By Elin Westerling
For years, facts about how human activities are causing climate disruption on a global scale have headlined across the world. Yet efforts to address it have been so inadequate that we now find ourselves in a situation where the change is irreversible. Many ask themselves: what went wrong? How did we let this happen? The climate crisis is by now so urgent that it calls for alarm. But panic might backfire; induce hopelessness and apathy rather than inspiring action. How should climate change be communicated most effectively to break the deadlock and motivate sustainable change? Do we need more hope, or to be more scared?
In October last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what quickly became nicknamed “the doomsday report.” The Special Report outlined the impacts of global warming of above pre-industrial levels, representing the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement targets. Its takeaway message: climate consequences at 1.5 C are likely to be much worse than previously expected, and global emissions must be eliminated within the coming decade to not surpass this level. There is no doubt, climate change is our present and future and it demands action like no issue before it, in communities and in countries, from the local to the global. But to anyone who has been following the news, the direness of the situation cannot be all that surprising. So how come although most people know, and care about it, so little has happened?
Part of the answer can be found in how the messages of climate change have been framed. A typical news segment has included a depressing story and/or fact, ending with a “but it is not too late”-phrase – a combination of fear and hope that seems to mostly have caused ecophobia, or made the issues not seem urgent enough for people to take action themselves. It begs the (rhetorical) question: are people not acting because they think it is too late, or because they don’t think acting is necessary? And what kind of rhetoric is needed for this to change?
According to author and journalist David Wallace-Wells, the time to panic about climate change has come. Because it is the reasonable reaction to the facts, but more importantly because then it might be possible to induce the global climate wake-up needed. Wallace-Wells recently turned his essay “The Uninhabitable Earth” into a book, where he describes the dystopia that awaits our societies in a not-too-distant future if drastic action is not taken: famines, mass displacement, fierce competition over resources and economic and political chaos. Fear, he argues, might be what saves us, illustrating this with the many movements in the past that have used fear to successfully mobilize; the movements against nuclear proliferation, pesticides and drunk driving, not to mention the analogy used by the UN in “the doomsday report” to illustrate the scope of mobilization needed to stay below 1.5 C: the second world war. Wallace-Wells is convinced that by now climate change has become so urgent that the risks of not acting are bigger than the risks of fatalism. And what better than fear to create a sense of urgency?
In some ways, this is already happening. The past few months have seen unprecedented mobilization around environmental issues. “Fridays for Future” has inspired millions of youths to demonstrate and go on school strikes all over the world, and the Extinction Rebellion influenced the UK parliament to declare a national environment and climate emergency at the beginning of this month. Both of these are movements whose messages resonates more of alarm than of hope. And it’s catching on.
But there are reasons alarmism is avoided. The response to cataclysmic messages is in many cases feelings of hopelessness and doom. Who has not felt completely overwhelmed by climate science at some point? Like it’s too late to act anyway? Psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes claims that messages of catastrophe only motivate about 10-15% of the population. In his book “What We Think about When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming” he investigates the psychological barriers to climate action and how progress can be unblocked. Essentially, he argues, people have been unable to respond to scientific climate change messages because the issues comes across as distant – in time, space, and from the individual ability to impact. Instead, we must make them seem close, personal and urgent. Less numbers and diagrams, more concrete events and solutions. And he is also convinced that the doomsday depictions must be replaced by messages people can get hopeful and excited about. “If we cannot envision a better society with lower emissions, we cannot make it happen”, he says, which points to a core feature most social movements have but that largely is lacking from the climate change discourse: a real vision that it can be better.
While Stoknes thinks climate change communication has been too dominated by catastrophe, Wallace-Wells thinks it has not been catastrophic enough. But neither of them is arguing that all is lost. The base of Wallace-Wells’ argumentation is that scientists up until recently have toned down their reports, which has been a disservice since it is essential that we know what we are facing. Regarding the title question, the answer is (unsurprisingly) that it is not really a choice between either or. Rather, I think that we must be clearer in knowing what we fear as well as what we are hoping for. We must talk about the climate much more, in any and every way. But most importantly, we should not say that it is “too late” – because it is never too late. It is not possible to entirely stop the processes set in motion, but at any point in time, it is possible to act for a better future. Which, in the end, is what hope is about.
Elin Westerling recently graduated from the bachelor’s program in Peace and Development studies at Uppsala University. She’s particularly passionate about climate justice and is always down for discussing feminist climate change solutions. When not studying or working, you’re likely to find her reading fiction or looking at maps, on a train ride somewhere, daydreaming about hiking in the Himalayas.
Illustration: Emelie Isaksen