Opinion | Climate activists need to change their tone


By Ewan Thomas-Colquhoun, Third Year German and Russian

We are in a climate emergency. As scientists have shown, emissions need to be cut now to prevent a run-away climate catastrophe becoming the defining feature of the 21st century. This is all common knowledge.

And yet, in a year which has seen millions of people around the world go on climate strike, 65 nations commit to net-zero carbon emissions before 2050, and a 16-year-old Swedish girl sail halfway around the world to tell Trump to give children back their future, greenhouse gas emissions have increased once again.

People are still striking, but we need change | Epigram / Elisha Mans

Put simply, the efforts of climate activists around the world have so far failed to produce real action. Clearly something needs to change, and fast.

Perhaps the hardest part of this challenge, however, is reshaping the opinions of sceptics: those people who do not see it as their priority to change things now, or even doubt the science altogether.

The efforts of climate activists around the world have so far failed to produce real action

How can these people be influenced to change their actions, if they doubt the climate message itself? The answer may be simple: change the message.

At the moment, when reading reports in the media or watching televised TV debates, it’s easy to become demoralised about the situation. The language of ‘disaster’ ‘emergency’ and even ‘war’, as used by the most recent UN report, naturally feed negative associations towards the climate crisis. This is, of course, deliberate and important. This emotive language helps people frame the scale and importance of the challenge faced by us all.

But this language also leaves many cold.

It’s easier to switch off the TV and ignore the part that you play in climate change, rather than face up to your own culpability and begin to significantly change your actions.

Climate message stating 'You buy, we die' | Epigram / Elisha Mans

If it’s possible to accept that it is this environment of fear and negativity that is putting people off, then perhaps the opposite is required to bring people on board. Perhaps, we need a positive climate message.

Whilst the dangers of a climate catastrophe cannot be ignored, a new narrative could frame the changes needed in society as an opportunity to make the world a much better place.

Rather than telling people to stop driving, they should be helped to understand how driving electric cars or using public transport can help create a city in which the air in their children’s lungs is as pure as it would be in the countryside. What’s more, a country run entirely on renewable power is completely un-reliant on outside exports of oil and gas, a message that surely must resonate with the Brexiteers among us – even the ones who refuse to publicly debate climate change.

We need a positive climate message

The message does not even need to promise a utopia. For millions of people around the country, lower energy costs, helped by producing power from abundant resources such as wind (especially plentiful here in Bristol), could be enough to produce a change in behaviour.

And kick-starting this change is a matter of language.

If all the students who marched through Bristol recently had carried placards proclaiming the opportunity of a brighter future, rather than ‘the death of your children’, it would’ve begun to build positive associations, rather than scaring people into inaction. These positive associations would, in turn, be a catalyst for producing constructive change – people acting through hope rather than fear or guilt.

A positive climate debate is more inclusive. It lays aside the casting of blame and instead offers everyone the opportunity to help create a better future – an opportunity that we must take.

Featured Image: Epigram / Elisha Mans

How can we get people to face the climate catastrophe head on?


Ewan Thomas-Colquhoun

Second year German and Russian student. Occasional contributor. All opinions are my own.