Blog – How do we highlight the climate crisis during a global pandemic?

climate summit

We might have expected that concern about the climate crisis would have gone down since the COVID-19 pandemic started – surely people have enough immediate concerns without worrying about the climate too? Yet this report, from the Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) centre, and based on two nationally representative surveys, reveals some interesting insights. Just click on the image to have a read.


Communicating climate change
climate summit

The new data reported in this briefing paper shows concern about climate change has gone up, not down, during the pandemic so far in the UK, building on the increasing feeling of climate being a priority that gained momentum in 2019.

What this means is, for those of us whose work relates to climate, environment, sustainability, etc., we a) have an opportunity to capitalise on the increase in concern, awareness, and even action, but b) must think very carefully about HOW we do this to avoid people starting to either get worry fatigue, or start seeing climate policies in opposition to jobs or prosperity.

One of the issues that has long-plagued climate scientists and activists is that the effects of climate change have never felt immediate enough to the majority of the global population. We’ve known about and been warned about the crisis for 40 or 50 years now, but people are loathe to react to things that don’t appear an immediate threat. To some extent we’re still in that situation – with the global pandemic comes immediate threats to our health, jobs, economies, and way of life, so more ‘long-term’ issues get put on the back burner.

What’s different is that, first of all, our reactions to the pandemic show the immense power we human beings have to react swiftly and with strength to immediate threats. Many of the old excuses for not implementing changes that would benefit our environment, such as issues of money, time, capacity, evidence, etc. lose their relevance when we see that, when feeling immediately threatened, we can through all those concerns out of the window and simply react to avert crisis. If we can do that for COIVD-19, we can do that for our environment.

Secondly, the pandemic has forced us into adopting habits (first viewed as temporary, but with the potential to be long-term or permanent) that simultaneously benefit our planet.

My key takeaways from this report:

·       We need to carefully consider the sensitivity of our messaging and the timing of it. 

The climate crisis is still very real and very urgent – we need to implement a huge number of systemic changes to tackle it. The challenge is, how to reach people who are a) either currently embroiled in their own immediate battles with the challenges brought by the pandemic, and b) how to reach people who are currently living through the negative effects of the climate crisis and are therefore well aware of it (those experiencing extreme hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc.).

In line with the ‘finite pool of worry theory’, it is entirely possible that as people’s immediate concerns related to the pandemic increase, their concerns about the climate may decrease. However, going through a crisis, in particular one that affects the entire global population, prompts discussions and social changes that may not have been so universally accessible before. Through lockdown, some people are experiencing better air quality, or spending more time in nature, or becoming more aware of food supply issues – by default they are becoming more interested in sustainability as a whole. This pandemic isn’t as temporary as once hoped, meaning those reactive actions we took initially are having to last longer than anticipated.

·       Behaviours CAN, and do, change.

The report states, “The evidence shows that moments of ‘shift’ — when habits are disrupted by major life events, like moving house or having a baby — are also moments when people are more open to changing their lifestyle choices.“

In his blog (from the same website above), Dr Adam Corner says, “Psychological research suggests that new habits take 2-3 months to form, which means that the lockdown period in most countries is long enough to establish new, enduring routines.

A snap poll in the UK early into its lockdown found that 85% of respondents wanted to see some of the personal or social changes they had experienced continue afterwards.”

I’ve noticed in my own town and neighbourhood, a huge surge in community action and support. I set up a local community group called Keep Bromsgrove Beautiful a few years ago, and have been blown away by seeing how actively people still get involved in litter picking despite the COVID-19 situation. There is a huge shift towards local initiatives such as tree-planting, and coming together to provide free meals to children in the school holidays, for example.

Grassroots change can be sustainable – if people see their peers and neighbours committing to a new behaviour, they are more likely to stick to it too. Perhaps rather than focusing on the negative messaging of the climate crisis, talking about how new habits can benefit society, and how they can be embedded systemically, would be more effective.

The concept of ‘getting back to normal’ has shifted – I believe most people either can’t imagine going back to normal, or don’t want to. We have a real opportunity to create a new, better normal, to use this time to encourage new habits to form, and not simply go back to the way things were, as the way things were clearly wasn’t working for everyone, and certainly wasn’t working for our planet.

·       Key messages should focus on terms like ‘altruism’; ‘collaboration’; ‘compassion’; ‘preparedness’ and ‘resilience’.

The altruistic behaviours we see people demonstrating during these times bring out communal values such as collaboration and compassion. We also know that crises put pressure on existing social strains such as divisions of wealth or social status, but these communal values are stronger than those divisions, so the more we can focus on those values, the better we will be. Communities brought closer together by shared values are also more likely to adopt pro-environmental feelings and behaviours.

·       Use trusted voices and authentic narratives

Much to our planet’s detriment and to their collective frustration, climate scientists’ voices have for too many years been largely ignored. However, during the pandemic, scientists and health professionals have emerged as the ‘trusted voices’ – people are listening to them and heeding what they say more than politicians, for example. This is a perfect time for climate scientists to be heard and to be taken seriously. And using popular figures such as Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall, for example, is also likely to be effective in getting climate messages across.

Using authentic narratives and trusted storytellers is also key, for both the pandemic and the climate crisis. The report suggests, “Show imagery of real people doing real things, and responding to the crisis together. Avoid posed or inauthentic imagery, and take care with imagery of climate protests. Where possible, seek out new and creative imagery of climate solutions to build a sense of efficacy. Imagery that tells human stories, highlights fragility and demonstrates the health impacts of climate change is also more likely to be effective.”

·       Efficacy – the belief that it’s possible to do something, and that doing something has the potential to make a difference.

The report notes, “Frightening information about threats can lead people to change their behaviour if they feel able to deal with the threat — but can lead to extremely defensive reactions if they feel unable to do anything about it. Climate communications has often not been clear how people’s small-scale actions are part of a bigger picture and a crucial part of social and systemic change.”

The climate crisis always feels so overwhelming, that it is hard for people to believe that they can make a real difference. What this journey through the pandemic is teaching us is that we CAN make a difference – we can take actions to reduce the virus spread; we can take action to support those in need; we can think outside the box to continue working and teaching even in a lockdown situation. It has shown us that people are willing to collaborate and take action when they feel immediately threatened. As the report summarises, “This could be used to build a sense of ‘collective efficacy’ and an awareness that individual change is a crucial part of wider systemic change.”

I think this last point really resonates with me with respect to the work we do at Solutions for the Planet. It’s the message we endeavour to send to our students and our mentors and teachers, as well as within our immediate team and when reaching out to new businesses and schools – it’s possible to do something, and doing something can make a difference.


Sarah Milburn
S4TP Programme Manager

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solutions for the Planet Ltd