Talking About Climate Change Is Depressing. Does It Have To Be?

One of society’s greatest threats often instills fear and hopelessness in readers, but journalism can offer new possibilities through language use and framing.

a group of people kneeling in the soil to plant a sapling

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When it comes to tackling climate change, one of the worst existential threats in human history, it is clear that we need to take immediate and meaningful action. But while some progress has undoubtedly been made, many people have already mentally checked out, feeling apathetic or helpless about their ability to effect positive change. That means for many nations, the political will to sacrifice convenience and comfort to minimize fossil fuel emissions is simply not there. Which raises the question: How do we talk about climate change in a way that encourages commitment rather than detachment or disbelief?

Researchers have known for more than a century that the burning of fossil fuels releases insulating greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Yet lobbying and obfuscation from oil and gas conglomerates have helped ensure that the worldwide response has been sluggish at best. Now, 20% of people under 35 believe that it is “too late” to stop climate change, according to an international study conducted by Ipsos and Futerra Solutions Union that was published last year.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of journalism — reporting extensively on subjects that inspire fear, anger, and other negative emotions in readers because they guarantee greater engagement — likely plays a role in the widespread fatalism of society at large. It’s unrealistic and unhelpful, however, for reporters to ignore the heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods that are worsening year after year. People need to know what climate trends are present in their neck of the woods so they can adequately prepare. At BuzzFeed News, we often write about new temperature records and natural disasters that are likely caused by human-made climate change as well as the personal stakes of climate action. And the language journalists use to contextualize these events has undergone many revisions over the years as we aim to improve accuracy and comprehension.

For example, the fact that we usually refer to it as “climate change” rather than “global warming” reflects a narrative shift first advanced by scientists in 1979, though it took a few more decades before it became mainstream. Some laypeople, especially climate change skeptics, believe that humans can’t possibly be warming the planet if some regions still experience blizzards and subzero temperatures regularly, and effects on precipitation and sea levels usually weren’t even considered by the public until recently. While the planet has indeed gotten hotter over the past 200 yearsabout 1 degree Celsius warmer — the effects of said warming can sometimes seem paradoxical or unrelated to each other. Realizing this and adapting accordingly has lasting effects on the effort to inform the public. One study, for example, found that Republicans tend to rate “climate change” as more serious than “global warming,” with the opposite true of Democrats.

Recently, some media outlets have also begun referring to our current moment as a “climate crisis” as a way to stress the grave threats and incite people to act, but even this is not a simple, unproblematic choice. A 2021 study in the journal Climate Change found that calling it a “crisis” or “emergency” did not increase engagement among news audiences; in fact, calling it an emergency actually backfired, making people slightly more likely to consider the news outlet as uncredible, possibly because the phrasing seemed unnecessarily alarmist to them.

It’s also important for us to realize the ways that corporate lobbying has affected the way we communicate climate goals. The concept of a “carbon footprint” was created by BP in the early aughts and has since become common parlance for talking about preventing further warming. But carbon footprints prioritize blaming individuals for their consumption of fossil fuels while letting gas-guzzling industries like energy, construction, transportation, and agriculture off the hook. Individual actions certainly impact the environment, but a person experiencing homelessness in the United States who relies on public transportation still has a carbon footprint double that of the global average. Personal choices aren’t the whole story, as the worldwide shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated when they only slightly reduced worldwide emissions.

This imbalance between what many people are being asked to do, what they can reasonably do, and the level of impact those actions have on slowing climate change may lead to burnout in many, and burnout wastes time we increasingly can’t afford.

According to the 2021 Ipsos study, “While more than half the world still believes we can do something about climate change (58%), the fatalism highlighted in this research may be underpinned by a torrent of doomsaying news stories. Citizens worldwide agree (62%) that they hear much more about the negative impacts of climate change than they do about progress towards reducing climate change, resulting in a perceived Solutions Gap.”

For this reason, what phrases we use to describe the phenomenon (“climate change” versus “global warming”; “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”) may not be nearly as important as how we build the narrative around them. The 2021 study in Climate Change found focusing on solutions was often better for engagement than trying to scare people into action. “News stories that emphasize taking action tend to make people feel hopeful,” Grist reported in reference to the study. “Articles that highlight solutions are also viewed as more credible, and people are less resistant to them.”

Indeed, solutions journalism has been slowly taking shape over the past decade thanks in part to the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, which was founded in 2013. Its aim is to “ensure, by 2025, that the majority of US news consumers, and increasing numbers globally, have access to solutions journalism, no matter where or how they get their news.” As its name suggests, solutions journalism focuses on the responses to social problems, centering the steps taken as well as the insights, evidence, and limitations gleaned from the work. By the nonprofit’s count, nearly 13,000 stories have been produced by 6,000 journalists at 1,600 partner organizations over nine years.

One example of solutions journalism related to climate is Nina Ignaczak’s 2021 story on how low-income Black residents in Detroit are obtaining access to solar energy. One of the major effects of catastrophic climate change is the deepening of long-standing racial inequities that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of color to adapt. By highlighting how these types of power imbalances can be overcome, more and more individuals may learn that justice is finally within their grasp.

“Readers are fairly sophisticated, and they know when they are being force-fed something,” Education Lab reporter Claudia Rowe said of solutions journalism. “They believe from nuance. The idea is not to change minds; it’s to show possibilities.”

What’s the Word?

petrichor (peh-tri-kor) (n.): the lingering scent of the first rainfall after a long period of dry weather. Etymologically, the word comes from the Ancient Greek petra (rock) or petros (stone) and ichor, meaning the "ethereal fluid that serves for blood in the veins of the gods." The phenomenon was given a name in a 1964 Nature journal report, with the Australian researchers writing, “The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name 'petrichor' for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an 'ichor' or 'tenuous essence' derived from rock or stone.” To describe it simply, if reductively: During dry periods, some plants release oils, which are then absorbed by clay-based soil. After a light rainfall, the oils and the chemical compound geosmin are released into the air. The human nose is sensitive to geosmin, and humans appreciate petrichor, scientists believe, because our “ancestors relied on rainy weather for their survival.” That’s why it smells so dang good.

Used in a sentence: If you didn’t already know the meaning or etymology of petrichor, you’ve probably never looked at Tumblr.

5 Things We’ve Been Reading

1. The Language of Climate Change Just Changed in a Major Way

2. Mushrooms Communicate With Each Other Using Up to 50 “Words,” Scientist Claims

3. Vice: What Does It Mean to Have a “Weird” Brain in the Age of Neurodiversity?

4. The Daily Emerald: We Must Normalize Notation to Indicate Tone Online

5. The Atlantic: What Makes Someone “A Lot”?

And, finally, a tweet:

who tf decided it was called “emotional baggage“ and not “griefcase” ???

Twitter: @noahdonotcare