Why we shouldn’t only be positive

A colleague wrote to me today quoting a speaker at a recent conference he’d attended, who said that it was unhelpful to overburden people with something that they could not change (eg the climate emergency). He said research backed this up. The colleague wanted to know what I thought, so I wrote down some thoughts and then thought that others might welcome a discussion about this as well.

It is so common to be told that we shouldn’t overburden people. And it is of course true that fear often evokes quite primitive psychological responses. There is consensus on this, and so much research that it probably isn’t worth listing. And it’s also true that facing something frightening about which we feel helpless is very draining, especially when it is long-lasting like the climate crisis: like having a permanent sense that there is a tiger around the corner. In these situations people do often switch off and retreat.

Understandably much public communication of climate change is based on not making this emotional impact worse. But I feel that the proponents of the positive approach are sometimes missing a couple of key things:

1. We can spot when something positive isn’t true

If people know somewhere in themselves that there is a disaster unfolding, and those in positions of social or hierarchical authority are insisting that ‘we’ve got this’, there is a dissonance which people can sense. This may turn them away, and it certainly reduces trust and the ability to act together. It can also increase anxiety – see Hickman, C., Marks, E. et al (2021), Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet. DOI https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3

2. People can process difficult truths – with support

If you have a life-threatening cancer diagnosis your consultant would expect to tell you, and point you to sources of support for coming to terms with this very bad news. Equally, and perhaps a closer comparator, if you are told that there is an inherited condition in your family that is life-threatening, and you might have inherited it yourself, you might be well advised to join a support group for people in the same situation. Many psychologists think that the climate crisis has some of the same psychological features as these experiences. It means we need places where we can work with others to process the initial news, and the continuing impact of this, so that we are less at risk of our primitive psychological responses taking over. Communications strategies that only focus on the initial impact of the bad news are of course likely to notice negative responses. But negative responses are only our first reaction. We kick and scream for a bit when we are told something difficult, and then if we get support we start to come to terms with it, and if we don’t, we push it away and try not to think about it.

Interested in reading more?

Climate Outreach have some good reports on how to communicate climate change (eg https://climateoutreach.org/reports/mainstreaming-low-carbon-lifestyles/), which while they do major on the positive, make it clear that ‘there is nothing to be gained from downplaying the seriousness of the risks of climate change, or in trying to shield public audiences from the negative emotions they are likely to experience when reflecting on what climate change means for their own lives, or the wellbeing of people around the world.’ 

Self-care in the face of difficult truths

One last thought. It is of course important that we are able to face the reality we are in. That doesn’t mean we must obsessively doomscroll and read every terrifying new report that comes out – indeed it seems to be important to protect ourselves from this to an extent. Otherwise we might find that we are so overwhelmed by the anxiety this creates that we are unable to bear it ourselves, and our communication starts to serve the purpose of pushing the unbearable material on to others.

Interested in exploring these ideas?

In ‘Living with the climate crisis’, the new course that I am offering in Oxford this autumn, we explore these and other ideas about how we can look after ourselves to keep our resilience in the face of the very bad news; and how we can ourselves communicate well with others.