How to fight climate crisis:
Real change needs new stories
Meüs van der Poel , 08.03.2023
Gedanken reisen schon ans Meer, Michael Mutschler, 2020, Acryl auf Leinwand,
To bring about real behavioural change in terms of climate and sustainability, we need not only new stories, but also new words. And these must be future- and solution-oriented, above all. Expert Statement by Meüs van der Poel
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“Climate crisis” is just one prominent example of vocabulary employed to refer to the big crisis of our time. The problem with big words: They get smaller the more you use them. The other problem of the current way of communicating about crisis: It leaves no space for hope and action but rather fosters lethargy.
This leaves the question of whether journalism’s traditional crisis vocabulary and the way of talking about crisis is sufficient and adequate, when it comes to climate and sustainability.
From a psychological, scientific point of view, those who want to bring about real behavioural change on climate and sustainability would be better off presenting the news or measures from an optimistic or solution-oriented view rather than using the well-worn term “crises”.
Dutch NGOs are therefore increasingly opting for the media to present the news from an optimistic point of view. Is there a forest fire? Then they report on a company that has come up with something to prevent forest fires. “We hope that such an angle will give people courage, rather than paralyse them,” said a spokesperson of one of the major NGOs in The Hague.
Since the 2010s, this approach has been known as “constructive journalism”. Constructive journalism draws on insights from positive psychology. It seeks to reveal the core causes of problems while informing about solutions, rather than focusing on problem-oriented reporting. In doing so, it aims at showing that change is possible and that every member of society can contribute to change.
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So far, this approach of presenting measures and solutions in a positive way, however, has not yet been widely adopted: In the Dutch media, sustainability measures are often still pitted against commercial interests that affect consumers, the business climate or geopolitical power. This often creates a dilemma in reporting. And it leaves the message: If we opt for sustainability, then we are not opting for affordable groceries, employment or a good competitive position as a country.
For Gerdien de Vries, climate psychologist at Delft University of Technology, there is no doubt that language use can have a lot of influence on how the public reacts to an idea. “The frame in which something is placed matters for the opinion people form,” she says.
And this applies to every type of communication, be it corporate communication or the communication of public measures: Framing is crucial. And it should be credible.
De Vries studied subjects’ reaction to communication about new technologies, such as CO2 storage, among other things. The frame influences whether people see a technology as a sustainable solution or rather as greenwashing:
To sum up:
To bring about real behavioural change in terms of climate and sustainability, we need not only new stories, but also new words. And these must be future- and solution-oriented, above all.