Climate Emotions: Helpless Or Hopeful?

With the recent IPCC warning that we may have perhaps a dozen years before we encounter severe and irreversible impacts of climate change, it comes as little surprise that a recent survey* in climate communications research indicates 7 in 10 people in the U.S. are concerned about global warming, with a third of them "very worried."  About half of those surveyed have personally experienced its effects in their own lives and believe others in the US are being harmed as well.

As science communicators, we may have had years to consider the catastrophic consequences of global warming. But for those who are just beginning to realize that "this is real, this is now", what are the psychological impacts?

The same survey* indicated that people are more or less evenly split between feeling helpless and feeling hopeful. I encountered similar attitudes when I recently participated in a focus group with other students at The London School of Economics and Political Science, where we explored the ways we connect with and see ourselves in relationship with nature. It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to climate change. Participants reported feeling overwhelmed, frightened and uncertain, but at the same time they felt a deep responsibility to future generations and to other species.

The good news is that, as climate communicators, our work is having a clear impact: Yale and George Mason University researchers* found that a significant portion of those who have changed their mind about climate change have done so because they have become more informed and are taking this challenge more seriously. However, we also need to be aware of the different ways individuals may be processing what could be new and frightening information.

So how do we convey the significance and urgency of climate change in a way that will leave our audience hopeful and inspired to act, rather than overwhelmed and discouraged? Fortunately, the behavioral science-based communications resources developed by Frameworks Institute and taught through the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) provide critical insight.

When we use shared values like “protection” or “responsible management” as the lens through which we approach this topic, we keep the narrative focused on why action matters and help to prime a civic mindset that encourages people to think as citizens. Acting together, we can support community-level solutions that are bigger, bolder, and more meaningful than what any one of us could accomplish alone.

As communicators, we can encourage engagement behaviors that will help our audiences connect with other likeminded people in their community. We can also use specific examples of the impacts we’ve already seen from inspirational environmental movements, both past and present, to help people understand how our actions today can have a lasting impact on generations to come. Starting these values-based, solutions-focused conversations spreads the hope we need for swift and effective climate action in our communities.   

*Summarized in the December 2018 report "Climate Change in the American Mind" as part of a decade-long joint study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University


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