Politicisation: how can climate communicators help people move into campaigning?

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. A summary of the practical suggestions made in this post can be found at the bottom.

In my second post in this series, Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators, I suggested that you could think of engaging with an individual in terms of a ladder, from first attracting their interest, through to ‘politicising’ them, i.e. stimulating or supporting them to become active in seeking to influence the powers that be, perhaps by joining a party or campaigning group.

This is the most speculative of these posts because, despite some involvement in environmental politics over many years, I cannot claim any expertise in how to politicise people. The nearest I came was planning and facilitating a workshop for my local Green Party where I supported party members to rethink their approach to the engagement and motivation of new members, following at that time a surge of interest. I’m afraid to say that, despite some very interesting discussions on the day, the pressures of local election campaigning soon took precedence again, the more innovative ideas were not taken up and the surge of interest faded. So this post is more informed by my awareness of the pitfalls than by expertise in how to surmount them. However, I do offer a few touchstones from the literature that may be helpful in thinking about campaign-oriented communications and I was very lucky to be able to interview one senior figure in the field.

It is worth saying that the context of writing this post is that my local campaigning group, South Yorkshire Climate Alliance (SCA) has succeeded in raising funding for community-based climate awareness projects. This development has raised the question for us: what is the relationship between campaigning (seeking to influence politicians and the public to achieve policy commitments towards sustainability) and engagement and education? To answer this question, I would refer you back to the first post in the series, Climate Communications – An Overview, and the importance of aligning your communications objectives with the wider objectives of your project.

The seduction approach

One approach to encouraging political action by previously unengaged members of the community could be described as seduction: offering them enjoyable, relevant, local activities, gradually feeding in political insights and drawing them into action through a ladder of engagement, starting with very simple things people can do, which don’t take up too much time. This approach aims at recruitment. Political parties and campaign groups occasionally have induction programmes taking this kind of approach.

But my experience is that the pressures of day-to-day politics (on top of people’s day-to-day pressures) and the culture of earnestness within many local parties and groups prevent such programmes being set up or maintained. It is only too common that interested people arrive at their first meeting, are barely greeted, are rapidly thrown into an arcane and intense ‘business’ meeting and never get a chance to talk about why they came. Unsurprisingly, only the most committed who feel comfortable in this kind of culture come back. So, if your group is to engage members of the community successfully, it must apply some emotional intelligence and consider seriously what it means to be (a) welcoming and (b) encouraging.

The principles and practical ideas outlined in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators include a wide range of suggestions, from how to make early contacts welcoming through to this challenge of politicisation. It may be useful to think in terms of a ladder of engagement, such as I outline there. When people first approach a campaigning group, it is because they have begun to be concerned about the issue, or having been concerned about the issue for some time, something has happened to galvanise them into wanting to do something about it. So when they first make contact, they want to talk about their reasons are doing so. Isn’t that obvious? But how often do established groups make time and space for new people to talk?

They may also want to air questions and doubts, and concerns about their capacity. They may want to go slowly; they may be fearful about being drawn into something they don’t really know a lot about or which looks daunting. They may need time to build familiarity and trust with the people in your group.

On the other hand, they may come to that first meeting all fired up and ready to go.  What can I do? What can I do that will make a real difference? What can I do tomorrow?

Established members of the group need to be sensitive to where each particular person is at, and ideally to have appropriate suggestions that they will be keen to take up.

The standard advice is to have at hand a range of options, from the simplest, quickest and least demanding through to something that sounds significant and exciting.  One person  may only go so far as to sign a petition; another may be ready to join in a non-violent direct action in the city centre. Your communications should reflect these options. Stephen Duncombe[1] recommends that you ‘layer’ your message: Start with simple, eye-catching headlines, and signpost to more complex levels of information and analysis: 5-second read, 60-second read, 10-minute read, 30–60-minute read. (I think I could improve on my own practice here.)

In a similar way, as climate communicators, we need to develop the skill of helping people to ‘raise their game’. We come back to our central challenge – how to move skilfully between encouraging and motivating people (giving them an increased sense of ‘agency’) and confronting them with the ’urgency’ of the situation, galvanising them to act decisively. (I discuss this challenge in more depth in my post ‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions.)

