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What’s the “right” way to communicate about climate change?
When doom, gloom, and unbridled optimism don’t work, what’s left? Everything.
December 18, 2023

“Doom and gloom” is a phrase you will invariably hear in conversations, meetings, and articles about climate change. During this year’s Climate Week NYC (one of the two biggest annual gatherings of people working on climate change, along with COP), I heard the words at every panel or event I attended. Most commonly, speakers assured audiences that they wouldn’t be focusing on the impacts of climate change, how dangerously fast it’s moving, or what it might look like to live in a 1.5 or even 2-degree world. Instead, they promised to focus on hopeful topics. The familiar refrain brought me back to a memorable period in my career when I was a newcomer to the climate change space, working hard to make sense of the issue and figure out how to talk about it. 

Almost a decade ago, I took a new role as a senior leader in communications, fundraising, and strategy at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. I came in wide-eyed and eager to learn all of the best practices of climate communications, having no formal education in a climate-related field—I spent the prior decade working in museums. Though I felt confident that this background would serve me well in this new role, I still needed to get up to speed on the topic of climate. So I read countless articles and books, sought lessons from my new climate science and policy-expert colleagues, and followed mainstream environmental organizations and thought leaders on social media and elsewhere. Through these resources, I gleaned that there was a fairly broad alignment on conventional wisdom and best practices. 

The conventional wisdom was that talking about the risk of climate change was likely to paralyze people with fear and lead them to denial or apathy, instead of the intended outcome: taking action.

For starters, doom and gloom was considered a big “no-no” in climate communications. The conventional wisdom was that talking about the risk of climate change was likely to paralyze people with fear and lead them to denial or apathy, instead of the intended outcome: taking action. This approach can be neatly summarized as, “Down with fear, up with hope.” I also constantly received advice such as, “You have to show people how climate change is going to hit their wallets—that’s what people really care about.” Or, “Don’t talk too much about adapting to climate change—people will think we don’t really have to stop using fossil fuels.” Or even, “We don’t need to learn any more about climate change. You have to tell people what to do, or, better yet, the top thing that they can do—people are busy.” 

These beliefs and best practices were broad, and there was little nuance about the audiences and contexts in which they might work best. Given my newcomer mindset, I took it all at face value and followed the rules. That is, until I started having experiences that conflicted with the rules.

Around six years ago, I was part of a group, including colleagues at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Spencer Glendon (who would become the founder of Probable Futures), that decided to experiment with the ways in which climate science could be useful in decision-making. We began to show small groups of people maps of projected climate impacts (heat, drought, precipitation, and wildfire) that were likely to materialize over the coming few decades.

The maps drew from climate model data that was well established and had been around for some time. However, these models had largely been used for scientific research that ended up in scholarly journals geared toward the science community rather than the general public. The “experiment” was to mine climate model data and see if we could turn it into a communications tool that presented the urgency and impacts of climate change in a way that was resonant, relevant, and motivating to non-experts. Our first target audience included leaders in the finance community. 

One core memory from that time is when my colleagues revealed newly generated maps of drought probabilities at different warming scenarios in the Mediterranean and northern Africa. In short, the results were shocking—even to my colleagues and I. Scanning the room, I observed people’s jaws dropping while others audibly gasped. The map required little interpretation or translation into what these changes might mean for the people, plants, animals, and industries in these regions.

I considered that, by the standards of climate communications, these were “doom and gloom” maps. Yet people’s demeanors and comments thereafter didn’t look at all like apathy or paralysis. “I truly didn’t know,” some said. “Everyone on Earth needs to see these maps,” said others. And more quickly than I thought possible, the conversations turned toward action. Plans were made for public communications campaigns and new initiatives within influential organizations. For some individuals, entire career paths changed direction.

Today, some of the people in those rooms are passionately and publicly leading their companies, organizations, and communities in climate action. And those early maps formed the foundation for what is now Probable Futures; a climate literacy initiative working to democratize climate science and educate people across disciplines and geographies. 

Getting to the bottom of the rules

How could my experience be in such conflict with “the rules” around climate communications? It was truly one of the most surprising and baffling periods of my career. Clearly, I needed to re-ground myself in my understanding of what is known to work when it comes to motivating people to take climate change seriously and take action. I started wondering if the climate communications rules might actually be limiting conversation around climate change, or, further, if they could be boxing out new people from the climate movement.  

