Solutions-Oriented Communications Can Extinguish Climate Anxiety
June 20, 2023
The Way We Talk About Climate Change Can Improve Outcomes
In the summer of 2019, the Amazon rainforest was ravaged by fires. They happen yearly — most often started purposely for cattle ranching and growing cash crops. Fires in the Amazon are not uncommon, but this time, the news spread almost as quickly as the flames.
This news and the endless doom-and-gloom headlines stressed me out. I was struck with sheer panic. “If the rainforest burns, we won’t have enough oxygen to live! We are going to suffocate. Tomorrow.” As it turns out, that is a relatively common response.
I learned that what I was experiencing was climate anxiety. Anthony Leiserowitz, the founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a Senior Research Scientist at Yale School of the Environment, describes climate anxiety as “distress about climate change and its impacts on the landscape and human existence.” This response has become commonplace. Therapists are reporting clients coming in and sharing their fears more frequently.
In the first large-scale investigation published by The Lancet on climate anxiety, researchers surveyed 10,000 children and young people aged 16–25 across ten countries, finding:
- 59% were very apprehensive about climate change, and 84% were at least moderately worried about climate change.
- 50%+ reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.
- 45%+ said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.
- 75% said that they think the future is frightening.
- 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet.
Stoking the Flames of Climate Anxiety: The 24-hour News Cycle
How could we blame the public for feeling this way? We are inundated with headlines about being on the brink of a climate disaster. The polar ice caps are melting! Pakistan has the worst heatwave in its history! South Africa has no water! Texas is frozen over!
The 24-hour news cycle and the hyperbolic posting and resharing of these headlines across social media only fuel the eco-anxiety fire millions experience as they read about the cataclysmic future that is supposedly in store.
Headlines can be cruel, though sometimes this is intentional. Stoking fear can catalyze action. Our survival instincts kick in. People take to the streets to demand more from governments and business leaders.
But is there a better way to catalyze action than through anxiety and fear?
Responding to Climate Anxiety
Like coping with any form of anxiety, people respond in different ways. Some responses are “adaptive” or healthy, while others may resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms:
1) Denial and avoidance: Some individuals may cope with climate anxiety by denying or minimizing the severity of the issue, avoiding engaging with information or discussions related to climate change, or choosing to ignore or dismiss the problem altogether.
2) Escapism and disengagement: Many will seek temporary escape through distractions instead of confronting climate anxiety. This can involve excessive consumption of entertainment or social media.
3) Nihilism and hopelessness: Climate anxiety can make some individuals feel overwhelmed or hopeless. They may adopt a nihilistic perspective, believing that nothing they do can make a difference in the face of such a massive global challenge.
4) Blaming and scapegoating: Rather than taking personal responsibility or seeking collective solutions, some may blame others or specific groups for the climate crisis: corporations, politicians, or individuals from different regions or lifestyles.
While these can provide temporary relief, we could find a more productive, less harmful approach. These feelings of apathy, anger, denial, or sorrow can stunt our appetite for meaningful activism, hinder personal and collective action, and perpetuate a lack of awareness and urgency.
The Antidote: Solutions-Oriented Communications
Communicators have a crucial role to play. Media, corporate spokespeople, government representatives, analysts, academics, educators, and even the individuals posting on their Twitter profiles all have a role. Communicators educate the public — from family and community members to decision-making stakeholders — on the causes and impacts of climate change.
What happens if we focus only on educating and raising awareness of impact? Without offering solutions, climate anxiety kicks in. We can change this narrative.
Instead of headlines that stoke fear, reporting on climate change can become solutions-oriented. Rather than proclaiming that we are past the point of no return, we can tell stories about innovators and companies deploying solutions. By incorporating solutions-oriented messaging into any account focused on climate change, communicators can help people better understand the issues and feel empowered to act.
What this action looks like can vary from individual to organization. Individuals may adopt sustainable practices into daily routines: reducing energy consumption, recycling, using public transportation, choosing products using sustainable materials, eating a plant-based diet, or composting.
On a larger scale, business leaders and decision-makers who receive these solutions-oriented messages become aware of how they can make a positive change. They become champions of sustainability and environmental conscientiousness within their organizations. They push to advance sustainable business practices and processes, charting paths to transition to renewable energy sources, circular business models, and waste reduction efforts.
By educating beyond the challenges and raising awareness of the solutions, communicators can play a key role in alleviating climate anxiety. Solutions-oriented communication can foster hope and a sense of collective responsibility for the future while inspiring action with the innovative solutions that exist and that are being developed to solve our most significant climate challenges.