From Apathy to Action on Climate
Updated: Jul 24
Escalating global heatwaves, wildfires and flooding should be making clear that the climate crisis is reaching a critical point. But public awareness and prioritisation of remain dishearteningly low. SUV sales are growing and governments are still approving massive new coal, gas and oil projects. Society still seems more focused on banal celebrity issues. Our evolutionary history wires us to respond to imminent issues rather than strategise for the future. This is a challenge for addressing the climate crisis. It's why the climate movement needs to compete with the fossil fuel industry and get better at marketing and communication.
A major obstacle in public understanding of the climate crisis has been years of deliberate misinformation propagated by the fossil fuel industry and its beneficiaries. Similar to the tactics employed by the tobacco and gambling industries, the fossil fuel sector has invested billions in communication campaigns that sow doubt about the reality and severity of climate change. This intentional manipulation of public perceptions has been distressingly effective, leading to a lack of consensus even among those directly affected by climate-related disasters. As an example, one-third of Australians directly affected by the 2019 bushfires saw no connection to the climate!
Terms like "global warming" and "climate change" fail to capture the gravity and immediacy of what is already happening and what is locked-in to our futures. Concepts like "net zero emissions", "carbon sequestration" and "decarbonisation" are abstract and difficult for many to grasp. That's why the climate movement must embrace simple, relatable language and more vivid metaphors to generate demand for action.
Engaging the public requires a shift towards emotional narratives and relatable imagery. Over-reliance on statistics and abstract concepts alienates rather than inspire action and hope. Universal terms like "pollution" and the "climate crisis" can help a more tangible image to emerge. Repetition can embed these metaphors in the public's consciousness and link emissions to the devastating heat, flooding and wildfires the world is experiencing.
Effectively communicating the climate crisis demands competing with the well-funded marketing machinery of polluting industries and political parties. It's time for the climate movement to mobilise and allocate substantial resources to public outreach and persuasion, and to harness the expertise of marketing professionals who understand the science of effective communication. In the words of Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN's climate change negotiations, the climate community has traditionally recoiled from marketing, regarding it as "tainted" and "icky". But this needs to change.
To mobilise broad-based action, the climate movement must harness community fear while maintaining hope. Fear can be evoked by highlighting the dire consequences of inaction, emphasising the loss of life, biodiversity, and natural beauty of our planet. Simultaneously, conveying hope is crucial, underscoring that we still have time to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Presenting achievable solutions and emphasising collective efforts can allow a narrative of urgency and optimism to inspire action.
It's time for immediate and decisive action. Effectively communicating the gravity of the crisis and inspiring collective effort requires addressing cognitive biases, countering misinformation, and employing emotionally resonant messaging. The climate movement must embrace innovative communication strategies, and engage the wider public through relatable language and vivid imagery. By doing so, we can channel apathy into anger and fear into active hope. We can combine optimism with concrete action, and emphasise the power of individual and collective efforts. Active hope will motivate individuals to move beyond passive concern or despair, and empower them to actively engage in solutions and contribute to a safe future for the planet. It will help us protect places like this beach on the NSW South Coast that I enjoy walking on with my teenagers and dog Fred.