Climate Alarmism Can Hurt: Here are Some Alternatives

There are hundreds of conversations about climate change today, but they tend to take an overwhelmingly similar tone: that of pessimism and doom-saying. Phrases like “billions of lives will be lost” and “the world will end in X years” are bandied about to stress the importance of climate action. Photos of forest fires wiping out entire towns and hurricanes razing houses to the ground take center stage. 

However, some scientists say that such discussions actually harm the mental health of those who have to live with these changes: the younger generations.

The rising “eco-anxiety” amongst young people

The American Psychiatric Association defines eco-anxiety as:

“The chronic fear of environmental disaster that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.” 

Although it’s new to the dictionary, eco-anxiety has been a top concern for many psychologists, especially when dealing with children and young adults. The process of internalizing some of the biggest environmental problems has led to psychological consequences of various degrees of severity. 

This was brought especially into focus in the UK in 2019, when leading celebrities including Emma Thompson and Olivia Coleman promoted Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement. Lauren Jeffrey, a student in Milton Keynes, recorded an open letter to the movement after discovering that there was a lot of misinformation and doomsaying involved in the promotions. She stated:

“As important as your cause is, your persistent exaggeration of the facts has the potential to do more harm than good to the scientific credibility of your cause as well as to the psychological well-being of my generation.”

Jeffrey’s statement encapsulates the psychological effects of environmental doomsaying on young minds. This is especially true when it’s made to look like they’re responsible for cleaning the mess up. Eco-anxiety needs to be taken seriously because the socio-economic effects can add considerably to the global costs of dealing with the climate crisis. 

Alarmist vs alarming

There’s no denying that we’ve dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole in the climate change department. However, more and more scientists are pushing back on fearmongering, seeing that it intensifies mental health issues and worries instead of sparking action. 

In estimates of the severity and urgency of the situation, the discourse on climate change is divided in part between a sense of alarm and a sense of alarmism. According to Hulme (2006), there is a widening gap between the terminology used by climate scientists to describe climate change and the terminology used by green organizations to advocate for action on the subject. In many cases, as shown in a Forbes article, scientific findings were exaggerated to grab people’s attention and spark an emotional response.

It has been argued that alarmist and sensational techniques tend to evoke “denial, paralysis or apathy” over encouraging positive action. In climate reportage, fear is often employed as a way to break through the routine of everyday life. However, it may succumb to the law of diminishing returns, even desensitizing people to an otherwise important global phenomenon. In the age of fake news and spin, fear may damage trust in the communicating organizations — and in doing so, may turn entire sections of the public away from necessary facts.

Another problem is that the younger generations often hear partial information that can cause more distress than the facts themselves. Leslie Davenport, therapist, and author of a workbook that helps kids process climate change, suggested that children often hear information from the radio or TV, research about it on their own, and start having adverse emotional reactions because they can’t process their feelings. 

How, then, should we talk to younger generations about climate change?

Educate oneself first, then the rest

Climate change can be a scary concept for adults and children, which can lead to productive conversations on the topic being shut down before they even begin. Any meaningful conversation, then, would begin with adults thoroughly educating themselves first so that they can explain it rationally to a younger person. Davenport suggests that these conversations need to balance science and emotion. 

Respond age-appropriately

Children under 6 are way too young to understand the complexity of climate change. Davenport suggests starting instead by cultivating a love for nature and understanding the planet’s basic systems. When they bring the questions, respond to them energetically and by balancing both the problem and the action aspects of it. Helping them work through their emotions about climate change and introducing them to creative ways of making a difference or taking action also help prepare them correctly. As they grow older, they’re more likely to engage with the topic in a clear-headed manner and direct their efforts into the proper channels. 

Use sensational messages sparingly and with caution

Images that appeal to fear have a place in reportage as they do draw attention. But researchers suggest that they should be used sparingly, within context, and combined with other types of visual representation to paint a better picture. Setting climate facts within personal and local contexts might also be better to spark affinity and meaningful engagement. 

Focus on solutions instead of only on the problems 

Many conversations about climate change tend to taper off after the doomsaying, leaving conversations with negativity but not many solutions. It might be helpful to discuss solutions to problems and implement them instead of just focusing on them.

Action-oriented conversations might be more effective climate action than any other kind. This applies to both children and adults, as it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of climate news and emerge feeling nauseous and scared. Shifting the perspective from “We can’t do anything” to “What can we do within our power?” is a great way to assess the resources at hand and put together a solid action plan. In doing so, we give ourselves more agency over the problem and can exercise our power the right way. 

There’s no right or wrong

There are many ways people choose to talk about climate change — some positive, some negative. It can be argued that always seeing the positive side of things can brook a sense of false hope, which is also dangerous. However, it’s essential to nurture a sense of balance in climate conversations.

It’s equally crucial to encourage younger generations to understand the problem and find solutions instead of leaving them with half-baked information and buckets of fear. It’s a huge thing that they’re already aware of the environmental problems facing us — but enabling them to engage with it in an action-oriented manner can make a world of difference in the coming decade.