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  • Ray Ward

Messaging and Storytelling for the Climate Crisis in the COVID-19 era

As the world continues to grapple with the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are hoping that we don’t lose sight of the crisis facing our climate, which may be even more prolonged, intractable, and deadly by comparison. Messaging around the climate crisis continues to be a challenge, perhaps even more so during the pandemic. Creative messaging frameworks and storytelling may help us to better understand the relationships between these crises, as well as drive support for climate reform while we confront the immediate threat of the novel coronavirus.

Recognize our psychological limitations and be wary of “doom and gloom.”

Because of our innate psychological makeup, we have a hard time wrapping our brains around the issue of climate change. For something so large, with unpredictable consequences that do not feel immediate, and without an easily identifiable enemy, it’s too easy to kick the can down the road. “Doom and gloom” messaging is also a turn-off; apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric triggers emotional shutdown and doesn’t inspire a belief in solutions. In the context of the pandemic, it’s also difficult to carve out mental space to the “distant” threat of climate change when COVID-19 immediately threatens fundamentals of public health and economic well-being. We tend to categorize these crises at different levels of analysis; a climate crisis facing the planet feels like less of a direct threat psychologically than a virus attacking individual bodies.

Spotlight parallels to and direct relationships with the COVID-19 pandemic.

While crises may compete for attention in the public eye, messaging around climate change should both highlight parallels and direct relationships with the pandemic, not just the differences. Climate scientists have noted that once we get COVID-19 under control, the climate crisis will be the biggest threat facing humans, with no equivalent of a vaccine on the horizon. While this message is valid, it fails to tap into the intense collective focus on the pandemic at this moment in time, and does not highlight either the similarities of crises or the ways in which they are intertwined.

The pandemic has shown us that our systems are fragile; when there’s a shock, the fabric of our society starts to unravel. What started out as a health problem, quickly turned into an economic problem and an issue that threatens our most essential institutions. Similarly, droughts, storms, and extreme weather will trigger a cascading set of consequences that will quickly move beyond isolated concerns about “climate.” Climate change is set to trigger a constellation pandemic-like shocks, as extreme weather threatens food supplies, housing, water, and infrastructure across the world.

The climate crisis and COVID-19 are also deeply intertwined. Both crises put our most vulnerable populations at risk, and exacerbate systemic inequalities. Recent studies have also highlighted relationships between air pollution and COVID-19 death rates. Messaging around climate change should tap into our current attention to the COVID-19 and underscore the relationships between these crises. At their core, both require an intensive need for science, industry, policy, and collective action to come together in order to address the large-scale problems at hand.

Highlight tangible examples of success (even if limited), to show that change is possible.

Climate science messaging requires a delicate balance of highlighting problems and featuring successful “wins.” Climate scientists have found it difficult to have their messages breakthrough into the public consciousness in large part because the problems seem too vast and nearly impossible to address. This creates a dilemma; highlighting problems are necessary to create urgency, but people tune out doomsday messaging. The problems need to be framed differently, but so do the solutions. Reducing emissions from fossil fuels is not impossible; we have wide-ranging evidence of policies that work and those that don’t. Despite being far from where we need to be, we have decades of research to build upon, there are examples of success that can be scaled, and there are glimmers of hope amidst a daunting challenge. We need more political will to expand these solutions, but this support will only come from a sense of possibility that needs to be felt by voters and policymakers in a visceral way.

Focus on scalable policy solutions more than changes to consumer behavior

While individual behavior changes are still important, messaging needs to focus more on enabling policy and leadership changes that advance large-scale solutions. Solving climate change requires a deep sense of collective responsibility marked by changes in behavior, but individual lifestyle changes will not be enough to solve this crisis. Influencing sustainable consumer behavior is of great interest to environmentalists and marketers alike, but “doing our part” by consuming sustainable products, recycling, traveling less, or shopping locally is not sufficient given the challenges at hand. They also run the risk of creating a sense of complacency for the average consumer and may perpetuate economic systems that run counter to sustainability. Messaging around climate change should focus on mobilizing support for legislation and political leadership committed to large-scale change. Effective communications and evocative, relatable stories can help bold and ambitious policy agendas become more normalized and accepted in the current political environment. This is likely to go further than messaging around more incremental changes to consumer behavior.

Tell stories about the human impact of climate change.

Let’s face it, when we close our eyes and think about climate change, most of the time we see polar bears, penguins, and ice caps. Maybe we see wildfires or flooding in remote areas, but it usually feels like someone else’s problem. Regions like the Arctic and Amazon are some of the most critical ecosystems at play in the global climate crisis, but they tend to feel very far away, especially when so many critical issues hit closer to home. Stories are one of the most effective tools for helping people make sense of complex issues, connect emotionally with the lived experiences of others, and making abstract topics more tangible. Many communities right now are acutely experiencing the deep social and economic impacts of climate change. The more that these stories can be shared in authentic and emotionally-resonant ways, especially through visually rich multimedia, the easier it will be for people to grasp the real and human consequences of the climate crisis.

Climate change presents immense scientific, technological, and economic challenges, as well as considerable psychological barriers for both voters and policymakers. The COVID-19 crisis has profoundly affected how we collectively understand crises and the interconnectedness of social issues. In tackling the climate crisis, stories and messages can play a powerful role in shaping the ways in which we view both the problems and solutions.


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