4 min read

Climate communication in a pandemic

Climate communication in a pandemic
Today's art for The Phoenix was created by Laila Arêde

The Phoenix was off last week — I'm still working on a plain-language summary of the IPCC report — and most importantly all the solutions it contains. As a placeholder, I put together a twitter thread with some of the highlights. Thanks for bearing with me.

I've also had some time to think about what it means, at this point in world history, when we know most of the answers to the existential problems we face (climate, public health, racialized and extractive capitalism) but the forces of disinformation seem to be getting increasingly powerful at a truly depressing rate.

What was especially disconcerting to me re: the IPCC report was simultaneously probably the least surprising part of it: the media's headlines were overly dire, and that coverage hardly registered at all in terms of web traffic:

Google search traffic for the term 'climate' was just 21% of the all-time high last week. The record week was when the IPCC's Special Report on 1.5°C came out in September 2019, prompting the start of the global climate strike movement.

This isn't just an isolated problem with this specific report this month. In fact, since the start of the pandemic (well, since fall 2019 to be exact), public interest in climate change has seemed to dip pretty significantly. This week's public interest in climate change is just ~30% of what it was during the peak of the global climate strikes in late 2019.

Public interest in climate change had been growing steadily since Google search data began in 2004, but has dropped off sharply since the pandemic.

I'm not the first one to pick up on this.

There was a study published earlier this year that found a stunning 80% decrease in climate change content sharing and re-sharing on Facebook as COVID-19 spread during the spring of 2020.

Large-scale decrease in the social salience of climate change during the COVID-19 pandemic
There are concerns that climate change attention is waning as competing global threats intensify. To investigate this possibility, we analyzed all link shares and reshares on Meta’s Facebook platform (e.g., shares and reshares of news articles) in the United States from August 2019 to December 2020…

The study recommends new climate communication strategies focused on “systemic sustainability”are necessary in an age of competing global crises. Those kinds of strategies — naming all the ways that climate is connected to other systems of vulnerability and systems of thriving — are much richer, require nuance, and frankly, require attention that many of us just can't quite muster while it feels like the world is crashing down all around us.

What's worse, years and years of apocalyptic framing on climate is having its toll on the people who will bear the worst consequences.

This month's IPCC report showed us a way through all this — by creating the most comprehensive set of climate solutions ever assembled. Now's the time to imagine, articulate, and create all the possible futures that are inclusive and life-giving so folks literally have something to live for.

Trauma-informed climate communication

Over the past 10 days or so, there's also been a firestorm on climate twitter surrounding the aftermath of the Scientist Rebellion. Sustainability scientist and expert climate communicator Alaina Wood (@thegarbagequeen on TikTok) took her Twitter account private after being harassed by (mostly white male) senior climate scientists after suggesting the age-old strategy of scaring the shit out of people was causing severe emotional distress in people under 40 years old. Her experience was far from unique.

Through the trauma of the pandemic, of our crumbling democratic institutions, of war, it's understandable why people are feeling hopeless. Instead of reinforcing those hopeless feelings, Wood and others suggested that a trauma-centered communication is needed — especially for those communicators with large platforms.


Feeling overwhelmed by #climatechange? Try these 2 things to help with your #ecoanxiety

♬ original sound - Alaina Wood

The research backs her up. A new poll shows that nearly half of Americans realize that the climate emergency increases trauma, especially in young people. Knowing that, her advice not to lead with that trauma — and instead lead with solutions, showing how much progress is being made and how much more can be done with everyone's help — is a better way to bring about revolutionary change.

Join me on Tuesday April 19th at 7pm ET for a Twitter Spaces chat on the future of climate journalism with the inspiring people from Hothouse — a climate newsletter focused on solutions.

Hothouse // Solutions