If we do nothing else, we should bear in mind the call made by Margaret Klein Salamon amongst others – to make everyone we talk to aware of the need for systemic change. While it is good to help people to think about their own carbon footprints, about practical things they can do that will help them feel they are contributing usefully, we need to be aware that it appears to be a tactic of the fossil fuel industry to direct the spotlight at individual behaviour change, to shift attention away from what they are doing. All discussions about decarbonising activities and projects should therefore encourage people to take political action, if only at the level of showing them how to write an email to their MP.

In terms of drawing new people into a more political way of thinking, the anthropologist Veronica Barassi makes interesting points about the impact of social media on political activism. (I came across these ideas in a book by Jenny Odell.)[2] Barassi says that the immediacy of social media closes down the time needed for ‘political elaboration’. Because the content that activists share online has to be ‘catchy’, “activists do not have the space and time to articulate their political reflections.” Barassi also suggests that networks built on social media “are often based on a common reaction/emotion and not on a shared political project and neither on a shared understanding of social conflict.” Strong ties and well-defined political projects, she says, still come from “action on the ground… face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation.” Odell draws out from Barassi’s analysis that thought and deliberation require space and time both for individual ‘incubation’ and for dialogue with others.

I note too Barassi’s emphasis on a shared understanding of your political objectives and chosen methods. These are things that can be explained to new people but, please, without browbeating them!  I speak from experience; the heavy-handed lecturing and interrogating that I experienced as a young man from a representative of a far left party switched me off mainstream political campaigning for many years. What I think I would have appreciated – and others may appreciate at the present time – would have been thoughtful explanation of the values, beliefs and priorities of different political affiliations or ideologies and why you have chosen your own affiliation or ideology. That’s what I’d call basic ‘political education’, alongside explanation of political practices and strategies on the ground. I assume that, if you studied politics at school, the teacher would present such information in an reasonably impartial way. Unfortunately, most activists are so tribal they aren’t willing to explain these things, so anyone who approaches them is presented with a de-facto ultimatum: “either accept our ideology wholesale and join our tribe or you’re not welcome here.” That’s not my approach; I place a lot of importance on promoting critical thinking and encouraging people to think things through for themselves – even if they conclude they have different beliefs to me.


We live in a time when many white people seem finally to have become galvanised around the enduring injustice of racism and the rights and needs of minorities are being debated perhaps as never before. This is a huge topic that I’m not going to dig into here but I would refer you back briefly to the concept of rapport, described in Practical Guidance For Climate Communicators. You can build rapport by interacting in a warm, respectful and genuine way – or you can have it simply by the fact of sharing common characteristics. But in many community groups, some social types dominate the membership – exactly because human beings are attracted to and feel comfortable in groups of people who ‘get’ their way of being.

If you turn up at a meeting or event about the climate and nature emergencies and you can see straightaway that you are the only black person in the room, or one of the few women or young people, or one of the few people with a regional accent, or some other characteristic, you need to have a certain self-confidence to navigate the situation. A warm and respectful welcome is probably all that is needed to help you feel more at ease, along with sensitivity to the points made above. But to go deeper, activists who are more aligned with a historical ‘oppressor’ group would be well advised to attend some training on unconscious bias, giving them supportive time and space to reflect on their own backgrounds and how they formed their values and beliefs – including unaware prejudices. Then there is less chance of them putting their foot in it when welcoming new colleagues.

The community organising approach

Rather than trying to seduce people into becoming more politically engaged, the community organising approach starts directly from political questions. Matthew Bolton describes the approach in his book ‘How to Resist, Turn Protest To Power’.[3] You start by asking people what makes them angry, he says. You encourage them to tell each other stories about how particular problems have affected them. You support them to develop ideas for actions that they want to take (you don’t try to impose your ideas.) You facilitate their discussions, helping them break down the big problems into specific issues, identifying who the decision makers are and who has the power to make the changes they need. Then, together, you ‘take action to get a reaction’. You provoke the decision makers. If they don’t agree to implement the changes you ask for, you escalate the action with ever more creative tactics, learning as you go and celebrating the small wins as you build incrementally up to the bigger issue. In this process of relevant, meaningful, practical action, people learn team work, they build solidarity and they reach for real political power.

