Climate Communications Blog Series

Blog 4: Hopeful or Fearful for the Future?

Briony Latter, 28th February 2019

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This blog series explores different aspects of climate change communication. Talking to people about climate change and trying to engage them with the subject involves more than simply getting your facts straight. It’s really important to think about who your audience is and how you talk to people. In this fourth post we consider the impacts of communicating about climate change in a hopeful way as opposed to a more scary and fearful way.

If you are someone who is concerned about climate change and interested in raising your local MP’s awareness, it could be easy to overwhelm them with fearful information about the negative impacts of climate change. It might also be easy to blame them for inaction. However, it is important to be aware of the impact of how you talk about climate change. As noted on our difficult conversations page, former MP for Harborough, Sir Edward Garnier, suggests that “an attitude that puts the blame with those you are trying to work with is not conducive to constructive problem-solving.”

In the second blog in this series, we spoke about research which showed that fear can make people take notice of climate change, but that it tends to be unsuccessful for engaging people with the subject in a meaningful way. Although this doesn’t mean that you should ignore the real, often scary impacts of climate change, it is important to bear in mind that you are also trying to get your MP to take action and therefore there must be hope of success in tackling climate change.

Jo and colleague, Chris, at Greenbelt Festival.

Jo and colleague, Chris, at Greenbelt Festival.

With the unseasonably warm February we’ve been having it’s easy to feel concerned about the impacts of climate change on our weather, but it’s important not to let that reduce our motivation to take action and have hope that we can still make a difference. Our Director, Jo Musker-Sherwood, shares what the name Hope for the Future means for the organisation and why the decision was made to have such a positive name…

“Hope, for us at Hope for the Future, is what enables us to keep working for change, despite an uncertain and potentially very bleak future. We draw hope from the actions of young people today, from previous successful endeavours such as the civil rights movements, and from a belief that by believing the best in humankind, we will bring out the best in people as we attempt to bring about change. Hope must not be used as a cover to continue with ‘business as usual’ but must instead grow the kind of resilience within us that we will need for the long road ahead.”
— Jo Musker-Sherwood, Hope for the Future Director

Susanne Moser notes that “researchers are increasingly interested in the role of hope, optimism, and positive emotions in climate communication”. In contrast to this, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has hit news headlines in recent months for her school climate strikes, talks about climate change in a way that clearly emphasises how scary and urgent it is. At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, she made a speech which included a number of fearful messages:

“We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people.”
“Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced.”
“I want you to panic.”
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
— Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is continuing to gain a lot of media attention and her school strike has inspired and mobilised thousands of other students from around the world to hold their own school strikes, indicating that this is really resonating with some people, enough for them to take action themselves. The school strikes have been lauded as incredibly hopeful by Bill McKibben and George Monbiot.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer about whether positive, hopeful messaging or more fearful messaging is more effective. As Josh Ettinger says in his guest blog for climate communications organisation Climate Outreach, “different people respond…well, differently.” We would suggest that you never solely rely on instilling fear in your message, you should always inject a little bit of hope.

What we do know is that “actions and practical support must be a central part of all climate communication”. This is important to consider as communication with your MP will include choosing your ‘ask’. Each MP will require a different approach to get the best out of your relationship with them and we can offer 1:1 tailored advice for working with your MP. Whether hopeful or fearful, or a mix of both, your approach needs to be tailored, based on an understanding of your MP and their perspective and with a clear idea of what you want your MP to do.

Hope for the Future Case Study

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Guto Bebb was wary when his constituent, Laura booked a meeting with him about climate change. The last constituent who had arranged a meeting about climate change had brought 20 or so friends with them and ended up with them all shouting at Mr Bebb in his office. His PA was careful to make sure exactly who was attending and asking for an agenda prior to the meeting. Laura, accompanied by Jo from Hope for the Future, went into the meeting with the intention of building a relationship and encouraging Guto to see the positive outcomes acting on climate change could bring about. Guto went on to deliver a workshop on climate change in a local school as a constructive action he could take. He also recently released a video with Laura on why their meeting helped him to see how important action on climate change is.