We Need Positive Visions of the Future

For decades, environmental campaigns have been defined by gloom and desperation. New research suggests that hopeful, optimistic framing is way more likely to convince people – and transform society. 


From the US Senator Ed Markey’s re-election ad to the Greenpeace animated short film about corporate-driven deforestation, this year has seen a range of environmental campaigns go viral. Though varying in form and purpose, they are all a reminder of how essential effective messaging is and will be in the ongoing fight for climate justice. What exactly, then, makes a campaign energise the already convinced and sway the undecided? There is no single, simple answer, but research suggests that in most cases, the key to an impactful environmental campaign is positive framing. 

What exactly, then, makes a campaign energise the already convinced and sway the undecided? There is no single, simple answer, but research suggests that in most cases, the key to an impactful environmental campaign is positive framing. 

When activists and politicians try to engage the general public in discussions on climate, they often rely on apocalyptic narratives. Global warming has been portrayed as an end to everything, a future of a ravaged planet with no signs of life. The underlying logic is that explaining the sheer scale of the impending environmental destruction will shock people into action. “Stop climate change before it changes you,” warned a now famous WWF ad in 2008. Though such campaigns might work in some cases and they play an important role in the circulation of facts and ideas regarding climate change, behavioural experts find them largely ineffective in convincing people to act. 

The Norwegian psychologist and Green Party politician Per Espen Stoknes concludes that negative framing – which constitutes some 80% of mainstream environmental coverage – induces fear and/or guilt, which are both passive emotions. Presented with an ominous threat which is either too remote or too inevitable, the viewer is therefore much more likely to change the channel than organise a climate strike. For this reason, Stoknes advocates for an alternative: straightforward, story-based communication that emphasises the role of a community in building a sustainable world. Positive visions of the future, one where we have managed to transform society and live in harmony with the nature and one another, can excite and encourage. They are also necessary in combating the rise of climate grief

Positive visions of the future, one where we have managed to transform society and live in harmony with the nature and one another, can excite and encourage.

This attitude of hopeful ambition seems to be increasingly more relevant to campaigners and scientists alike. Alex O’Keefe, the creative director of the Sunrise Movement and the director of the aforementioned Ed Markey ad, recently stressed the importance of “making people believe we can win.” The meteorologist Eric Holthaus mapped out a possible path of sustainable transformation taking place over the upcoming decade. There exists no universal formula, and different messages will speak to different audiences. But environmental campaigns can and should trade gloom for joy and inspiration. What is near is not the end, but a new beginning. As one uplifting vision of – and ‘from’ – the future declares: we can be whatever we have the courage to see.  

Art by Tatiana Dickins

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