A core concept of the community organising approach is ‘self interest’, which can seem contradictory to activists whose motivation is altruism. Community organising asserts that self interest is a realistic starting point. By self interest they mean:

  • appreciating our own needs and motivations
  • appreciating the self interest of others
  • recognising that people are motivated to get involved by the things they care deeply about.

The implication here is that most people will not be drawn into activism by stories of people suffering thousands of miles away. They need to start from where they are at. And where they are at may not align neatly with the priorities of your local climate awareness programme. You may want them to think about reducing their car use but they may be more concerned about bullying at the local playground, for example. Bolton says you should start where they are at but how does that fit with meeting the objectives of your organisation and your funders? This is definitely something to think about.

It would be interesting to discuss whether the community organising approach is at all relevant to better off sections of the population. Self-interest for them may mean thinking about their investments, their pensions, their homes, etc. and they may be able to effect changes in those contexts. Whatever the class background, messages which seem to imply that people’s material interests will be badly affected are likely to be problematic – unless, perhaps, they have become convinced that this is a national, World War II type emergency and we genuinely are all in it together – and at the time of writing (just prior to COP 26, October 2021) we haven’t got there yet.

I note that Bill Gates, writing as an industrialist in his book How To Avoid A Climate Disaster[4], warns that sustainable technologies will not be taken up if the “climate premium” (the extra cost)  is too high. Idealists like me might like to think otherwise but when I ran this by one of my climate conversations groups (a family) they just thought Gates was completely right. People aren’t going to go for sustainable solutions if they are more expensive, they said. And that included them!

So the community organising approach, with its emphasis on people’s self interest and immediate concerns, can be challenging when it comes to encouraging climate activism. The culture maybe shifting now but only recently activists going into less well off areas here where I live found that people were not raising the climate as one of their main concerns.  Many people have enough pressures to deal with day-to-day without trying to grapple with enormous, complex, global problems, especially people living in more straitened circumstances. Bolton’s solution is to propose actions that will have a material benefit for people in that community. Rather than trying to educate them about climate politics, for example, you would be better off with a specific practical goal, such as encouraging them to switch to a renewable energy provider or supporting them to seek funds for better insulation that will save them money.

Engaging and training up the strategic leaders of the future

In an interview in 2014, Keith Allott, Director (Power Transition), European Climate Foundation, gave me his analysis of the priorities for climate campaigning, as he then saw them from his position as a prominent climate strategist. He placed his central focus on the transition to renewable energy. He said that we need both grassroots and political action but he emphasised the importance of getting the right people into government, which means training young people now.

Like both Bolton and Barassi above, Allott thought that many young activists and politics students needed to develop a better theory of power or change. In developing that theory – and a realistic strategy – young campaigners need to be helped to develop an analysis of the social context. We live, he said, in a society that is:

  • infantilised (e.g. celebrity culture)
  • fragmented and individualised (e.g. loss of religions and unions)
  • characterised by a low pay and/or overwork culture, so people are worn out.

He questioned the two main activist approaches (aggressive demonstrations and personal lifestyle changes.) Individual lifestyle changes aren’t the priority, he said; that’s blaming individuals who have little or no control. Climate communications should emphasise the citizen role, he said. We should aim to empower people to know how to contribute to the big changes needed – and then ‘do their bit’ in behaviour change as a fun, communal, bonding,  guilt-free activity.

One approach to leadership development: Climate Reality Project

Former American Vice President, Al Gore, who has been very influential in making the general public take the climate crisis seriously, has focused his efforts in recent years on developing climate leadership skills in the community. He points out that the key lever for change is to persuade politicians to pass laws that will make sustainable practices obligatory. But we come up against the usual paradox in this field, that the politicians say they can only act when their constituents put pressure on them. So we need committed and skilled climate communicators at all levels of society, some working to build the widespread ‘social mandate’  that is going to be needed for the general population to support the necessary changes, others working more specifically to target and influence particular politicians. Gore’s Climate Reality Project runs training courses which aim to equip and inspire ordinary citizens to become effective climate communicators and campaigners. They say, on their website:

“Our signature activist program, the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, has trained over 36,000 change makers worldwide since 2006. The result is a global network of activists leading the fight for climate solutions through our 10 branch offices – Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa and a partnership in China – and 140 chapters across the US.

