Why we’re doing climate communication all wrong

By Denise Baden / I first realised there was a problem when I was teaching business ethics using my typical method of a business ethics scandal – what not to do. I was shocked when one student thought I was educating them in cynical business practices – i.e., how not to get caught. I’m hoping this was a one-off, but it alerted me to the fact that what we think we’re teaching isn’t necessarily what our students are hearing.

I began one of a series of studies that compared positive role models to cautionary tales in terms of their effectiveness in inspiring ethical/sustainable behaviour. The results were clear: positive role models win every time. Most educational communications relating to sustainable business/practices focus on raising awareness, but the real drivers of behaviour are social norms (what is everyone else doing) and feelings of self-efficacy or ‘perceived behavioural control’ (how easy is it to do). So, for example, to promote recycling more effective than raising awareness of the need for recycling would be showing social approval of recycling and social disapproval of waste (social norms). And, most importantly, having recycling bins nearby (efficacy). Positive role models combine both the normative effects and agency effects as they show attractive characters engaging in desirable and doable behaviours. However, almost all our communications focus on raising awareness of the problem rather than tying this awareness to solutions that are possible for our target audience to engage in.

We may have been doing it wrong, all along.

Another issue that I grapple with as an educator and as an activist is that we always tend to be preaching to the converted. Courses on sustainable business, business ethics or corporate social responsibility are almost always options rather than core. Similarly, in the broader field of climate change communication, those who choose to watch climate change documentaries or read a green themed article are already onside. But how do we reach those who don’t engage with the green agenda? Academics like myself write articles about sustainability, but how many people read them? We commonly look to science to address the climate change crisis, but it is the arts and stories that fire our imagination.

Frustrated by the limited readership of academic articles, and worried also about always preaching to the converted, I turned to fiction as a fun way to promote green solutions to a mainstream audience. Inspired by a real-life green garden consultancy, I wrote an eco-themed rom-com Habitat Man that combines comedy, fiction and science to foster green solutions.

Tim – the unlikely hero in the book – is 50 years old, single, and trapped in a job he despises. In a desperate quest to find love and meaning, Tim transforms himself into Habitat Man, an eco-friendly 21st century superhero who endeavours to rescue the planet through a combination of wildlife gardening, composting toilets, bird psychology, and green funerals. When Tim accidentally digs up the body of the fabled guerrilla knitter in a back garden, his struggle for a better future becomes threatened by secrets from his past. The book combines mystery, romance and comedy to reach a mainstream audience and smuggles in (or ‘product places’) green solutions subtly. Tim’s crises mirror those faced by the planet, and his sharing-economy, costing-for-nature policies offer hope for us all.

Many activists believe that hope will lead to complacency, but my research in the field of constructive versus traditional journalism, positive versus negative role models in business school education, and green themes in storytelling indicate the reverse. For example, in a recent study, readers were exposed to short stories with a green theme that had either a catastrophic focus or solution focus. While both raised awareness, findings indicated that solution-focused stories with a positive tone were more likely to inspire greener behaviours and a proactive mindset to address sustainability issues than stories with a catastrophic focus. This seemed to be because negatively framed stories can either make people avoid the subject and switch off, or leave them feeling helpless to make a difference.

This is an issue as almost all stories set in the future are dystopian. To help redress the balance, I set up a series of free Green Stories writing competitions to encourage positive visions of what a sustainable society might look like. We ask writers to check out transformative solutions on the Green Stories website and integrate them into their story. A rom-com, for example, could be set in a sharing economy that replaces ownership with borrowing; the hero in a crime drama could use a carbon-credit card; a family drama could be set in a society where people have gardens on their roofs, use green technologies, eat insect burgers and generate energy from their own waste, and so on.

We’ve run 12 competitions so far which have given rise to one novel ‘Blind Eye’ and an anthology of short stories called ‘Resurrection Trust’, with a foreword by Caroline Lucas MP and review by Jonathon Porritt. Stories in various ways showcased green solutions. For example, one describes a Library of Things where the librarian match-makes based on member’s borrowing histories. We need to be consuming about a fifth of what we consume currently to stay within the Earth’s ecological limits, so switching from an ownership model to a sharing model is a great way to do this without affecting our standard of living. Such stories raise awareness without being preachy or appealing only to green readers.

We now have sponsorship from Orna Ross who set up the Alliance of Independent Authors. This means that we can offer £1,500 of prizes and help towards publication for the winning entries of the upcoming Orna Ross Green Stories Novel Prize (deadline 30 Dec 2021). We also have short story competitions coming up in 2022 with a category for adults and a prize for under 18s. Competitions are free to enter and open to all, as long as they are in English and unpublished. Feel free to enter or share details with any aspiring writers who may be interested. (You can also follow this on Twitter: @greenstoriesUK.)

I urge all educators to reflect on whether they too could be ‘doing it all wrong’. Over the last few decades we’ve needed people to raise the alarm and we should be grateful to the Gretas and Extinction Rebellion protestors who have been doing this. But it’s fair to say we are now alarmed. Recent studies in the UK indicate that most young people now suffer eco-anxiety and believe humanity is doomed. To continue raising the alarm without tying the increased awareness into solutions that our audience can engage in is like revving an engine without being in gear. It leads to a lot of negativity – alarm fatigue, eco-anxiety, depression – but doesn’t take us anywhere. Indeed, we should be gearing up.

Professor Denise Baden is a Professor of Sustainable Business within Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton. For more information, check out her talks, podcasts, research, and projects on https://www.dabaden.com.

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