How we talk about the climate crisis is increasingly crucial to tackling it

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/AP</span>
Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/AP

As the climate emergency creeps closer to the top of the political agenda, where it belongs, an argument is raging over communication. Exactly what to say about the environmental crisis, and how, is an important question for all sorts of people and organisations, including governments. It is particularly pressing for journalists, authors and broadcasters. For us, communication is not an adjunct to other activities such as policymaking or campaigning. It is our main job.

People need to know what is happening to glaciers, forests and endangered species, and what is being done about this. But information requires interpretation. And while editorial judgments influence the way that all subjects are covered, storytelling about the climate emergency is particularly fraught.

These tensions are nothing new. For several decades, a disinformation campaign led by fossil fuel companies and their allies meant that the overwhelming scientific consensus about the risks of global heating was obscured. The BBC, among other organisations, mistakenly attempted to “balance” the warnings about humanity’s worsening predicament with lies. Greens of all shades were rightly enraged.

Related: Global renewable energy industry grew at fastest rate since 1999 last year

This phase of climate communication led to enormously harmful delays. But the disagreements did not end when the global warming deniers were forced to retreat. Instead, new divisions have either appeared or become more obvious: while those on the left back strong action by governments, those on the right put more emphasis on markets and individuals.

But there is another dimension to the controversy over climate communication. This is an argument as much about mood as about content. At its heart is the question: how “depressing” or “hopeful” should we be?

One version of this conflict has played out in the contrasting approaches of two of the UK’s most influential environmental communicators. In an article in 2018, the campaigning Guardian columnist George Monbiot attacked David Attenborough and the BBC for conveying a false impression, in the Dynasties series, of a pristine wilderness, and for failing to report the true extent of ecological destruction.

Attenborough has become more outspoken recently, telling a parliamentary select committee two years ago that “we cannot be radical enough” on emissions. But for many years, the alarm bells in his programmes were drowned out by animal noises and wonderment. Ten years ago, he told me that the BBC impartiality drummed into him as a young man made him “uneasy” about political statements long after he became convinced that global heating was taking place. Instead, he aimed to cultivate love of the natural world in the hope that this would motivate people to protect it.

A more recent spat illustrates similar tensions from a different angle. Michael E Mann is a US climate scientist whose latest book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, takes aim at the shape-shifting efforts of climate deniers. He describes the new, “softer” tactics adopted by the fossil fuel lobby and its techno-utopian enablers. These include downplaying the dangers of global heating and trying to delay regulatory action. But along with them, Mann attacks a number of writers for engaging in what he calls “doomism” or “despair-mongering”.

One of his targets is the journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of an influential book called The Uninhabitable Earth. Another is the British academic Jem Bendell, who advocates an approach he describes as “deep adaptation” to an anticipated “societal collapse”. While Mann praises Greta Thunberg, who famously told world leaders “I want you to panic”, in general he thinks the word “panic” should be avoided.

While this debate could be seen as a distraction from the more important story of what is actually going on and what needs to be done, I think the argument about how to talk and think about the climate crisis is increasingly central.

Related: Boris Johnson’s advisers may push for a virtual Cop26. He should ignore them | Fiona Harvey

Divisions shouldn’t be exaggerated. Mann said in a recent interview that he falls victim to “doomism” himself at times. On an emotional level, he recognises that fear is a natural reaction to what is going on. And, in an important sense, he, Bendell, Wallace-Wells and Thunberg are on the same side: they all recognise global heating as an existential threat. But the point is, major differences of philosophy and strategy also have to be reckoned with, even among those who see themselves as on the same side (against heating).

The deals struck by governments at the Cop26 talks in November will determine what progress on climate the world is able to make over the next decade. Compared with this, the question of how cheerful or miserable you or I or anyone else feels about the situation, and how we encourage others to feel about it, might seem trivial. But I think this emotional register is important, particularly for progressives with their ideological commitment to the idea that things should improve. The socialist critic Raymond Williams used the term “structure of feeling” to describe the way that the cultural life of a democracy could be shaped, from the bottom up.

So what is the “structure of feeling” about the climate at the moment? A recent poll of 1.2 million people by the UN found that two-thirds believe global heating is an “emergency”; in the UK the figure was 81%. What lies beneath such headlines is hard to know. Do most people think things will work out in the end; that the warnings of disaster will turn out to have been exaggerated? Or are millions, even billions of us, living in terror that they won’t?

Mann is far from alone in his hostility to gloominess. Others, too, see it as a gateway to nihilism; and fear that those who anticipate a grim spiral of chaos and scarcity will push reactionary policies focused on controlling borders and resources.

Others, including me, think that while it’s right to be hopeful about the post-carbon future, to embrace the prospect of green jobs and cleaner air, too much optimism also carries risks. The situation is sad and very dangerous. Like a person with a serious illness, we need first to admit this; and then do every single thing we can to preserve life.

  • Susanna Rustin is a Guardian columnist and leader writer

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