From Doom to Do: How Optimism Can Fuel Action on Climate Change
Most people recognize the climate crisis and want to know more about the path forward.
Institutions should better communicate to people a vision for solutions, set a path for getting there, and demonstrate both progress and setbacks.
Transparency, evidence, and hope can help build trust and increase optimism around climate change.
The Edelman Trust Institute sat down with Deanna Tallon, Edelman’s Managing Director of Climate & Sustainability, to discuss findings from the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Climate Change.
This interview has been edited for brevity & clarity.
ELLIE SMITH (EDELMAN TRUST INSTITUTE): In your role at Edelman, you have focused on how people think about and approach climate change. So how have you seen views shift writ large in recent years?
DEANNA TALLON: The number one thing is how mainstream the issue has become. You're seeing it in mainstream media covered a lot more. And I think, in large part, that's because we're seeing firsthand the effects of climate change globally. It's affecting everyone. And we found through the study that it's very personal. People feel that their health has been affected by climate change or they've experienced an extreme weather event where they live. So the topic has shifted from "it’s coming” to “we're living with it, and therefore, what do we need to do?”
ES: How do you think that shift from “it's coming” to “we’re living with it” changes whether people are optimistic or pessimistic about dealing with climate change?
DT: We're at a really interesting moment in time, which is why I'm excited about some of what this report shows us. There's one route we could go which is, it's completely overwhelming and there's nothing we can do. And there’s another that says we could either dive into anxiety or we could dive into agency. And I think we really need agency because doom and hopelessness are not a way forward. Optimism and hopeful energy are exactly what we need right now.
ES: The report focuses on the power of optimism in the fight against climate change, but 55 percent of respondents who worry about climate change are also pessimistic about overcoming its challenges. What do you think is seeding that pessimism in people?
DT: What it comes down to is whether you feel that there's hope for solutions. It's really about leaning into understanding what those solutions are, how do they look, and how do we get there? All institutions need to do a better job of creating a vision. People don't really know the way forward. Every institution needs to lay out that path, and then communicate progress and be honest and transparent about where we may be falling short and what we can do about it.
We have to define what progress looks like and continue to demonstrate progress and setbacks equally. Transparency, evidence, and hope are the three key things that will build trust and get us out of the doom loop and into one that's much more hopeful.
ES: Geopolitical discord and how different countries are dealing with climate change is contributing to the trust crisis. How important do you think it is to get people, in both developing and developed countries, on the same page about geopolitical solutions to climate change?
DT: At the heart of this is an issue of fairness. And the sense of distrust is going to continue to be an impediment, unless developed countries do their fair share to address the problem. Looking at COP28 coming up at the end of the month, operationalizing the loss and damage fund, providing adaptation finance, helping us all move forward together is going to be really critical. We're going to need to see some clear examples of collaboration and progress to unstick the trust blocks.
ES: According to this report, if people distrust institutions, optimism about solving climate change issues is low. We're also seeing the trust in institutions to do what is right on climate change is falling. So how important is it to rebuild trust in institutions? And are there any ways that institutions can rebuild trust that you think are particularly important right now?
DT: Part of what we're seeing is institutions hiding behind one another. We have businesses saying, “Well, we don't have certainty because government's not regulating.” And we have government saying some climate policies are bad for business. So we've got this circle of distrust. I think it comes down to business showing what we need to do to have more positive solutions. How are we transforming our business to decarbonize? What's our strategy and how are we going to get there? Government has got to make it a priority for business to act, but business cannot wait for government and hide behind them and say we can't act because of government uncertainty.
There needs to first be a fundamental recognition that we are in this together and therefore find a way to achieve unprecedented collaboration. There are all these unexpected transformations happening: For example, Texas is the leading producer of wind energy and the second in solar energy in the U.S., and it would rank eighth globally in wind power capacity. We need to double down on bringing people along with us to build trust and then therefore build the optimism that follows. A big problem we've had with climate change communication is that it's focused on the doom, and I think we as communicators, particularly in working with our clients, have a real job to do in turning that narrative around and showing that cities can be healthier, our food systems can be better for us and the environment. It’s not sugarcoating things, but really providing evidence and reasons to believe that the world can be better.
ES: You talked about bringing people along to see how big-picture changes are happening. But some of this comes down to individual lifestyles. The majority of respondents say they want to live more climate-friendly lifestyles, but they feel barriers to doing that. So how do communicators, business leaders, and anyone working within the other institutions need to respond in order to make climate-friendly lifestyles more accessible?
DT: We can't overlook the tremendous amount of goodwill that people have. A lot of people want to do more — they just want to be shown how. There's a lot of new programs and benefits that are available to people that they may not know about. Here in the U.K., I've got a good friend who has a business and has found out that there were incentives to get an electric vehicle for the business, but they had to do a lot of work to find that out. Companies and governments need to do a good job of showing people how. At the same time, we have to keep working and scaling to get costs down.
ES: How do institutions build up and help people to maintain optimism around climate progress?
DT: Emissions are cumulative. So even as we ramp up renewables and other technologies now to reduce emissions, we're still going to be living with the effects of past emissions for some time. We need to be clear with people about that, so they don't lose hope. This is the reality. But even in that context, we have to define what progress looks like and continue to demonstrate progress and setbacks equally. Transparency, evidence, and hope are the three key things that will build trust and get us out of the doom loop and into one that's much more hopeful.