Exploiting people’s eco-anxiety is dangerous: it’s up to climate communicators to fix things
Abbie Richards, Alaina Wood and Carissa Cabrera are members of EcoTok, a collaboration of environmental content creators. Here, they explain why trustworthy climate communicators are essential right now, as simplistic content about the climate crisis continues to circulate, exacerbating vulnerable viewers’ anxieties about the planet.
On June 22, Agence France-Presse (AFP) published an article entitled: “Crushing climate impacts to strike earlier than expected: draft UN report” concerning a leak project of a next IPCC report.
The report, which was exclusively viewed by AFP, details the “dire consequences” of climate change ranging from irreversible losses of biodiversity, dangerous floods and storm surges on coastal towns, severe water scarcity and of food and points of no return – known as “tipping points” in the climate system.
Finally, according to AFP, it ends with a call for transformative change by saying: “We must redefine our way of life and of consumption”.
As other news outlets published stories about the leaked report, the headlines and their corresponding images became increasingly sensational. A PBS The headline read: “The Worst Is Yet To Come” and Earth911 said that “the leaked IPCC report states a disaster.”
Within days, a video of the leaked report went viral on TikTok.
The video, which the creator has since made private, begins with a trigger warning for “Really bad news on climate change” and lists the most serious and inflammatory parts of the leaked report. In 60 seconds, this video attempts to sum up all the terrifying effects of climate change on the soft music of the piano.
TikTok users did not react well to the news; the video’s most liked comment read, “Honestly… it kinda makes me want to get lost even sooner.” ” [Editor’s note: ‘unalive’ is a phrase commonly used on TikTok to refer to suicide while avoiding the platform’s censors.]
Another user wrote: “I don’t want to be here anymore. I literally don’t want to live anymore. It’s useless. ”Someone else asked,“ Is there a way for us to help… .because my balcony looks fine now.
These are just three of 1,577 comments detailing users’ overwhelming feelings of anxiety, grief, anger and hopelessness. Fear goes viral quite easily.
These warnings from the IPCC are nothing that scientists do not already know.
We can say it with confidence because we are environmental scientists. We have a background in climatology, environmental sociology, sustainability, and marine biology, so nothing that is supposed to be described in this report is shocking.
However, we are also all in our twenties. We have spent our entire lives engulfed in the ocean of emotions caused by an impending climate catastrophe.
We too are furious with those who came before us and who did not act. We too are devastated for endangered lives and entire cultures and species that will never return. And we, too, are guilty of our participation in the systems that have caused all this pain.
We sympathize with the intense emotional responses from those in this TikTok comments section.
We are also climate communicators. Our job is to understand environmental problems and solutions, and then translate these complex concepts into formats that are understandable to the public.
And one of our responsibilities, increasingly with each new report, heat wave, hurricane and wildfire, is to communicate this information in a way that does not produce desperation, inaction, or even self-harm.
The concern about the climate crisis is valid, but should not be exploited
Eco-anxiety and eco-mourning are real and valid – nearly half of young American adults feel the stress of climate change in their daily lives. But scientific miscommunication that oversimplifies complex environmental systems into clickbait horror stories doesn’t honor those emotions, it exploits them. And not without consequences.
While eco-emotions are logical human reactions, sometimes even motivating, to the climate crisis, eco-doom relieves us of responsibility and disengages us.
After all, if we think it’s too late to act, then why bother?
Although no scientific study discovered that climate change is likely to wipe out human civilization, entire sects of the population are convinced that it will lead to the collapse of society, and bad actors are already capitalizing on climate catastrophe to hamper climate action.
Climate change is extremely complicated, full of uncertainty and undeniably overwhelming. Climate communicators exist to explain the complex, recognize emotions and educate about potential solutions.
As we move into an unpredictable climate future, it’s important that the public have trusted voices to turn to for explanation of the nuance. Establishing climate communicators as essential components of our information ecosystems would increase our resilience to climate change misinformation.
The role of climate communicators cannot be exclusive to newscasters, professors, or any other profession entrenched in institutionalized power. A diverse population calls for diverse climate communicators who can reach and represent communities that mainstream media has historically overlooked.
Our aim should be to make responsible and high quality climate education as accessible as possible; it means innovating beyond traditional media formats and finding new ways to help information find people.
As young people ourselves, the new generation of climate communications understand how to reach our peers. We three, for example, are part of a collaborative environmental TikTok account which offers free climate education to over 100,000 followers.
If we remove the paywalls on COVID information, how can we justify keeping them abreast of environmental information? Understanding the realities of climate change is not a privilege – it is a right.
An uninformed public cannot be expected to make rational and efficient decisions. Whether we are fighting disaster or denial, climate communication is essential in the race to implement effective mitigation and adaptation measures.
The field of science communication, not to mention climate communication, is still in its infancy. However, we do not have the privilege of time. Climate communication must therefore become a priority – and fast. We need innovation, funding and amplification.
And most importantly, we need more trusted voices in this space.