A recent New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” stirred up controversy by synthesizing the worst-case predictions of climate change and its possible impacts. Rather than dwelling on these scenarios, however, climate communicators can use the attention the article drew to the issue as an opportunity to reframe how we discuss it.
As ecoAmerica’s 15 Steps to Create Effective Climate Communications guide points out, doom-and-gloom messages can cause people to disengage. Solutions inspire and empower. But we don’t have to choose – successful communications balance both aspects.
ecoAmerica decided to explore positive vs. negative climate messages further in our September 2017 American Climate Perspectives Survey. The survey found that:
- 68% of Americans feel hopeful or motivated when they hear or read that “America is moving rapidly towards clean energy, and this will ensure a livable future.”
- 63% of Americans feel hopeful or motivated when they hear or read that “We can heal our climate by removing climate change pollution from our oceans and atmosphere.”
- 61% of Americans are concerned or motivated to take action when they hear/read the doomsday message, “Climate change is a threat to our lives and will eventually destroy our ability to live on Earth.”
Looking more closely at the doomsday-oriented message, the findings show that 35% of respondents are worried or concerned and that 7% felt hopeless. As ecoAmerica has noted, these emotions can easily convert to fatalism and resignation if not addressed properly. Instead, climate communicators must harness the opportunity to convert worry to action. Rather than choosing doomsday versus utopia, we have the opportunity to communicate impacts, solutions, AND empowerment using appropriate tone and sequence.
The September survey also explored a spectrum of other responses to positive and negative climate messages. Doubt was pervasive, making up over 20% of responses to each message. However, it varied according to political affiliation.
- Republicans expressed the highest doubt across all messages compared with other affiliations, and particularly expressed it on the accuracy of the information (as high as 25%).
- Democrats expressed the lowest amount of doubt (as low as 3%).
- An additional 9%-18% of respondents doubted whether the positive or negative scenario was possible, with higher percentages driven mostly by Republicans and Independents.
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