climate communicators had helped to create public readiness.
It seems that Salamon has, to some extent, rowed back from advocating blaring emergency sirens on every street corner. She now advocates a similar strategy to Climate Outreach – generating masses of climate conversations at ground level, starting with family and friends and expanding from there. But there is a difference in tone. Unlike Salamon, The #Talking Climate Handbook produced by Climate Outreach recommends having conversations characterised by listening, not telling. Both parties agree that sharing your own perspective authentically can be powerful but Salamon emphasises that the conversation may not be comfortable. Prepare yourself, she says, for your role as “a loud and talkative truth teller.” She invites us all to become ‘climate warriors’.
In calling for widespread climate conversations, Salamon’s aim is to make people aware of the need for systemic change. It is good to help people to think about their own carbon footprints, but she claims that it is a tactic of the fossil fuel industry to shift the focus onto individual behaviour change when the truth is that systemic change is needed. All discussions about decarbonising activities and projects should therefore encourage people to take political action as well.
The gradualist riposte to Salamon’s position is the long-standing experience of disavowal so often manifest to climate campaigners. As an example, the other day, I asked friends on Facebook why I received so few comments on my climate change posts. Only two people replied! But one of those comments was particularly revealing: “I keep reading [your posts] but not following up for some odd reason. Partly my brain is like a bumble bee at the moment. Oddly I feel like I am not enough of an activist and also possibly too old (i.e. the cause) of things so I start already feeling a bit odd.” This honest comment exemplifies the complicated emotions that climate communications can trigger and how quickly issues of identity and agency can arise – issues that probably need to be explored supportively over time before this person will feel able to commit herself to something like emergency mode.
Beyond optimism or doom: How can we communicate the need for urgent climate action?’
The tensions between the gradualist approach and the emergency mobilisation approach were explored in webinar organised by Scientists for XR on April 7th, 2021. Titled ‘Beyond optimism or doom: How can we communicate the need for urgent climate action?’, the webinar was chaired by Dr Emily Grossman, science communicator, broadcaster and educator. The eminent panellists were:
- Stuart Capstick, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, University of Cardiff, Deputy Director for the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST).
- Margaret Klein Salamon, founder of The Climate Mobilization Project, Program Director of Climate Awakening and author of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth.
- Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, a lead author of IPCC reports and author of The New Climate War.
- Rosemary Randall, psychotherapist (retired), co-creator of the Carbon Conversations project and author/co-author of In Time for Tomorrow? the Carbon Conversations Handbook and ‘A New Climate for Psychotherapy?’, an exploration of resistance to action on climate change.
In the event, there appeared to have been a rapprochement between the two most historically opposed panellists, Salamon and Mann. Mann, in his recent book and elsewhere, has been loudly critical of what he calls the “doomist” approach, premised on the prediction of imminent, catastrophic tipping points, promulgated by people like Margaret Klein Salamon, David Wallace Wells and Rupert Read of Extinction Rebellion. He agrees that disasters caused by global warming are already happening around the world but asserts that action is still possible to prevent things getting even worse. He says climate modelling is now more sophisticated and realistic, and science is on the side of hope. Surface temperatures usually plateau quickly and oceans draw CO2 down from the atmosphere, so there will be an immediate impact as soon as we start to bring carbon emissions down. Science doesn’t support the idea of runaway warming, he says,and the doomist approach serves only to promote hopelessness, rather than motivation.
Mann and Salamon came together on the call for a World War II style emergency mobilisation and Salamon appeared to have moved towards Mann in accepting his core proposition that, in climate communications, ‘urgency must always be balanced with agency. In other words, people do need to know how serious the situation is but they also need to know what they can do about it.
Presenting both the ‘good news’ and the ‘bad news’
In practice, this is a tricky balance to achieve, requiring considerable skill and great flexibility from the climate communicator. In the Climate Conversations course that I ran for students at University of Sheffield in December 2020, I worried about how to present the ‘good news’ versus the ‘bad news’. My own feeling in retrospect was that I had erred too much on the side of reassuring people, that I had not communicated the urgency sufficiently, and some participants agreed with me. But then I received comments in the final feedback to the effect that I had not adequately dealt with the ‘eco-anxiety’ provoked by the course!
