‘Actions drive beliefs’: UCL’s Kris De Meyer on the stories of human agency that can beat climate doomism 

A Weber Shandwick expert roundtable explored the psychology behind effective climate communications.


By Helen Palmer, SVP, Social Impact


From companies to campaigning organisations, communicators are grappling with how to engage people around the climate crisis, in the face of evidence that many are increasingly feeling overwhelmed and switching off.


As part of London Climate Action Week, Weber Shandwick gathered businesses, communications agencies, think tanks and sustainability strategists to discuss the challenge, alongside Kris De Meyer of UCL Climate Action Unit, an expert on how our brains process information about climate change.


On a sweltering June afternoon – the irony lost on no one – we sought to understand the context we’re in and the actions we can take. Here’s what we collectively learned:


Concern does not equal action


At a macro-level, there are clear drivers for climate conversation in media and social media. Major moments such as UN (COP) climate meetings, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and extreme weather events such as heatwaves drive spikes in climate discussion. However, as De Meyer pointed out, these spikes tend to disappear as soon as they’ve emerged.


As well as being short-lived, these story drivers have shown minimal discernible impact on public behaviours. According to IPSOS Mori polling, concern around climate change in the UK has been steady since 2019, tracking at 77 per cent in 2024. But there is a clear value-action gap: this concern does not translate into meaningful action.


Why is this? De Meyer says conventional wisdom on how to effect behaviour change got it wrong. It held that raising awareness of a crisis, giving people information, and pulling emotional levers around fear and anger would lead to action.


“The challenge is it doesn’t work this way,” he says. “Psychologists have known this since the 1930s: there are often huge gaps between what people think, say, feel and do.”


Fear is switching people off


While well intentioned, climate crisis media coverage has had serious side-effects, De Meyer says. The well documented rise in climate anxiety, especially among younger people, is combining with a wider sense of hopelessness, the feeling that, in the face of such an overwhelming problem, the individual has no power to make a difference.


De Meyer says that a psychological defence mechanism against these feelings of overwhelm is denial. This, combined with online disinformation, led to the January 2024 finding that one third of UK teenagers think the risks from climate change are exaggerated.


Another way to deal with the enormity of the problem is by switching off. Weber Shandwick data analysis shows that consumers at large are focusing on topics that may feel closer to home – the cost-of-living crisis, crime, healthcare, and tax. This suggests communicators need to work harder to reconnect disconnecting audiences by forging more personal connections with the issue.


Tell stories of doing, not of concern


How do we address this? De Meyer advocates for a paradigm shift in climate communications.


“The issue is that people don’t feel they have agency – they don’t know how to overcome the barriers to action they face. We need to focus on action because in real life, actions drive beliefs far more often than beliefs drive action.”


For communicators, this has major implications for how we shape narratives and stories. De Meyer is clear: start with the inspiring positive action being taken and the people taking it.


“Most agency is social: people need to see others solving problems. We need to help people – in all walks of life, from politicians to the public – understand how to change, not just tell them what to do.


“Stories of action build that sense of agency, and action inspires more actions. Self-persuasion is the only reliable form of persuasion.”


For communications professionals, it means flipping the narrative: not opening in the traditional way with a problem statement, but starting with the success story, the implications for the wider effort towards progress, then weaving in the problem further down, if at all.


Put people first, cut the jargon


Participants at the roundtable agreed on the urgent need to humanise communications. As De Meyer says: “All factual debates are social debates, about people. Your brain is thinking about other people as a default. That’s why stories of people work so well, rather than abstract debates.”


The misconception is that human-led stories are just ‘fluffy, hopeful stories’, when in fact they can be serious stories about meaningful action.


Innovation was also raised as a source of strong storytelling. Participants discussed how increasing regulation is sparking a new wave of innovation, providing stories about exciting technologies. As well as playing well with media, these can also inspire audiences, if they are told from a people-centric, rather than a technical perspective.