Placard with a painting of the world on it saying 'one world'.

Social charities and climate: five ways to speak so you’re heard

By Liz Gadd 22 April 2024 5 minute read

The people most impacted by the environmental crises want more information and support from charities. However, they can often feel excluded by the language that we use.  

Research shows that we may be in an ‘eco-chamber’, with our messages only reaching existing supporters of environmental action 

So, how can social charities communicate in a way that empowers everyone to be a part of the conversation?  

There has been a lot of thinking over the past two decades on how best to communicate environment change. Drawing on this, here are five proven ways to improve our communication about the climate and nature crises: 

Speak from a place of hope 

Countless surveys and polls tell us that people are worried about climate change. While a healthy amount of realism is good, worry fuels more eco-anxiety than action.  

On the other hand, hope has proven benefits to our mental health. But that doesn’t mean that we should only be positive either.  

Visions of a ‘picture perfect’ future are more likely to make us swing between ‘save the planet’ and ‘we’re all doomed’. We need to focus on possibilities for choosing a better future.  

Firstly, we need to help more people see that there are multiple potential futures ahead of us, and some of them will suit their interests better than others. Secondly, we need to help people see they have agency (and a right to input) in the decision of which future we pursue.

—Matt Golding, founder of independent film studio Rubber Republic

Generate a sense of agency  

Most climate change communications focus on raising awareness of the problems. But this can backfire by creating fear, driving denial or despair. Nobody wants to play ‘crisis response Wack-a-Mole’. 

Research suggests that the real driver of change is feeling agency.  

How to do this? Examples can be found in the inspirational ‘Messaging the Moment’ by Reset Narratives, Heard, and Rubber Republic. The messages, tested extensively with the public, describe the intersection of the climate crisis and the cost-of-living crisis.  

For example: 

Now is the time for our islands, with their huge potential for wind, wave and solar power, to show the world how to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis at the same time.

Messaging the Moment

Build understanding through stories 

Stories make, prop up, and bring down systems. Stories shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and our ability to change it.

—Ella Saltmarshe

Humans have always used stories to understand the world. Stories can help us to see interwoven issues more easily.  

The researchers behind the development of the Communications Handbook for IPCC Authors argue that human stories need to be central to communicating the environmental crises. The big numbers, like average global heating temperature, just don’t resonate.  

But describing change is hard. The prevailing system(s) can seem so ‘normal’ that people – even those who would benefit from change – struggle to see another way of doing things. Political short-termism and a focus on individual change have limited our imagination.  

Stories can help us to break free of these constraints. Stories can help us to envisage how we can change systems together.   

Use everyday language  

Using straightforward language is critical when working together.  

The Potential Energy Coalition’s readable and informative Talk Like a Human report encourages us all to avoid words like:  

  • Decarbonisation 
  • Net zero 
  • Greenhouse gasses 
  • Carbon footprint 

Instead, they say we should focus on everyday language like: 

  • Pollution 
  • Overheating 
  • Extreme weather 
  • ‘Costing people too much’ 

They find that terms like ‘climate emergency’ and ‘climate crisis’ resonate for people who are already alarmed, but not as well for others.  

The coalition recommends avoiding:  

  • Using climate as an adjective (e.g. climate jobs, climate action), as this is not how regular people talk and can suggest an underlying agenda.  
  • Talking about ‘degrees Celsius’ or even global temperatures. This is because 1.5 degrees is a small number to most people. 
  • Using dates such as 2030, 2040 or 2050 as they seem quite similar to most people.  

Assume people are with you already, but help them to understand consequences  

Know that most people are already with you… So opt for a ‘we all already know’ tone rather than the ‘we have to convince you’ tone.

—Talk Like a Human report

Our audiences are with us already. Levels of climate denial are the lowest they have ever been. 

But it can be hard for people to get their heads around the intertwined issues and big picture nature of the changes, even with stories and straight forward language to help.  

Talk to them about their experiences. Be as clear on the consequences of inaction as what we could gain. Keep it human. Keep it real. 

To find out more about the Everyone’s Environment programme visit our website or contact us if you’d like to be involved.  

Or join us 24 June 2024, where we’ll be launching new research into the impacts of environmental change and associated policies on people in poverty, and those experiencing health inequalities, in the UK. 


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