So I started to dig into climate-related social science literature. As one might imagine, the answers are more complicated than the various, aforementioned “You have to,” advice might suggest. Take, for example, the hope vs. fear topic. Research results on which is the better motivator are mixed and sometimes even entirely inconclusive. 

The results of a 2021 study in which participants were shown videos about climate change with hopeful or fearful messages “suggest that the impacts of a single hope or fear appeal can be overstated,” and the authors cautioned against “claims that either hopeful or fear-driven climate change communication strategies are necessarily optimal.” A 2017 paper in Nature Climate Change found that “the current evidence base” on emotion in climate change communication “[does] not support definitive, simplistic, and overly broad assertions about the effect of specific emotions on climate change responses”—in fact, the authors held that any responses to climate change messages “are influenced by the beliefs, worldviews, and existing emotions each individual brings to the table.” If you want to explore further, these articles in Vox and Grist are thorough and quite thoughtful. 

However, this is not to say we know nothing about what makes for effective messaging, but what we do know is nuanced and typically specific to a certain audience. Initiatives such as the Potential Energy Coalition, Environmental Voter Project, and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (to name a few) have done important work to understand the motivators and attitudes of specific audiences within the United States, typically framed around voting outcomes. Another example is a recent study by Earth Alliance and Harmony Labs that categorizes audiences by values and provides messaging recommendations based on those values. These kinds of context-specific insights can be critically important when understood accurately and used thoughtfully. 

Still, there was a real lack of evidence of any one-size-fits-all climate communications approach that is known to work in motivating long-term behavior change. Learning this put my experience with the drought maps in more context: This particular communications approach worked with this particular audience and these messengers at that moment in time—and we got there by experimenting. 

This particular communications approach worked with this particular audience and these messengers at that moment in time—and we got there by experimenting. 

It occurred to me that we are all experimenting with climate change messaging, in various communities and with varying degrees of success. Lest you think I’m overstating, please recall that The Pope—I repeat, The Pope—recently took a second crack at mobilizing world leaders and the devotees of The Catholic Church with Laudete Deum. While his first message focused on how protecting our climate fits into the framework of the Catholic faith, his second was an urgent call to action, and a warning to our generation: “To the powerful, I can only repeat this question: What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power, only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

The realization that all climate communicators are experimenting could certainly be viewed as discouraging, but instead, I saw it as being full of possibility. Encouraging experimentation within climate communications, and removing unnecessary or inapplicable rules, could help us all improve, make room for surprise and new connections, and even better, it can make space for many more of us to become ambassadors for climate action in our communities, using each of our unique skills, lived experiences, and intuitions. 

Exploring risk, preparation, and living well in a changing climate

My colleagues and I launched Probable Futures in this spirit of experimentation and committed to letting our intuition and our learnings guide us along the way. Our thesis was that we could communicate climate risk in a measured and informed, yet empathetic way and engender conversations about how to accept the amount of climate change that we must live with, prepare for it, and avoid the futures that would bring even further challenges. In other words, we opted for realistic, practical messaging and well-designed tools, as opposed to attempting to manipulate emotions. 

The outcome we hoped to achieve was to normalize the use of climate science in practical decision-making, from selecting where you might want to move, to assessing climate risk in your asset portfolio, to integrating climate projections into building codes and architectural design. And we did this knowing that it was an experiment. To be sure, there were plenty of well-meaning warnings from the climate community as to the potential pitfalls of centering our message on climate risk, resiliency, and adaptation. In other words, we were breaking the rules. But at that point, we had enough experience to know that our unconventional approach was worth further development. Indeed, what did we have to lose by trying something new and sharing it? 

Almost four years later, we have experimented in many different media. We developed our educational volumes on Heat, Water, and Land, interactive maps of past, recent, and potential climate scenarios that span the globe and scale down to a local level, and open-data tools to democratize climate models, and we spend much of our time speaking publicly and privately to leaders in different sectors and around the world. While only time will tell if our experiment (and everyone else’s) is effective, we are encouraged to see that preparing for climate change and building resiliency is becoming more of a norm in the corporate world, public education, and local governments—all of which gives us the confidence to keep going.

