A man reads the newspapers.

Climate Change, Communication and Culture

The effects of climate change are becoming clearer every year, leading to a growing sense of despair and resignation among many people. An international panel in December 2022 discussed how to overcome the negative psychological effects.

How is it possible to overcome the rising feelings of despair and resignation, with constant reminders of the intractable and compounding issues contributing to the climate crisis? Media coverage and public information campaigns focused on the devastation wrought by climate change can lead to emotional exhaustion and stagnation if they fail to provide a clear roadmap for action. “It’s like getting in a taxi and saying, ‘Don’t drive me to the train station!’” explained Katharina van Bronswijk, a spokesperson for Psychologists/Psychotherapists for Future. Based on her experience as a climate activist and practicing psychologist, she emphasized the importance of providing concrete targets that sign post where we need to go with climate-friendly policies and behaviours.

Together in conversation with Dr. Michael Shank, Director of Engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and Ayat Najafi, a multimedia artist and director, van Bronswijk discussed communication strategies for overcoming apathy and the particular role of the cultural sector in making complex issues approachable. Dr. Shank assessed the predominant narratives on climate change in the media, drawing on his background in writing for prominent U.S. news outlets and teaching graduate courses on sustainable development and conflict communication he argued that we have seen positive developments, despite news organizations’ earlier tendencies to establish a false equivalence by inviting climate change deniers into conversations to present an alternative opinion to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the question of human-caused climate change. Van Bronswijk added that this tactic of spreading “scientific uncertainty” was not only a media construct, but also actively pushed by the fossil fuel industry. The panel agreed this framing damaged early efforts to reach and convince audiences of the urgency of addressing climate change.


 demonstration against climate deniers.
In den Medien ist eine positive Entwicklung zu erkennen, die wegführt von der früheren Tendenz Klimawandelleugner zu Gesprächen einzuladen, um eine alternative Plattform zum wissenschaftlichen Konsens zu bieten, Foto: Markus Spiske via unsplash

Yet moving beyond this false equivalency between climate change deniers and scientists has required complicating media narratives and created a new set of challenges. The complexities involved in explaining climate change can be so overwhelming as to lead to fear and anxiety among many people. One outcome has been the rise of narratives that eschew personal responsibility and assign blame elsewhere, such as pointing the finger at major polluters like the fossil fuel industry.

Shank argued such thinking presents a false choice between individual and systemic change: both are necessary, not just one or the other. Against high levels of public distrust, building communities that can take collective action toward changing systems, markets, and policies is difficult but more important than ever.

Effecting change will require overcoming frustration by providing clear directions. So where should the taxi driver take us?

A major challenge of climate communication is informing and engaging the public without allowing natural feelings of hopelessness to lead to resignation. Van Bronswijk explained how uncomfortable emotions can lead to the denial of one’s own personal responsibility or even a refusal to acknowledge the severeness of climate change. This can manifest as several arguments used to delay making crucial changes:

  • surrendering to catastrophe as inevitable,
  • focusing on negative personal or social repercussions of adjusting our behaviour,
  • suggesting non-transformative solutions such as technologies to mitigate the consequences,
  • and redirecting responsibility to other individuals, companies, or systems.

To avoid this kind of burnout, the panellists emphasized the need to create reasonable and measurable opportunities for behavioural change. Positive framing was key; rather than focusing on avoidance goals, messaging should explain how climate-friendly policies can improve health, security, the economy, and a host of other benefits for our personal lives and communities. To help media organisations directly apply these principles to their work, Psychologists4Future issued a guide for media organisations.

In communicating climate change issues, cultural actors play a crucial role through their ability to translate complicated research into simple but moving messaging. While scientific data is essential to make communicators credible, the role of arts and culture in winning people over is essential. Whether through books, theatre, exhibitions, or other forms of cultural engagement, the panellists agreed it is more often a personal experience that changes someone’s mind on an issue rather than hard data. In this sense, the cultural sector holds unique potential to produce storytelling that is at the heart of behavioural change. Van Bronswijk explained that information “falls on the soil of ideologies”; an individual’s worldview shapes how one processes information and formulates responses. In fact, psychological studies indicate no clear link between environmental knowledge and behaviour. Rather, values must exist to make information meaningful. For someone with no appreciation for trees or nature, for example, news of the Amazon Forest burning is unlikely to convince them to change their behaviour. Storytelling, creativity, and emotion are therefore not only essential elements to cultural production but also the defining features of successful climate communication. 

Rather than focusing on avoidance goals, messaging should explain how climate-friendly policies can improve health, security, the economy, and a host of other benefits for our personal lives and communities.

As an example of putting these principles into action, Ayat Najafi shared his first-hand experience as a multimedia artist in drawing attention to the destruction caused by climate change, including conflict over water resources. The collective art project, “SANDSTORM – And Then There Was DUST” brought together artists from Iran, Iraq, and Turkey mixing artistic and scientific methods to find creative solutions to the problems of sandstorms.

The work focused on environmental degradation of the Mesopotamian Marshes and documented the disappearance of an entire lifestyle of those who lived on floating homes across borders in Iran and Iraq. As part of the project, he and the other involved artists gathered oral histories from those who remember their lifestyle and published them on an Instagram account, bringing their stories to life in a digital format. Ajafi hopes to increase the pressure on those responsible, by sensitising for the dual loss of ancestral culture and living space in the region and by working with international collaborators. His work highlights the important role of artists in raising awareness of environmental catastrophe and building the solidarity networks required to address it.

About the Author
Photo of Clare Richardson
Clare Richardson
Journalist and TV presenter

Clare Richardson is a journalist and TV presenter with more than a decade of experience in international news covering many of the world’s biggest stories for major organizations. As a news anchor and reporter for Germany’s public international broadcaster DW News she has presented rolling coverage on stories including pivotal elections in the United States and Germany, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, and high-stakes conferences of world leaders.

Clare was previously the World Editor of Reuters.com and World Editor of The Huffington Post in New York City. She has since reported from Brazil and Mozambique with fellowships from the International Reporting Project and taught video and audio journalism at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She also has directed short documentary films from the Solomon Islands, Australia, Cabe Verde, and Brazil for outlets including DW News, Business Insider, and BBC Reel.