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 behavioral science with the emotional power of compelling stories, raising awareness and inspiring action in online audiences everywhere.”[5]

(For more on this question of stories, see my blog in this series: Should the arts, creativity and especially stories be at the heart of climate communications and campaigning?)

All I know about the Climate Reality Project is what I’ve seen online and one conversation I had with one of their presenters at COP 21. I suspect that it serves up an exciting and inspiring cocktail of information, practical guidance and solidarity. I’m a little concerned that the approach may seem a bit American to some of us in the UK, especially older people, who have not been so good, historically, at embracing enthusiastic styles of communication, but I’m basing that on a very superficial impression. If I’m at all right, then it may be a matter of needing to adjust the approach to suit this particular culture.

My own recent experience of running a climate conversations course for university students here in the UK was very positive; the young people seemed to be longing for a space where they could not only talk about why they cared so much about the climate and nature emergencies but also learn skills in how to communicate their concern to family, friends, colleagues and general public. Several of them fed back that my invitation to reflect on their personal histories, values and motivations had been important to them. My experience is that, if you want to get people deeply engaged, you need to tune into their deeper emotions.

To conclude, I hope this post has stimulated some thoughts for you, if only to be frustrated with its skimpiness! If you are somebody who has a lot of experience in the field and who could share with others your knowledge of what works, I would be absolutely delighted to refer people to your own writing, to insert your comments here, or even to replace the whole post. The point of writing these posts is not just for me to mull over things I’ve read, it’s to enable grassroots climate communicators to be as effective as they can be. You can contact me at: nuttgensclimate@outlook.com.


The suggestions covered in this post include:

  • be clear about the differences between campaigning and engagement/education, between organisational meetings and induction meetings
  • make time and space for new people to talk, build trust and develop a shared understanding of your political objectives and methods
  • build rapport with new people by interacting in a warm, respectful and genuine way
  • have at hand a range of options for them, from ‘soft’ to ‘full on’
  • activists more aligned with a historical ‘oppressor’ group would be well advised to attend unconscious bias training
  • explain how people can contribute to the big changes needed, bearing in mind that the key lever for change is to persuade politicians to pass laws that will make sustainable practices obligatory
  • consider appealing to people’s self interest, highlighting the material benefits of sustainability
  • develop skill in helping them to ‘raise their game’
  • avoid guilt-tripping and approach lifestyle change as a fun, communal, bonding activity
  • consider how you might train up the strategic leaders of the future, helping young activists to develop a sound theory of power and change
  • to get people deeply engaged, tune into their deeper emotions


[1] Duncombe, Stephen. (2007.) Dream – Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy. New York. The New Press. See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/253775.Dream

[2] Quoted and summarised in Odell, Jenny (2019). How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy. New York, Melville House Publishing. Pages 164-165.

[3] Bolton, Matthew. (2018.) How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power. London. Bloomsbury Publishing. See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35668862-how-to-resist

[4] Gates, Bill. (2021) How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need. Penguin Random House UK.

[5] https://www.climaterealityproject.org/our-mission

‘Emergency mobilisation’: the heated debate about the harnessing of uncomfortable feelings – and some possible solutions

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”[1]) 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.[2] 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.[3] 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).[4]
  • 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.[5]

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[6] – 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.)[9]

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[10]
  • 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.”[11]

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.”[12]

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.”[13]

Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley[14] 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.


[1] 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

[2] I am writing this in late 2021.

[3] https://climateoutreach.org/reports/how-to-have-a-climate-change-conversation-talking-climate/

[4] 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:

[5] Specific recommendations for climate communications made by the panellists have been distributed through this paper.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] As for example in his presentation at the University of Sheffield in November 2017.

[9] Macy, Joanna and Johnstone, Chris. (2012). Active Hope. Novato. New World Library. https://www.activehope.info/

[10] Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºChttps://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.”

[11] 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.

[12] Goodall, Jane and Abrams, Douglas. (2021) The Book of Hope, A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet. Penguin Random House UK.

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

[14] 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