A new wave of experimentation

In parallel, we are heartened to see an ever-growing community of climate storytellers and skilled communicators doing their own experimentation and exploring the blurred lines between fear and hope, loss and renewal, injustice and empowerment. And that community is spreading far beyond the mainstream environmental NGOs that have historically been recognized as the sanctioned purveyors of climate information. Good Energy is an excellent example of a new and important initiative. Their Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change is thoughtful, and nuanced, and acknowledges the unprecedented nature of what they are trying to do. They are translators and consultants for a community that they know, understand, and believe can be a part of the cultural and behavioral change that is required to address climate change at the scope and scale that it calls for. 

In the spirit of experimentation, we’ve been trying something new with a few collaborators recently: climate literacy and comedy, an idea partially conceived by some brilliant and creative friends at the Hollywood Climate Summit, who are experimenting in their own right. At Climate Week NYC, my colleague Spencer Glendon and I joined forces with two sharp, empathetic, and, most of all, funny, people to talk about preparing for climate change: Esteban Gast and Pratima Mani. Together, we used humor as a tool to help people build climate literacy, face the difficult reality that climate change is here, and begin to think about everyday actions we can take to prepare and build our personal and societal resilience. We did this using nearly the same maps that we started experimenting with six years ago. Yet instead of jaw-drops and gasps, there were chuckles and smiles in the audience. You can watch the video here.

There is some cognitive dissonance here. What could possibly be funny about climatic changes that could be devastating for people around the world? But comedians have a long history of calling out hard truths, disarming audiences to engage in a subject that might otherwise make them uncomfortable, and using their craft as a tool for processing grief. Comedian Pete Davidson said it better than I ever could in a recent Saturday Night Live cold open, “…sometimes comedy is really the only way forward through tragedy.”

Importantly, our approach was not to center the comedy on climate change itself—we simply used it as a tool for engaging the audience, as a pressure valve to relieve tension when needed, and for bucking any preconceived notions about what talking about climate change should look or sound like. Along the way, we addressed topics such as temperature thresholds for human survivability, the inevitability that our generation and the next will be living with a constantly changing climate, and the need to accept the near-term change and prepare for it. Audience feedback was enthusiastically positive. 

While this approach was an experiment for Probable Futures, we are far from the only people to try on comedy and climate change. It was the reason the Climate Comedy Cohort was founded. Scientists are trying their hand at it too—check out Dr. Matt Winning’s book Hot Mess which came out in 2022. And even while writing this, Climate Science Breakthrough was launched—sharing videos of comedians translating the highly technical language and concepts of climate science. 

The more skilled communicators and storytellers we have out in the world, keeping climate action at the forefront and speaking authentically with their communities, the more likely it will be that we achieve the collective action necessary to address the climate crisis at scale. 

Of course, comedy isn’t the only way to experiment with climate communications. It’s simply one approach, and we should be encouraging many more. The more skilled communicators and storytellers we have out in the world, keeping climate action at the forefront and speaking authentically with their communities, the more likely it will be that we achieve the collective action necessary to address the climate crisis at scale. 

What we know for sure

There are 8 billion people in the world and counting. With this in mind, we know with certainty that there will never be one canonical way to talk about climate change and certainly not one canonical organization that is sanctioned to educate all people about climate change. 

Relatedly, we know a critically important fact about human nature: We are social primates. We change our behavior when the people around us change, and we are most comfortable learning from whom we trust and to whom we relate. These two points lead me to conclude that instead of giving rules to the next wave of climate leaders, we should give them encouragement, space to experiment, and tools to build their climate literacy. 

These two points lead me to conclude that instead of giving rules to the next wave of climate leaders, we should give them encouragement, space to experiment, and tools to build their climate literacy. 

Though I’m nearly ten years in, I’ll never forget that feeling of being a newcomer. I was extremely fortunate to have access to experts and resources to help me develop my own climate literacy and experiment with approaches to climate communications. And my hope is, through Probable Futures, we can make climate literacy accessible to storytellers, comedians, business leaders, activists, parents, teachers, and even popes—anyone who is concerned about climate change. We can give them the facts, and make those facts feel intuitive and relatable, but they are best positioned to bring it into their own communities. 

If you are one of those people, I welcome you. I suspect you are just the right person for the job.


Alison Smart