If there is one number that caught my attention from the 2022 Edelman Special Report: Trust and Climate Change, it’s this: Almost half of people aged 18 to 34 think that adopting a sustainable lifestyle will mean giving up just about everything pleasurable about their lives.
Oddly enough, this is good news. At least in a sense. Because it prompts us to reframe the climate narrative from one of sacrifice and guilt to one of hope and opportunity.
A positive narrative — when it is backed by tangible, meaningful actions aligned with a credible pathway to net-zero — can be an important motivator. A positive narrative does not diminish the scale and seriousness of the problem. A positive narrative should be very clear about the size of the challenge, the barriers that need to be overcome, the sense of urgency needed to address it, and the solutions being implemented to solve it.
Businesses can help shape a positive narrative, creating a way of talking about transitions that emphasizes potential rather than costs. NGOs and governments can help shape a positive narrative by promoting a positive vision of a secure net-zero future: green jobs, healthy cities, new opportunities. And individuals can share stories with friends and families about how positive lifestyles changes can create joy and happiness.
In short, a positive narrative is about solutions. Solutions that help unlock a positive spirit of transformation. A spirit that drives and delivers accelerated action.
And there are some good reasons to be positive.
Momentum on temperature change — and policy
Not too long ago, the level of global ambition and action had us on a path to well over 3°C of warming by the end of the century. Today, while still nowhere near the 1.5°C that climate scientists say is needed, current policies point to a 2.8°C temperature rise. Implementation of current pledges could reduce this to a 2.4°C. This is by no means a win but is positive progress. Positive narratives have the power to encourage policymakers to continue to be bold and maintain and accelerate this momentum.
In our report, we see that not only is government more trusted than business to do what is right in addressing climate change, a finding that bucks the trend of trust in institutions to do what is right in general, but the public is calling for more leadership from government, not just at a central level, but more locally, too. When looking at what drives trust in government to address climate change, if government is seen as performing well on one or more of the following — balancing climate action with the country’s energy needs, getting business to reduce emissions, coordinating with local governments on climate solutions, and subsidizing innovation — there is an increased likelihood of at least 6.7% that people will trust government to address climate change.
Scientists and climate experts at the top
For the second year in a row, our climate report finds scientists and climate experts to be the most trusted spokespeople when it comes to climate change, with heads of NGOs also trusted. We can infer this is largely due to their ability to specify precisely what problems we’re facing, like the risks associated with negative climate tipping points — critical thresholds that, when crossed, lead to large and often irreversible changes in the climate. In addition to continuing to report and comment on such risks, perhaps it’s time for more scientists and NGOs to begin promoting positive, solution-based tipping points as well.
Education is a top lever to pull on
Businesses are investing in solutions at greater speed and scale than ever before. And while change may feel slow and limited today, when the right combination of affordability, accessibility, and desirability are achieved, positive change and transformation can occur at speed and scale. When we looked at what levers drive the biggest increase in likelihood to trust business to address climate change, educating people on how to reduce their own climate impact came out on top. When business does this well, people are 5.6% more likely to trust it to do what is right in addressing climate change. This has a stronger impact on trust than if businesses do well on adopting science-based climate targets (4.5% more likely to trust) or ensuring suppliers reduce their climate impact (4.3% more likely to trust). All this supports an argument that business should no longer talk about their role operating in society but rather their role working with society.
Make it about me, not we
Globally, our research shows, most people see climate change solutions as having an impact on the collective good but not necessarily on their individual wellbeing. Connecting climate actions to day-to-day lives and personal experiences is essential. For example, people can continue to enjoy activities such as eating out and enjoying a good meal, traveling, and wearing fashionable clothes — we need to change the mindset that such activities can still be enjoyed, using different sources of protein, energy, and clothing.
Simply put: If about half of young people think living sustainably will mean giving up life’s pleasures, then there’s a big opportunity for business to show the opposite, providing ways to combine going green and enjoying yourself. To not miss the opportunity with this massive cohort of younger millennials and Gen Z, climate action needs a rebrand.
The good news about good news
With everything going on in the world today, one could be forgiven for giving more weight to negative information than to positive information. Unfortunately, this approach may lead to accelerating outcomes that lead to greater temperature rise, rather than less.
In conversations with friends and peers in the climate community, we repeatedly comment that what we saw in terms of the growth of positive news during COVID 19 could be a prelude to what might be possible for climate communications. Indeed, 59% of people — in effect 6 in 10 — say there is not enough reporting in the media about solutions to climate change. Media should not underestimate the audience for positive news, and the role it could play.
So, if there is one thing I took away from this year’s report – it’s that all stakeholders, in particular businesses, can lead with hope. To excite stakeholders about the opportunities that a more sustainable, equitable and climate science-aligned present and future can exist. Using the power of their actions and communications to build markets, engage consumers, shift policy, and facilitate the rapid growth of sustainable products, services, and lifecycles. For business, showing that sustainability can be joyful could be a great way to engage more customers to be part of the solution, especially younger generations.
Robert Casamento is Global Climate Chair.