Enabling a new climate story sourcing from solutions, changemakers, and local realities
You will certainly remember the rise of Greta Thunberg back in 2018. Since then, Thunberg has raised her voice sharing vehement punchlines with decision-makers. She has been able to raise awareness about the issue of climate change while bringing some activists together.
Nearly everyone has followed her narrative framing. From activists to media, the common story of fear, despair, and jargon has flooded us. Still, this has not delivered on the promise of societal change.
As we enter a critical time, we need a new story to speak about climate change. A story based on inclusive facts, supportive wording, and inspirational solutions. A story empowering citizens to lead change and contribute to our collective future.
This article gathers existing insights, research and personal thoughts on how to drive change through a new narrative framing. A step by step guide to shape your narrative and bring people alongside your just cause.
To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.
As we collectively face climate change, we see clear differences in opinions and comprehension of the situation. The Yale Programme on Climate Change Communication has created a framework dividing 6 main types of citizens when it comes to people’s understanding and beliefs (Global Warming’s Six Americas).
- The Alarmed: they are convinced that global warming is happening. They recognise it is human-caused and it represents an urgent threat. They strongly support climate policies while most of them do not know what is possible to do to solve the problem.
- The Concerned: they believe human-caused global warming is happening and represents a serious threat. They support climate policies but tend to believe that climate impacts are still distant in time and space, thus climate change remains a lower priority issue.
- The Cautious: they haven’t yet made up their minds to decide whether global warming is happening or not, if it is human-caused and if it is serious.
- The Disengaged: they know little about global warming and rarely or never heard about it in the media.
- The Doubtful: they do not think global warming is happening or believe it is a natural cycle. They do not think much about the issue and do not consider it a serious risk.
- The Dismissive: they believe global warming is not happening and is therefore not a threat. Most of this group endorse conspiracy theories (e.g., “global warming is a hoax”).
Identifying psychological barriers to climate action
The current narrative relies heavily on old powered approaches making it complex for citizens to fully grasp the meaning of the situation. Per Stoknes, the writer of What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, identifies 5 main barriers to the current narrative.
- Distance: the problem of climate change seems far away. When the Amazon is burning and you live 10 000km away from it, low are the chances that you understand what’s happening. It does not affect people directly.
- Doom: the issue of climate change is described as a “loss” or a “cost” requiring citizens to make “sacrifices”. The narrative relies on the problem while ignoring the solutions and answers to solve the crisis. People feel powerless and unwilling to give up on their living conditions.
- Dissonance: there is a lack of convenient behavioural and social support to support citizens making the move towards climate-friendly behaviours. We know we shouldn’t be burning fossil fuels but what about our daily commute to work, our travels, and leisure. It still often remains a heavy commitment to stand alone against the way society has been designed. Citizens can feel they are in a lonely battle putting their relationships at risk.
- Denial: this will always be easier to deny the problem rather than face it and embrace its complexity. This is a self-defence mechanism for individuals to find refuge from fear and guilt. It is a shortcut to avoid hard questions.
- Identity: we all have values and beliefs shaping our identity. Intertwined with our egos, our identity does not like to be challenged. Our cultural identity overrides the facts and takes the lead in influencing our behaviours. People will always tend to protect their identity avoiding putting it at risk for conflicting causes.
Beyond these five barriers, Stoknes also suggests to use the term “climate disruption”. He considers that it is important to move away from current terms such as: “climate change” being too neutral, “global warming” potentially misleading if applied to temperatures, or “climate crisis” being too fearful-driven.
Framing the messaging to nudge climate action
Per Stoknes suggests a new framing to bring climate action closer to citizens. He proposes a 5s model shifting the way we speak about climate disruption.
- Social: the new narrative needs to focus on leveraging social networks. Individuals will follow the peers they trust and appreciate. By facilitating social connections, we can drive exponential impact. Local communities can be leveraged to use social ties for collective action.
Focus on the local context and what your audience is already having in common. Motivate and connect!
- Supportive: adopting a supportive framework will help audiences be inspired by the opportunities. By showcasing existing solutions and role models, we can help them feel better. They will be filled with positive emotions and energy.
State the problem but focus on highlighting existing solutions. Encourage and inspire your audience!
- Simple: using inclusive language and narrative can help people connect with the topic. Jargon-free facts and inputs can tremendously improve the readability of the situation and make it convenient for your audience.
Avoid speaking about 1.5°, PPM, or Net-Zero for your audience to relate to the topic. Simplify and facilitate!
- Story-based: people identify easily with peers sharing stories related to theirs. Using more stories can help showcase the interconnectedness between individuals and inspire people to react.
Use more stories from changemakers and citizens. Storytell and highlight!
- Signals: it is essential for audiences to measure progress and understand what it looks like. Giving people indicators for feedback can help them keep up with the cause and aim for more.
Set up the intention and objectives while setting up indicators on the way. Provide feedback and monitor!
Co-designing the path forward
As we face unprecedented times, we have the tremendous opportunity to co-design new climate narratives. In order to do so, it seems essential to focus on opportunities, positive and inspirational framing, and build a social dynamic.
Focusing on opportunities can help us turn barriers upside down. Climate change is an opportunity to live a healthier and more meaningful existence. Let’s focus on what we can gain from acting together.
Developing positive and inspirational framing can help us spread hope. We already have all the solutions to solve climate disruption. Let’s highlight them and make them tangible so people can take ownership of it.
Building a social dynamic can help us drive individuals to follow their peers in leading climate action. Human beings are naturally imitating others. Let’s highlight the ones leading change, bring them together, and invite their peers to join.