What strategy then should Can Do South Yorkshire and similar community-based projects adopt? Below I suggest some possible win-win approaches. Before leaving this debate, however, I offer some thoughts for further consideration by anyone interested. I would welcome feedback:
- Scientific understanding. The debate is based on different understandings of the science – the emerging evidence, the climate modelling and the predictions. The complications of presenting the science accurately to the general public cannot be entirely sidestepped. However, in seeking to evaluate different points of view, it is worth noting who has the more relevant expertise. A PhD in Atmospheric Science is more relevant than one in Philosophy, for example.
- Confirmation bias. Parties on all sides are prone to confirmation bias, i.e. they will seek out and notice evidence that supports their existing position. Even when the evidence is weighed up rationally by academics, predispositions may colour the conclusions drawn. A person’s attitude to risk is one example of such a predisposition. The only solution I can see here is to keep seeking constructive, critical dialogue, based on seeking to understand the other person’s point of view.
- Worst case scenarios. The prominent ‘doomist’ writers that Mann refers to, e.g. David Wallace Wells and the Jem Bendell (the Deep Adaptation movement), are focusing on worst-case scenarios. They say it is unwise to assume that even if the most likely scenario in the bell curve is the medium-case, that that will be the one that will in fact happen. Their premise is that a wise strategy would be to prevent the worst-case scenario. One possibility therefore is that climate communicators should help people to reflect on the full range of possible scenarios, assess the risks attached to each and consider possible preventatives and solutions. Whilst I realise that this is a highly rational approach, something like it may be more accessible to many members of the public than the emotion-based approach (although emotional sensitivity would be required to handle the discussion well.)
- Tricky questions of choice. I recall that David MacKay and Mark Lynas came to the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield several years ago with an interactive road show that confronted the audience with difficult questions about renewable energy based in fact, not emotion or ideology. Many of the difficult facts that we need to confront are not of a directly psychological nature; they are technical, financial and logistical. The situation is imperfect, the atmosphere is already full of greenhouse gases, many of the solutions proposed have downsides, they all have costs – there are difficult choices to make.
- The danger of generalisations. I suspect that some unhelpful generalisations are being made on both sides of this debate. We need to remember that one size does not fit all; each person and each social group has their own history, beliefs, values, attitudes and circumstances. In planning a climate communication, we need to think about the target audience – what they know, what they don’t know, what their needs and interests are, what misunderstandings they might be prone to, what material challenges they are dealing with, how strong their sense of self efficacy is, etc.
- Differing political strategies. In essence, this debate is about political strategy as much as science or psychology. My own belief is that, in working for social change and the establishment of new norms, one needs both the reformists and revolutionaries, both the behind-the-scenes, tactful tacticians and the out-front, in-your-face rebels. Here, locally, South Yorkshire’s Can Do programme will need to decide whether it is going to commit to one of those tactics or explore a mixture of the two. Different strategies may be appropriate when talking to civic and political leaders, as opposed to the general public. Different strategies will be essential when talking to individuals or community groups, depending on who they are, what they know and how they are feeling. In other words, the watchword must be ‘flexibility.’
Balancing urgency and agency in practice
George Marshall from Climate Outreach offers one way to resolve the dilemma of communicating both urgency and agency. Where time allows, he says, “place negative information in a narrative arc that leads to a positive resolution.” Perhaps we can make a distinction between ‘fear messages’ and ‘truth messages’. It is important to tell people the truth about how serious the situation is but at the same time to give them hope, to empower them and show them convincingly what they can do to make a difference. Some other suggestions for practitioners:
- Tell the truth but never take away hope.
- Be a caring guide, taking people on an emotional journey from facing up to the gravity of the crisis to feeling empowered to do something effective about it.
- Develop your skills in being such a guide – being sensitive to your audience’s feelings, using language appropriately, adopting the appropriate tone, judging when it’s the right time to go deep and when it’s time to change the subject and cheer everybody up.
At the time of writing, it seems that the next big challenge for us as climate communicators here in South Yorkshire is to become skilful in meeting people ‘where they are at’ (generally speaking, aware of the climate and nature emergencies but not yet taking much action about them) and then moving them up a notch to a higher degree of awareness and commitment. This may mean for some of us pushing through a British fear of conflict. I think, for many of us, it will mean becoming more conscious of our own agenda and the risk of sounding/being patronising. But it is a challenge that needs to be met; ducking out of it would be a sign that, as Salamon would say, we were still protecting a self-image rooted in disavowal of the deep seriousness of the emergency; we haven’t truly accepted yet that the world has changed and therefore we are going to have to change who we are. I fully admit that this includes me.
Developing this skill is a matter for further practice. I hope to be able to update this post in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, I would welcome any links to practitioners and organisations who are already demonstrating these skills, from whom I could learn.
