It’s time to bring some optimism back into climate comms 

Graham Reid, SVP, Head of Sustainability, Weber Shandwick


“Is ditching green policies a vote winner?”


This was the subject line for one recent shout-fest on the BBC’s Daily Politics show which, aside from compelling me to question my existence as a sustainability communications professional, forced some tough thinking about the current landscape for climate communications.


For many corporate brands, climate communications are fraught, too often beset by cynicism, misinformation and saturation. Greenwashing legislations such as Green Claims in the EU and ASA rulings in the UK have stunned many brands into silence for fear of retribution – from risks of greenwashing litigation to accusations of greenhushing. Climate doomism has set in – a YouGov poll in March said two-thirds of Britons are worried about climate change, a Lancet survey from a couple of years ago, and covered in the BBC, found that half of young people think ‘humanity is doomed’.


We’ve got to a point where other topics are taking precedence for individuals; they feel more personal. In our own social listening research, developed by the Weber Shandwick analytics team, we found environment to be the seventh most important issue amongst consumers, following economy, crime, healthcare, tax, security and education. Other research gives similar results.


There is confusion and division, too – a look at Google trends finds rises in searches that show both worry and denial. For example, a ‘hot’ question on Google search right now is the statement ‘Climate change is not caused by humans’. Is this an example of individuals looking to prove their biases? Or an attempt to excuse us of the irrevocable scientific proof that it was us all along?


Which leaves us with the challenge – how can we make climate conversation more relevant and constructive, against all of these other competing issues? How can we turn around our collective nihilism and not only drive engagement, but action in this climate emergency?


One element feeding climate fatigue is a cyclic stress of doom and data. Warnings of the milestones we’ll not hit, another wildfire, more legislation, more criticism, more cynicism. If fear and anger has got us here, do we need now to lean into a new narrative?


Speaking earlier this year, Christiana Figueres, Global Climate Leader and one of the key architects of the landmark UN Paris Agreement – said that “stubborn optimism may be our only hope”. Perhaps, there is an opportunity for brands to step into this more optimistic space.


As consumers and policymakers alike bore of commitments and the self-congratulation of a brand’s latest ‘green product’, there is now a space for brave brands to lean into innovations, action and progress, particularly at scale. Perhaps it is the pilot of a new approach to textile circularity, or maybe it’s a surprising brand collaboration that highlights a major step forward for low carbon farming. Whatever successes your tireless sustainability teams are achieving, find time to showcase them, in a way that feels tangible to your audiences. Will that new innovation make their sustainable shopping bill more affordable, or their shift to renewable power more achievable?


By stepping into this optimistic space, perhaps brands can show audiences that all of these personal worries they face are interconnected and part of the bigger picture. Campaigns that tap into issues like the cost of living crisis, or perhaps crime, can be the gateway to understanding the real impact of the climate emergency.


There’s some optimism for you.