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Climate crisis messaging – are we going about this all wrong?

By Anthony Hughes
29 August 2023
Corporate Reputation
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)

Climate crisis messaging – are we going about this all wrong?  

Let’s talk about the weather. Whilst this summer has been relatively mild in the UK, this summer’s news agenda has been dominated by the terrifying wildfires spreading across most of southern Europe and other parts of the world. In a weird twist, the Daily Telegraph recently reported a growing new trend of ‘drizzle tourists’ who are now traveling to the UK for our cool climate. 

I wrote a piece for the SEC Newgate newsletter a while ago which touched on a growing and very real phenomenon of climate anxiety. Another summer of media coverage that the world is on fire and the oceans are boiling will not have done anything to dampen the sense of existential dread many of us feel that our planet is barrelling towards total system collapse. 

Despite that, in the way that only the English can, there has been much wringing of hands about the weather this summer, too much grey and rain and not enough sun, but wasn’t it ever thus? Pretty standard English summer if you ask me, and since the rest of the world is boiling or burning, we should probably count ourselves lucky. This year felt like summer when I was younger, picnics rained off, sporting events interrupted. The only thing missing is the swarms of dead insects smeared all over the window of the family car in late summer. 

But I understand the sense of cognitive dissonance about climate action. On the one hand scientists and the media are endlessly telling us that the climate is collapsing and on the other, things don’t really ‘feel’ that different (in the UK at least) because the change is small and incremental, so we barely notice. People chopping down the Amazon rainforest to grow beans for pigs in China is something happening far away and there is very little we can we really do without going ‘full activist’.

I suspect one of the main reasons for the sense of climate anxiety is the feeling of helplessness. We are told we could all do more to recycle, buy second hand clothes, eat less meat, take less flights, get an electric car, the list goes on… But the scale of the crisis is so big and existential, actions to reduce one’s own carbon footprint feel somewhat token without a systemic change to the way we live on the scale of the covid pandemic lockdowns. Not to mention the fact that the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’ itself was actually a clever marketing ploy conceived by big oil to redirect the focus away from their polluting ways and putting the onus on the consumer. 

Aside from the enormity of the problem, it’s hard to know if and how we can individually make a difference. A study by the Behavioural Insights Team found that people really struggle to accurately rank different ‘green’ actions based on their impact (people actually perform worse than random). 

So, we could all do with better information, but perhaps more important than ‘what to do’ is ‘why’. People need something to fight for, a vision or goal to believe in, because that’s how our brains work. You might say ‘not living in an apocalypse’ should be incentive enough. But that, for most people in the UK struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, spiralling mortgages, childcare, social justice, access to healthcare, is lower on the list – most of us just want to get through the week and will deal with the climate apocalypse another day. Moreover, studies have shown that most people just give up trying if the outlook is too bleak. 

If people are to make meaningful change and sacrifices to their lifestyles, the messaging also needs to be more local and contextually relevant to people’s daily lives. Climate messaging related to things like money, family, health, fairness, quality of life, are much more likely to get us to act than coverage of environmental crimes happening thousands of miles away however angry it makes us.  

Mad Men’s Don Draper, in his fictitious pitch to Kodak, talked about the advertising maxim that ‘new’ is always better, something that today’s hyper consumerist world gleefully embraces with both hands and, no doubt one of the main reasons the world is in the state it is in now. However, in the same pitch he also talks about something just as powerful, something ‘delicate but potent’, and that is nostalgia. Many would say it is too delicate for this conversation given the stakes, but perhaps we need to change the narrative around the climate crisis to one that creates a much closer sentimental bond with the planet, a vision of a place to feel safe and hopeful again, like those long carefree summers growing up, when there wasn’t a wildfire on every hillside and the BBQ has been rained off again. #maketheclimategreatagain