For some time now, there has been a rush by the media to instill fear and anxiety linked to climate change. Sometimes we witness a real work of propaganda in which we even observe data manipulation with the sole purpose of instilling terror. The end justifies the means? I do not believe.
Instead, it is necessary to reformulate information on climate change by finding a correct educational process that develops around a message of hope and action which must not only underline the threats we will have to face, but must necessarily show how we can act to shape the future with balance and rationality.
There is no doubt that the urgency of the climate crisis increases every year. Meanwhile, however, misinformation and politicization have made scientific communication about climate change increasingly challenging and often misleading. Up until now, the focus has primarily been on convincing people that climate change is real, and indeed, this has been quite successful. The public now accepts the reality of climate change much more clearly than in the past. A large majority of the population feels worried about the climate and the alterations that man causes on Nature. From a future perspective, I believe that the educational element will become essential to bring climate information back to the right place. From this point of view, within the general population, students and young people are an essential demographic to reach with a correct climate message. While countering climate change denial may still be necessary in some contexts, all those communicating about climate science face a new challenge: the gap between public concern about climate change and understanding of what can be done today to influence tomorrow. We need to better convey to the public the quality and quantity of changes needed to be made, for example in energy and land use, and that humanity can, in fact, influence the scale of events that will unfold. It is time, therefore, to reorient our message, focusing less on predictions of future dangers as if they were foregone conclusions and instead communicating the urgency of the situation but, at the same time, instilling a sense of action and hope that can be a line guide for the future.
As already mentioned, students and young people are a key segment of the population to reach while reorienting the prevailing message of climate communication. They represent the next generations who will have to face the challenges of climate change. Students and young people generally show greater attention and concern about the issue and more interest in actions to be taken than older segments of the population. Indeed, young people should be the most eager for correct information. So, scientists, educators and extension workers can help meet these demands and empower young people by providing specific examples of useful actions, with relevant tools and opportunities to help them act constructively. Giving hope helps action: if, however, a sense of the inevitability of things is communicated, people will never act.
We can communicate the severity of the potential dangers to humanity and nature resulting from climate change, while also offering examples and resources that model constructive engagement, just as a doctor would communicate the urgency of a diagnosis of a serious pathology but, at the same time, outline also a treatment path. This is not a blindly optimistic vision, rather it is pure and simple pragmatism.
It has been shown in many contexts that worry, not fear, encourages protective and adaptive behaviors. Bringing “anxiety” about the consequences of climate change is counterproductive; it weakens the motivation to act and prevents real meaningful actions.
The constructive message to be spread should rightly sound the warning of the urgency of the situation, but it should begin by underlining the fact that we have the freedom to act, individually and collectively, to shape the future. For example, any action that reduces emissions today will still improve our future and, generally, there are not just two possible outcomes, success or failure. Instead, there is a sequence of potential outcomes to aim for, and the goals that will be achieved along this sequence depends on the decisions that are made today and in the years to come. The temporal dimension of this sequence certainly depends on numerous factors, but a virtuous path must be set, avoiding, however, hasty choices that could prove counterproductive.
There are technologies and policy choices with the potential to reduce, for example, atmospheric carbon emissions. Adaptation measures can also be undertaken so that future impacts are more manageable. Yet, it is quite rare for these messages to be clearly presented to the public. The implementation of these technologies, policies and measures is far from easy and will likely involve discussions, negotiations and, ultimately, broad consensus, not only from legislators but also from the public. But if much of the public is unaware of the options available to address the climate crisis, how can the necessary discussions begin?
It is therefore necessary to reconsider the contents of climate-related messages. For example, how much attention is placed on messages like “Climate change is happening and it’s serious” versus “Here are solutions and ways to get involved”? Not enough time is spent discussing solutions and, more importantly, providing people, particularly young people, with examples of productive and constructive climate action to inspire their participation.
One of the simplest, but still impactful, ways to broaden presentations on climate change is to highlight the people and institutions involved in climate action: for example, people who influence public policies, regions and municipalities that build climate resilience paths.
Concrete measures taken by local authorities can also be highlighted, such as the establishment of action plans and projects, for example, capable of addressing flood risks exacerbated by extreme weather conditions.
However, it is necessary to avoid catastrophism and exaggerations, because they lead to non-constructive contrasts or even degenerations in behavior. Raising the alarm and, at the same time, trying to provide hope for the future, however, also reflects the rapid change in public attitudes towards climate change that has occurred in recent years. Instead of asking whether climate change is real and why it matters, many people should now ask: “Do we have hope?” “Can we take action?” “Is there anything I can do?” It is therefore necessary to answer these questions through positive and motivating messages.
The scale of the climate challenge is vast and complex. The exposure of specific practical examples of actions and role models conveys motivation for change and encourages involvement. By providing these examples, clear pathways can be highlighted that simultaneously equip those most likely to act on behalf of the climate with the tools they need for success.