One possibly helpful framework that I will mention here is the Active Hope approach. While not everybody will want to attend the kind of emotion-based workshop it employs, its four-step process may be useful for us as climate communicators to bear in mind:
1. appreciating what we love about our lives and the world;
2. facing up to the facts of the climate emergency and how they make us feel;
3. thinking freshly about what we can do and how we see ourselves;
4. making practical plans for things we can realistically do (I have reworded the stages.)
Prompts for the ‘good news’ and the ‘bad news’
Where time does not allow a long ‘narrative arc’, for example in a short conversation, my working position is to have in my mind, or at my fingertips, two different lists of facts – facts I think will be particularly persuasive that can be drawn on as appropriate to the person, group or situation:
- ‘good news’ facts that I think will raise people’s spirits, inspire them and give them hope
- ‘bad news’ facts that I think might make them sit up and listen, really understand that this is a crisis.
‘Good News’ facts (or reasons to be optimistic) might include:
- Well-established technologies e.g. in renewable energy
- Emerging technological solutions
- ‘Big picture’ optimistic action plans, e.g. Zero Carbon Britain, Project Drawdown, etc.
- Positive political developments, such as the embrace of sustainability as an aspiration across the political spectrum
- The growing interest in sustainable economics, e.g. Doughnut Economics
- Inspiring examples of local projects or groups achieving successes
- Successful national and international campaigns such as divestment
- Inspiring examples of people getting their message across to politicians e.g. Friday for Future and Extinction Rebellion
‘Bad News’ facts that one might want to draw people’s attention to – to counteract complacency – might include:
- Changes in the natural environment already happening locally and across the UK e.g. milder winters, hotter summers, floods, loss of birds and insects.
- The breaking of records for global temperatures over the last 10 years
- The loss of ice mass in Greenland over the same period of time
- The percentage of the world’s animal and plant species now at risk of extinction
- The IPCC report on the drastic differences between 1.5° of warming and 2° of warming
- The lack of widespread climate conversations currently taking place
Is the main job of climate communicators to give people hope?
In my post Should the arts, creativity and stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?, I quote Marshall Ganz who says that the way to master urgency is to mobilize hope because hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively.
But, in contrast, Greta Thunberg, probably the world’s most famous climate communicator, is sceptical about hope, if hope means a dream of the future you don’t really mean to act on. “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.”
Thunberg calls for action, based on the science, just as Salamon does, and she uses both rationality and emotion to convey her uncompromising truth-telling. She exudes authenticity. In some ways, her example confirms gradualist principles – such as starting close to home, speaking from heart, articulating clear messages, speaking to and mobilising her peers – and yet her boldness is clearly in line with the emergency mobilisation approach.
In a new book, The Book of Hope, Jane Goodall says:
“Hope does not deny all the difficulty and all the danger that exists, but it is not stopped by them. There is a lot of darkness, but our actions create the light… It is important to take action and realise that we can make a difference, and this will encourage others to take action, and then we realise we are not alone and our cumulative actions truly make an even greater difference. That is how we spread the light. And this, of course, makes us all ever more hopeful.”
Summary of key points
- In contrast to the ‘gradualist’ approach, the Climate Mobilisation movement emphasises the urgency and danger of the climate and ecological emergencies. They emphasise the risk of tipping points in nature if we don’t decarbonise within the next 10 years.
- Salamon and others criticise the gradualist view that we must not scare the public; rather, we should tell them the truth loudly and help them face up to reality.
- Individually, facing climate truth requires personal transformation – we will need to change our plans and expectations. Collectively, we need to enter into ‘emergency mode’, as during World War II.
- Salamon invites us to generate masses of climate conversations at ground level, starting with family and friends and expanding from there.
- The main aim of these conversations should be to make people aware of the need for systemic change and to encourage them to take political action.
- The gradualist riposte is their long-standing view that a confrontational approach turns many people off. The climate scientist, Michael Mann, says ‘doomism’ leads to ‘inactivism’. Science does not support the likelihood of imminent, catastrophic tipping points, he says, and action is still possible to prevent things getting even worse.
- Mann and Salamon agree on calling for a World War II style emergency mobilisation and they agree that, in climate communications, ‘urgency must always be balanced with agency’.
- Balancing urgency and agency requires skill and flexibility from the climate communicator. Where possible, we should place negative information in a narrative arc that leads to a positive resolution. Another approach is to think in terms of ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’, drawing on examples appropriate to the particular audience.
