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Words by Nicky Hawkins

“Hell is coming,” one weather forecaster tweeted this week, warning not of further political turmoil but of the hottest heatwave in decades that’s advancing across continental Europe. Extreme weather events like this remind us that climate change is not a remote and distant threat – but a reality that is already taking an unacceptable human toll.

In recent months, Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strike have turned up the heat on the climate debate. They’ve both done an astonishing job of getting the climate change back on the public and political agendas. Their warnings of impending apocalypse, disruptive tactics and robust demands that others “tell the truth” about climate change have made huge waves. Parliament has declared a climate emergency. The Guardian has updated its own editorial guidelines to use language that accurately reflects the threat that climate change poses.

These demands and promises to tell the truth are based on a core premise: if people knew how bad this was we’d do differently. My organisation studies how we respond to and are shaped by the stories the we hear. I welcome the renewed energy within the climate movement – and the recognition of the power of language. But I fear we risk underplaying the part of “the truth” that could set us free.

Most people in the UK know climate change is a big problem. We understand it poses a grave threat to the future of our world. But we’re not trying to save ourselves – at least, we’re not trying hard enough.

Communications science offers some clues as to why we might be locked in this collective paralysis – somewhat able to see the problem but unable to deal with it. Our brains are hardwired to jump to conclusions without us noticing we’re doing it. When faced with serious and complex challenges such as climate change, we jump to “can’t be done” more readily than “let’s work through this problem and see the solutions”. While bleak, “nothing can be done” is a more rewarding conclusion because it’s quicker and easier to think.

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The tendency to think fatalistically is fuelled by the stories we hear every day. The word “crisis” appears in our media dozens of times each week, appended to everything from poverty to patisseries, climate change to chick peas. It is background noise. Stating loudly that problems exist and have reached crisis point does not help us to move beyond said crises, especially if they are hard to understand and tough to tackle.

The stories we hear and tell matter. They shape how we understand the world and our part within it. Just as hearing migrants described in dehumanising ways flips a switch in our minds and creates automatic negative responses, a steady stream of wholly negative language and ideas creates mental shortcuts to despair and hopelessness.

Research is clear that to overcome fatalism and inspire change we must balance talk of urgency with talk of efficacy – the ability to get a job done. Too little urgency and “why bother?” is the default response. Too much crisis and we become overwhelmed, fatalistic or disbelieving – or a disjointed mixture of all three, which is where most of us get stuck when anyone talks about climate change.

We are all swayed by what we think other people think and what we see as normal. In post-war Rwanda a radio soap opera succeeded where other attempts to change relationships and interactions failed. By depicting positive relationships between opposing ethnic groups, the soap made these relationships seem normal and improved dynamics.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Extinction Rebellion and the schools climate strike have turned up the heat on the climate debate.’ Student climate protests in London. Photograph: Peter Marshall/Alamy Stock Photo

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We need to change what’s normal and what’s perceived to be normal. And at the moment we think, and are constantly told, that most people don’t care enough. And the ones who do care are often not relatable to most people. We’re led to believe that inaction is the norm and that not much can be done. Upping the ante only by doing more to illustrate the scale of inaction and the high stakes doesn’t change this, it compounds it.

When Martin Luther King inspired a nation and the world he led with the dream, not the nightmare. When JFK persuaded the American public to support the Apollo programme he balanced the need to act with the ability to do so: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

This article was originally published here.


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