Climate Action Burnout is Real. Positive Messaging is the Antidote.
A look at the advantages of positive messaging for climate justice and how your organization can embrace this philosophy to create ongoing impact.
Like many of our clients, we envision a future where climate justice has won the day and we are living in balance with the environment. Climate justice leaders know that while progress is being made, there’s still much work to be done. And sometimes it’s tempting — and necessary — to focus on the negative realities of climate inaction.
A fear-based approach can certainly inspire action in the short term. But it likely has some potential serious drawbacks that include:
Difficulties of sustaining fear in the long term
Individuals may become desensitized and apathetic to fear appeals
Fear may damage trust in your organization
Fear messages may produce unintended reactions
It took decades to create the climate impacts we’re seeing now, and it will take years to address them. Social impact organizations fighting for climate action will need to engage with supporters and allies for years to come. It seems clear that rather than causing indifference, apathy, and feelings of powerlessness through negative messaging, a positive messaging approach is called for to propel and sustain successful long-term climate justice movements.
Let’s look at the advantages of positive messaging for climate justice and how your organization can embrace this philosophy to create ongoing impact.
Yes, There’s Urgency
Every climate justice organization, advocate, and activist understands that we need to act as quickly as possible. The sooner steps are taken, the more damage can be mitigated. When there’s true urgency — a law is coming up for a vote, a deadline for public comment is approaching, etc. — it makes sense to express the timeliness of action to your audience.
It’s also prudent to inform people about the negative effects of climate change. But the danger in sticking with endless “act now” doom and gloom is losing your audience to supporter burnout.
Frame Your Movement Around Hope And Progress
“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”
In his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Revised 2005), neuroscientist Antonio Damasio proposes the idea that our feelings are the primary driver behind decision making. As a leader, you can choose which emotions you want to emphasize for your audience.
Fear-based messaging can be effective at first. But over time, it often engenders a sense of apathy and fatalism among the people you need most to take action. By running your messaging through a more positive framework, you’re not sugar coating the issue, you’re opening the door for people to get involved and remain active in your ongoing mission.
Paint a picture of the future you are working to create and remember the importance of highlighting your success and proof of impact. You can do this through your organization’s history and through updates on your blog and in your newsletter. Keep in mind that you’re part of an ecosystem working for climate justice. Communicate all that’s been accomplished. This inspires supporters and advocates to keep checking in with you to see what’s happening and what actions need to be taken now. Celebrating wins and demonstrating progress helps foster interest and participation and moves supporters up the engagement pyramid.
Employ Tactics That Inspire
Positive messaging is more than aspirational — it’s a strategy to grow awareness and increase engagement. Here are three areas to emphasize:
Point to Solutions: In today’s attention economy, your audiences might feel turned off by negatively charged phrases like “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”. While you don’t have to stop using these terms entirely, be sure not to lean on them too often. Studies show that focusing on the available solutions motivates people to feel hopeful and get involved. This is your opportunity to do what you do best — act as a steward to help your supporters wade through misinformation and overwhelm, and point them towards solutions that they can get behind.
Focus on Persuasion: While urgent crisis messaging might initially capture attention and drive action, studies show that this dampens engagement over time. The work of persuasion is more difficult, but ultimately leads to long-term engagement. Notice which messaging frameworks motivate your audience to take action. You can A/B test different messaging on your site and in your outreach. Use analytics to determine which approaches work best for your audience. For example, you might determine if email outreach gets a higher clickthrough rate when you frame the uptick in wildfires through a public health lens, versus an outdoor recreation lens. Understanding what engages your audiences can help you create more effective messaging and persuade new supporters, advocates, and allies to join your movement.
Ground Your Message in Gratitude: It can be healthy and uplifting to remember the beauty of what we’re fighting for. Indigenous writers and thinkers like Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer remind us of the importance of grounding our message in the love we have for our natural world:
“Our first responsibility, the most potent offering we possess, is gratitude. Now, gratitude may seem like weak tea given the desperate challenges that lie before us, but it is powerful medicine, much more than a simple thank you. Giving thanks implies recognition not only of the gift, but of the giver. When I eat an apple, my gratitude is directed to that wide-armed tree whose tart offspring are now in my mouth, whose life has become my own. Gratitude is founded on the deep knowing that our very existence relies on the gifts of other beings.”
Infuse your messaging with gratitude for what we’re fighting to save – from the towering redwood forests and raging rivers to the delicious apple.
Encourage Collective Action
The fossil fuel industry has used its influence and invested millions of advertising dollars to transfer environmental and climate responsibility from their shoulders to those of individuals. But studies show that individual actions alone, like getting a hybrid vehicle or flying less, will have little effect on climate change. Though inventor, MacArthur genius fellow, and founder and CEO of Otherlab Saul Griffith’s ideas around a ‘personal infrastructure’ from his 2021 book Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future (there’s that element of hope again) suggests that a few choices that consumers make, and that the government can back, can have a significant impact.
Yet, Felix Creutzig — the lead coordinating author of a chapter in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from the United Nations, said in a Vox interview characterized individual behavioral changes as “insufficient ... unless embedded in structural and cultural change.” Still, individual actions can have “network effects”. The IPCC report indicates that if individuals want to take action on climate change, they should direct their attention to changing the structures in which they operate. That requires collective action.
Dialing up the pressure on our friends, relatives, and neighbors can have the unintended effect of shaming people in their day-to-day lives and ostracizing those who don’t, or can’t, make environmentally conscious decisions. We need to include, rather than shun or shame. We need to build and grow coalitions and find allies.
Collective action is the best path to creating social change on a systems level. It also happens to be one of the things that climate justice organizations excel at organizing.
When you draw people into collective action, you can inspire and build community, belonging, and the accurate sense that we’re in this together. People are driven to belong to groups that share their values. Developing strong communities has the double benefits of creating a funding base while growing the size of the environmental justice movement.
People often go with the crowd. When climate justice leaders grow the environmental justice movement, they open the doors for everyone to get on board.
Highlight Wins & Hope
We’ve actually come a long way. More renewable electricity is being generated every day and the cost to create it has dropped over the years. New technologies are being created every day to improve energy production and storage. Governments and institutions are feeling more pressure than ever to address the scope and scale of this issue, even if they aren’t always acting swiftly and at the scale that’s required.
Remember the importance of highlighting your success and proof of impact. You can do this for your organization or company’s impact, and also for the larger human history of all we’ve accomplished in the fight for climate justice.
It feels good to be on a winning team. Positive messaging is one way to tell your supporters, allies, and partners that you’re on the right path together and that your goals can be reached. Inform your supporters about the cost of inaction, but take a positive stance, be hopeful, and inspire people with your vision of the future.
Part of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s message is one of hope: “Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity, and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done. The Earth-shaping prowess that we thoughtlessly use to sicken the land can be used to heal it. It is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be partners in renewal; we can be medicine for the Earth.”
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