• Casey Meehan

Is the Climate Reality Project Turning People Off of Taking Sustained Climate Action?

Pensive man on a couch
image credit: Wix media

I've been communicating about climate change to a wide range of the lay-public for over five years. Before that, I spent years of my life researching how climate change is portrayed in U.S. schools. Throughout, I've had to stay abreast of the latest climate science and learn how to translate it into ways the rest of us non-climate scientists understand. I'd say I'm well-versed on the topic.

I am always curious about how others learn to communicate climate change, so during the summer of 2020 I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Climate Leadership Corps training, the premier climate change communication training offered by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Because they were unable to offer live trainings due to COVID, the training took place online over a number of days. It consisted of a mix of synchronous talks and small discussion groups along with asynchronous content to watch over the duration of the training as well as completing a few “homework” assignments, like writing our “climate story.”

what struck me about the [Climate Reality Leader training] was how drained and demoralized I felt about climate change as a result.

The Climate Reality Leader training trains people on how to talk about climate change primarily via an updated version of the slideshow originally introduced in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. If you’re familiar with the 2007 Academy Award winning documentary, you know that the presentation starts with the basics of the science behind climate change followed by a firehose of facts about how and where climate change is impacting us. Forests, oceans, glaciers, rising seas, warmer temperatures, spread of disease vectors, animal migration, human health, environmental justice, more rain, less rain, more snow, less snow, water shortages, climate refugees, political instability, extinction events, extreme weather, loss of infrastructure, cost to the economy, ocean acidification, agricultural impacts. And on and on.

Despite a smattering of positively-framed solution-based content about what individuals can do about climate change at the end of the training, what struck me about the whole experience was how drained and demoralized I felt about climate change as a result. Many of the other 10 participants in my small discussion group voiced similar feelings.

Upon reflection, I feel that the Climate Reality Leader training was such a missed opportunity to move people away from the doom and gloom trope of climate change into a framework that might attract more people to sustained climate action.

To be fair, in the past I've been guilty of the same thing as the Climate Reality Project. I've given talks and hosted workshops that, judging by the look on the faces of participants, left people feeling anxious, demoralized, and well, just done with the whole shit show. Perhaps I inadvertently scared them into switching to LED bulbs or flirting with a less meat-centric diet, but I'm unsure whether my doom and gloom approach motivated anyone for the type of sustained, collective climate action we need.

Instead, what if we talk about climate change as an opportunity to rethink the way society operates so that all beings can thrive?

Fear activates our amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. These responses have evolved to be quick, protective, and occur without much deep thinking involved. They are intended to move us away from the edge of a cliff or prepare us to fight off the mountain lion that is stalking us. When our amygdala is going berserk, the solutions we (rightly) jump to involve a narrow set of actions aimed at keeping us safe. What we need to respond to the climate crisis, though, is the opposite. We need to take a step back, calm our brains, and be able to consider a wide-range of creative solutions and opportunities that exist. These are the solutions that excite people and motivate continued engagement.

I'm not saying we should be all rainbows and unicorns about climate change, attempt to escape from reality, or offer people false hope that things are going to work out. We're deep in the shit here. I don't think most people realize just how deep in we are, but I also don't think that pounding that point home helps foster the long-term engagement we need from people.

Instead, what if we talk about climate change as an opportunity to rethink the way society operates so that all beings can thrive? Why don't we start these talks by imagining what such a future would look like, sound like and feel like? Why don't we have people talk about what they are most looking forward to in the future if we get this right?

I appreciate that the Climate Reality Project is taking on the necessary and ongoing task of building climate awareness among the general public about the climate crisis. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have completed this training, and countless more have heard presentations by the Climate Leadership Corps therefore building awareness of climate change to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. I wonder, though, how many have been turned off by these doom and gloom presentations.

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