Both doom and bloom - psychologists advise on covering climate change
For many journalists and their audiences, 2022 brought home the threat of the climate crisis: From severe droughts in Europe, East Africa, South America and China to excessive floods in Australia, Pakistan, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan, the year was filled with frightening news. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that any further delay in global action on mitigation and adaptation “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” In all sectors and geographies, the most vulnerable people and systems suffered most. So it is no surprise that more and more people are feeling anxious about climate change, our efforts to combat it and its effects. A global survey published in The Lancet in 2021 showed that 59% of young people aged 16 to 25 are very or extremely concerned about climate change and over 50% of participants from ten global countries experience sadness, fear, anger powerlessness, helplessness and guilt related to climate.
How can journalists best deal with feelings such as anxiety, fear or hopelessness? “Validate these feelings, do not ignore them” advises a new media guide by Psychologists for Future Germany, a non-institutional group of psychologists and psychotherapists who are part of the “For Future” movement. If journalists get the reporting on climate change wrong, they can cause harm, such as avoidance and distrust of others and their perceived contribution. But if they get it right, they can create awareness and the belief that it is possible to take action.
Climate reporting that only focuses on negative aspects can increase news avoidance. The 2022 Reuters Digital News Report shows that about a third of people who deliberately limit their news intake do so because it lowers their mood. While it is important to inform people about the threats of climate change, psychologists warn against using shocking headlines and content to evoke negative emotions, as these can lead to defensive responses.
Another issue is that many people think they “do more” than others in the fight against climate change because they consider their own contribution greater than that of those around them. In an interview with Clean Energy Wire, Jérémie Gagné, a senior associate at think tank More in Common, says to be careful with an “us-versus-them” dynamic that can lead people to feel either unfairly dismissed as a climate sinner or insufficiently understood as a climate protector. This black-and-white thinking promote a toxic debate culture.
One method to combat news avoidance and divisive rhetoric: Journalists can seek to portray climate solutions as much as they inform people about climate threats. Solutions journalism has gained traction over the years, but is still often wrongly accused of being mere cheerleading, cheering on positive developments without critically examining them or, worse, ignoring the real issues at stake. However, accurate and comprehensive reporting on climate solutions is just as challenging and important as sounding the alarm. What’s more, the media guide also found that negative emotions of powerlessness have the ability to create more openness to learn about mechanisms to address problems. Ideally, journalists should focus on both the gloomy aspects of climate change and constructive options for climate action.
Reporting on these solutions should go beyond individual efforts, says the media guide of Psychologists for Future. While individual efforts can have tremendous impact - a certain Swedish teenager comes to mind - they can strengthen the idea of people believing they “do more” than others. It is thus important to also focus on societal, political and corporate efforts. The belief in both one’s own ability and that of the community is a powerful force to strengthen climate action. Additionally, more frequent coverage and conversations about emotional responses to climate change can help people cope, as they realise others have similar feelings. This is associated with lower anxiety, lower depressiveness and less guilt, as well as better comprehensibility.
In light of the current energy crisis, covering climate action and solutions seems more important than ever. This crisis led to a strong focus on short term solutions to ensure energy security. Jérémie Gagné said that people are willing to think about both the relief in the short term and the need for a long-term conversion to green energy. An example of a solutions story amid the energy crisis is the 9-euro public transport ticket the German government temporally introduced in the summer of 2022 to offset rising fuel costs. This initiative did not just reduce costs, but also saved around 1.8 million tonnes of CO2, a market analysis carried out by the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), railway group Deutsche Bahn and research institutes Forsa and RC Research concluded. Ten percent of trips made with the 9-euro ticket replaced a journey that would have otherwise been made by car. The follow-up question is whether the 49-euro public transport ticket, planned to be introduced in April, will have similar positive effects.
As someone who works on a daily basis with a global network of reporters covering environmental, climate and energy topics, I have had my fair share of doomist conversations. But it may be time to dust off the pom poms and cheer for the possible solutions as much as we warn of the ongoing threats of climate change.
The media guide by Psychologists for Future Germany is available both in English and German. For more information go to https://medienleitfaden-klima.de/empfehlungen/