Facing the Reality: Striking a Balance with Climate Change Communications

climate change communications sign with image of globe that says "One World"
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Climate change is a complex issue with many different perspectives on best communicating the risks and motivating vital action. 

Some argue that dire language about potentially catastrophic impacts conveys the problem’s urgency and helps spur an adequate response. Others — like the author of a recent Fast Company article, “Stop saying climate change will destroy the world. The truth is far scarier” — feel that apocalyptic rhetoric about a “dead planet” is counterproductive and turns people off, arguing that a more solutions-oriented framing would be more effective.

As someone who works in communications, I often think about the language and framing we use to discuss critical issues like our constantly changing climate. Communication has the power to be a driver of action or inaction, even hope or despair. How do we convey the urgency and seriousness of the threat without resorting to exaggeration or alarmism that undermines credibility and can lead to a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and even resistance? Finding that balance is a delicate endeavor but one we must strike effectively to spur meaningful action. 

Understanding the Climate Communications Challenge

The crux of the challenges to communicating climate change: Climate activists are understandably passionate about just how dire the situation is. However, we as a species are hard-wired to worry about things right before us but are terrible at making sacrifices now for impacts a generation away. 

Unabated greenhouse gas emissions send our planet’s temperatures surging, intensifying extreme weather, disrupting ecosystems and threatening food and water security for millions — if not billions — of people. Given that climate change could render some regions uninhabitable from rising seas, drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events, the facts are alarming enough — and the scale of the potential consequences is hard to overstate. If emissions remain unchecked, the risks to human health, security and prosperity become increasingly severe with every fraction of a degree of additional warming.

At the same time, the article’s author makes a fair critique that apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change leading to complete human extinction misrepresents the reality we likely face. Life on Earth has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and persist through cataclysmic events, and the most authoritative scientific projections suggest that while climate change poses an existential threat to many species and human communities, total human extinction in the foreseeable future is unlikely. As the Fast Company piece states, “The more likely reality is a planet that’s very much alive, and full of suffering.” 

So, where does that leave those of us trying to communicate effectively on this critical issue? I believe the solution lies in striking a careful balance — vividly portraying the truly devastating consequences that unfolding climate impacts will have without compromising scientific accuracy or invoking an alarmist “doomsday” narrative. 

The Power of Effective Climate Communications

While clearly communicating the scale of the threat, we must not diminish prospects for positive change and resilience. As the article notes, decades of dire predictions that failed to materialize undermine credibility and stoke a sense of inevitability around climate impacts. 

As communicators, our aim should be galvanizing action, not reinforcing feelings that it’s too late. In my opinion, we shouldn’t speak in polite euphemisms masking the horror, but using vague apocalyptic language is not productive either.

We must illustrate in visceral detail what a few degrees hotter planet would mean — giving vivid examples of the kinds of devastation real communities are facing even now. Leaning on projections from bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Academy of Sciences and inspiring examples of clean energy and sustainability progress show a path forward, even if imperfect. Examples of progress in deploying clean energy and reimagining sustainable systems show that positive change is possible.

Finding the Right Balance to Convey Urgency, Not Hopelessness

Crucially, this reality must be conveyed in a manner that gives people a reason to take action, not succumb to hopelessness. We should clearly and unflinchingly convey the risk of inaction — not through hyperbole but grounded in the latest science on potential human suffering and ecosystem collapse. But we have to simultaneously avoid alarmist rhetoric, instead providing recognizable examples to drive action. 

Maybe there is no perfect solution, but there is still a strong imperative to pursue emissions reductions rapidly to forestall worst-case scenarios. Communicating this reality in simple, relatable terms is crucial. 

The challenge before us is immense, but that makes getting the climate change communication strategy right all the more important. Finding an essential balance between sounding a justifiable alarm and not lapsing into vague alarmism will help make the public feel the visceral impacts climate change will have but not give up on the prospects for mitigating them. 

Spurring action and resilience in the face of a dilemma is never easy, but it’s a task communicators must embrace boldly and strategically if we hope to transition to a sustainable path — one of urgent truth-telling, important illustration and solution-oriented resilience — for future generations. 

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