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COVID-19’s lessons for the climate movement

To beat climate change, we need to tell a better story about it

By: /
28 April, 2021
Forest fire in Australia. Getty Images

When describing his nation’s efforts to produce millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine, U.S. President Joe Biden uses language environmental advocates have longed to hear from political leaders for decades.   

“This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” the president said in a White House address earlier this year, referring to a deal the White House had brokered between pharmaceutical giants Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson.

Under the agreement, Merck, one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, is producing millions of doses of its competitor’s product in an effort to rapidly scale up vaccination efforts across the United States.

It’s an arrangement that harkens back to Roosevelt-era wartime mobilization campaigns to manufacture weapons and deploy troops and personnel to the battlefield.

“The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass mobilization and collective effort that the climate movement can only dream of.”

From the start, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass mobilization and collective effort that the climate movement can only dream of. The sheer number of stories in the news, to say nothing of the daily public health announcements and appeals for social distancing and masking, demonstrate a level of engagement and concern never seen in the climate movement.  

Is it possible for a similar campaign to get off the ground with regard to the climate emergency — a far graver threat to the long-term health of our world and those who live in it than the pandemic? The answer is yes, but it requires changing how we communicate this crisis.  

For decades, stories about climate change have highlighted the dire consequences of a warming planet. There is, as a result, a pervasive view in the environmental movement that “doom-and-gloom” messaging leads to hopelessness and resignation among the public.  

“Climate narratives focused primarily on catastrophic impacts are almost guaranteed to alienate audiences across the political spectrum, as individuals become desensitized and fatalistic about the future,” says Climate Access, a U.S.-based non-profit, in a communications tip sheet.

This is partly true: excessive fear messaging can be off-putting, leading to apathy and resignation, as people wonder: “What can I, as an individual, do about such a massive problem?” 

However, contrary to conventional wisdom, threatening messages about the grim consequences of a warming planet also have the potential to mobilize the public and, by extension, politicians.

“We have seen that drastic cultural change – though uneven and controversial – is possible to happen in a short period of time when it is understood that lives are at stake,” said Phaedra C. Pezzullo, an associate professor specializing in environmental communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in an e-mail exchange with Open Canada.

But there’s a catch.

For messages about climate risk to result in concrete action, they have to be combined with information about efficacy — the sense people can take actions that will have an impact.

Climate change stories that solely depict melting ice caps or raging storms are insufficient in terms of motivating mass audiences. Scientists, journalists and other communicators can shovel scary facts at people, but until climate change feels personal, generating engagement and concern on this issue will be extremely difficult.

And there is a considerable amount of work to do to make climate change feel personal and relatable. According to the latest Canadian data from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, only 47 per cent of the Canadian public thinks that the climate crisis is going to harm them personally.

“It is not enough for people to know about climate change in order to be engaged; they also need to care about it, be motivated and able to take action,” concludes an influential paper on barriers to climate engagement, published by researchers Irene Lorenzoni, Sophie Nicholson-Cole and Lorraine Whitmarsh.

To energize and excite the public, the climate movement therefore needs to capitalize on highly visual stories about people, communities and, crucially, governments that are leading the way, getting it right and making a difference right now. Not more polar bears, ice caps and rising seas.

This work also involves telling stories about what a cleaner, safer world looks like, says Tzeporah Berman, a longtime campaigner with, an environmental group pushing to phase-out of fossil fuels.

“It’s the courage to create and tell a new story and therefore create a new future,” Berman told Open Canada. She says that Canadians are accustomed to thinking that economic prosperity is dependent upon the health of the fossil fuel industry. But in 2021 and beyond, that logic no longer holds, Berman says, because of the costs, and the dangers, associated with pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “We need to imagine the world that we want, which is a cleaner and safer world, that has a more diversified economy, and then build back toward that vision.”

Stories about Indigenous communities building a renewable energy economy from the ground up, or high school students standing up to entrenched political and business interests, while calling for a just transition, are just some of the real-world examples of Canadians staring down the barrel of climate crisis and making an impact.

In the absence of local stories about efficacy and action in the face of catastrophe, it’s unlikely the climate movement will ever benefit from the kind of political momentum that shaped the world’s swift and unrelenting response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first step to engaging audiences on climate is telling a better story. Confronting a serious danger and effectively beating it back is a dramatic and mobilizing plot.

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