- The next big challenge for us as climate communicators in South Yorkshire is to become skilful in moving people up a notch to a higher degree of awareness and commitment.
- Direct appeals to fear should be used with understanding of when they are, or are not, effective. (See appendix below.)
- Some people say that the way to master urgency is to mobilize hope but there is a risk that hope alone does not need to determined action. It may be the other way round: it may be that, by taking action, we generate hope.
If you would like some more specific advice on when to use or not use ‘fear-based appeals’, please see the appendix below.
Appendix: Climate emergency mode and fear appeals
The gradualist consensus about ‘appeals to fear’ is to use them with care. Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke review the literature and comment: “The lesson from public-health campaigns and the academic literature for climate change engagement is not that campaigners should downplay the risks or avoid making people feel negative emotions. Fear-based messaging can be effective when [it meets all of the following conditions]:
- it depicts a significant and relevant threat
- as a short-term method of attracting attention and raising salience
- for those already on the ‘right path’ to changing behaviours
- and when proportionate and constructive responses to the threat described also identified.
- But it can also be counter-productive, and so this type of approach should be deployed with care.”
Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley make similar points:
- Fear messages must induce the amount of fear that is optimal for the particular goal, audience, and context. Too little fear may not engage and energize; too much may overwhelm.
- More likely to be effective if used in ways that conform to general principles of effective persuasive communication (e.g. use of attractive and credible sources, clear and comprehensible content, tailoring to the audience, etc.)
- Unlikely to be effective unless accompanied by instructions or practical advice as to what actions should be taken. (Instructions that break the needed behavioural responses into short-term, achievable goals may increase self-efficacy and encourage engagement.)
- Framed in ways that appeal to the audience. The message should not, in particular, be framed in ways that threaten the livelihood, deep-seated values, sense of self, and/or social identity of the audience.
They emphasise the importance of the audience believing they are able to make a difference. “When the baseline levels of audience efficacy… are low, presentation of efficacy information may be more important than presentation of threat information, because, in the absence of efficacy beliefs, threat information may lead not to adaptive attempts to manage the threat, but to psychological reactance and fear control responses including message derogation and attributions of manipulative intent.”
They offer the following advice:
- Given the potential for unwanted outcomes (including diminishing returns from repeated use, and boomerang effects), fear appeals need to be used with caution. Their content and mode of presentation need to be pilot tested in settings that approximate their intended use with refinements made based on feedback received.
- Seek alternatives to fear appeals such as appeals to positive emotions, to hope rather than to fear. While some advocate strategies that draw on feelings of worry and interest, others recommend the use of empathy-inducing messages, humour, and, for younger audiences, post-modern irony.
 Wallace-Wells, David. (2019) The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming. New York. Tim Duggan Books. https://www.crisrieder.org/thejourney/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-Uninhabitable-Earth-David-Wallace-Wells.pdf
 I am writing this in late 2021.
 The Climate Communication Project at CAST can be accessed here: https://theclimatecommsproject.org/ Their Nov 2018 report: Climate communication in practice: how are we engaging the UK public on climate change? can be found at:
 Specific recommendations for climate communications made by the panellists have been distributed through this paper.
 See, for example, Bill Gates’ discussion of ‘green premiums’ (the extra costs of moving to renewable sources of energy) in his new book, ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. (2021). Allen Lane.
 Surely we can have high expectations of our political representatives and challenge them to confront the reality, no matter how uncomfortable? And yet, Hope for the Future points out that even politicians are human beings and if we don’t approach them thoughtfully, we probably won’t get through to them.
 As for example in his presentation at the University of Sheffield in November 2017.
 Macy, Joanna and Johnstone, Chris. (2012). Active Hope. Novato. New World Library. https://www.activehope.info/
 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ Kathy Aston comments: “Yes, I think this is key. One degree or half of one degree seems so little! I’ve found the factoid that the world was only 6 degrees colder during the last ice age to be quite useful.”
 World Economic Forum, Davos, January 25, 2019
Accessed 31.05.21 at: https://www.environmentshow.com/greta-thunberg-quotes/ Thanks to Heather Hunt for this note.
 Goodall, Jane and Abrams, Douglas. (2021) The Book of Hope, A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet. Penguin Random House UK.
 Corner, Adam and Clarke, Jamie. (2017) Talking Climate, From Research to Practice in Public Engagement. Oxford, Palgrave.
 Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communication by Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley (2017). https://oxfordre.com/climatescience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228620-e-386?__prclt=9mz3Yntu