Research Shows Climate Change Communications Needs to be More Hopeful

Media coverage is nearly twice as likely to take a fear-driven approach than highlight positive examples of climate action.

With COP28 starting in a few days, new research shows that climate change communication needs to shift from a fear-driven approach to a more hopeful outlook. Analysis of more than 2,300 articles from 45 outlets in 11 countries shows that fewer than 7% of coverage provides real-world examples of what can be done to reduce pollution while creating a sense of fear runs through nearly 12% of articles (11.6%).

The imbalance is particularly acute in India and Brazil where fear-based reporting outweighs positive examples by a factor of eight and nine respectively. China is the exception with nearly a quarter (23.6%) of articles carrying positive examples.

“The global stocktake at COP28 will show that not a single country is on track to meet the climate change commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement. It is clear that governments and businesses have failed to live up to their promises,” said Mark Jackson, Managing Director of Reputation Works, a sustainability communications consultancy based in Hong Kong. “However, communications professionals are also failing their stakeholders with doom-laden communications that inspire fear rather than action.”

Negativity seems to be particularly rife among NGOs, climate bodies and international / supra-national organisations such as the UN. Despite accounting for less than one-third (32%) of all coverage, these two organisation types make up over half (51%) of all news articles with a fear-driven message.

“Across all organisation types, we found lots of reporting that highlighted the need for action on climate change – but not enough positive examples and best practices,” commented Kristian Hoareau Foged, Director at Simply Thought who carried out the research. “This has resulted in very limited success; the challenge for communicators is – as a number of studies have shown –that doom-mongering decreases trust and can make people less likely to take action.”

The report underlines the critical role of the media in educating a wide range of stakeholders and driving action. It also lays out six tenets to guide communications professionals as they work with the media:

  • Show real-world examples of how business or government initiatives contribute positively to reducing emissions;
  • NGOs and climate bodies need to reconsider the way they present information, using less fearful language;
  • Local impact often counts for much more than the authority that comes with global organisations;
  • Businesses should not shy away from telling their stories but it should be done with humility and without spin;
  • Find your climate heroes and put them front and centre of your communication; and
  • Careful media planning is critical to communicating successfully and avoiding potential media bias.

“We need to recognise the role communications professionals can and should play in driving effective climate change action. However, in a bid to minimise greenwashing and maintain trust of all stakeholders, I’d like to see explicit climate change guidelines built into the professional codes of conduct many organisations already have,” continued Jackson.