Why We Need a ‘Goldilocks’ Approach to Climate Solutions
All too often, communication about climate change focuses on its tragic consequences: the increasing number of storms we can expect to endure, the adverse effects of climate change on our physical and mental health, and now, the lawsuits our cities may have to withstand by insurance companies. But a framework that focuses exclusively on fear will hardly be effective in inspiring action, writes Michelle Nijhuis in a recent blog post for The New Yorker. Instead, we need to orient our focus toward solutions, which can help communicate that these tragic consequences aren’t yet inevitable.
Not just any solution will do, however, Nijhuis says. According to Penn State University psychology professor Janet Swim, who Nijhuis interviewed for the article, we need solutions of the Goldilocks size. Solutions that are too big won’t work (changing Congress). Solutions that are too small won’t work either (changing a light bulb). Instead, Swim says, we need solutions that fall in the sweet spot between big and small – solutions that are Goldilocks-sized. These solutions might be campaigns for energy-efficient cities, state-level emissions-reduction targets, or other mid-level programs and policies that that are both “viable and credible,” says Swim.
For more information more about the most effective ways to engage Americans on right-sized climate solutions, check out ecoAmerica‘s climate communication guide: Communicating on Climate: 13 Steps and Guiding Principles.
Michelle Nijhuis, Contributor to The New Yorker
In the nineteen-thirties, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke proposed what he called the “comic frame”—the view, he wrote, of “human antics as a comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy.” Tragedy marches inexorably toward the end, but comedy keeps us guessing at our fate. Christina Foust, a communications professor at the University of Denver, points out that climate science, and climate news, is often presented as a tragic apocalypse: a fate foretold. (Earlier this week, the glaciologist Eric Rignot told reporters that a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had thinned past “the point of no return.”) While many climate disasters are undeniably nigh, Foust says that coverage of them could benefit from Burke’s comic framing.
Climate scientists are relative newcomers to the tragic apocalypse. The native tongue of science is generally passive and emotionless, and it’s often reflective of the uncertainty that’s an inherent part of the scientific process. This approach doesn’t translate easily to a general audience—hesitations and hedges are quickly exploited. But, as the data on climate change piles up, the projections are getting closer in time and in space, and, after years in the public arena, climate scientists have become much better at communicating the scary gravity of their findings. As I’ve reported on climate change in the past decade, I’ve heard more and more scientists cast aside superfluous caveats and switch to active verbs. I’ve even heard them talk about their feelings.
Image credit: The New Yorker