Reframing Despair

How a shift in the climate change narrative can help shape our future

I am relevantly new to climate change–not as a concept per se–but rather as a professional focus.  Since launching a collaborative project a few months back, one that deals directly with climate change, the subject is now a significant and constant part of my daily life.

On Twitter, my timeline is laden with catastrophe.  The more feeds I follow, the more tidbits of devastation crop up.  In newspapers, magazines, movies, and television, there is a glut of destruction but very few solutions.  This void of solutions-based climate news was partly the impetus behind our project; we knew there was innovative work being done all over the world, and were frustrated by this uncharitable and exhausting gap in climate change coverage and dialogue.   

In Cara Pike’s excellent article There’s Hope at the End of the World as We Know It, Pike accurately acknowledges the need for a major change to the climate change narrative and to reframe the issue from one of directionless desperation, to a focus on measurable success and a positive way forward. 

Photo by Tom Miller

Photo by Tom Miller

Indeed, when we look at what compels constructive, informed discussion and engagement, leading with examples of success is simply more effective than leading with problems.  While we are not advocating for a move away from fact-based science and the true reality of what we face, it has been shown that disseminating facts about some intangible and frightening future does an extremely poor job of motivating people.  Fear is not a path one can follow.  Instead, we need to introduce positive and constructive ways to talk about climate change issues that involve solutions to the real challenges we all face.  This requires a reframing of the discussion to include subjects that can inspire people to act and are relevant to their lives.  The excellent work by social scientists like Matthew Nisbet, exemplify the types of communication that engage, reframe, and promote thoughtful discussion and action.  Magazines like Ensia, understand that positive social discourse among and across professions and communities is necessary to motivate a productive and tangible response to our changing climate.  We must frame what we want our future to look like, not get caught in the one we want to avoid.  

Furthermore, a focus on the benefits of successful climate responses can help to focus the climate change debate away from ideological disagreements.  For example, our project will explore how island communities who, because of rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion into their aquifers and are losing arable land, are moving to rainwater catchment systems for their drinking water and to greenhouses to grow their food.  Other island communities are planting mangroves to limit erosion and protect their villages against increased storm surges.  These communities are transitioning their current way of life while also securing a sustainable future for their children.

Photo by Tom Miller

Photo by Tom Miller


Reframing the climate change narrative in the context of positive adaptation efforts like these, not only put the focus on the innovative methods people use to adapt their communities right now, but it also entirely avoids the mundane issue of whether climate change is happening or not.  Who can deny that developing a rainwater catchment system because you no longer have freshwater is a bad idea? 

As the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously demonstrates, climate change has already irreversibly altered many communities.  But instead of framing this in the context of “look how much worse it’s going to get,” we should acknowledge where we are, and research, amplify, and share opportunities for hope by investing in a constructive path forward 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to modify the status quo: ensuring equitable access to resources, reducing over-consumption and emissions, increasing efficiency and investment in renewables should be a priority.  We also need to acknowledge that the costs of climate change are differential, especially for those who have never benefitted from the drivers of climate change.  But alongside these initiatives, there is a huge benefit in examining community-based climate responses.  By exchanging information about what is working, what is not, and highlighting success stories to inspire people to act, we can demonstrate that there is, indeed, a way forward and that we all have a role to play.  Using our current innovations as guides and positive motivation, we can all take a deep breath, take stock of where we’re at, and start to focus on what a transformative future might look like.

Tom Miller
Co-Founder, Our Place on Earth

Check out our entire archive below...