How European institutions can communicate about climate change at a time of competing crises
We live in times of multiple crises. After two years of unprecedented instability—a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and decreasing purchasing power—the Russia-Ukraine war has triggered a new wave of volatility.
Violence and destruction close to the EU’s border has both psychological and immediate economic impacts. High energy prices severely affect businesses and households and turn people’s attention towards increased living costs and self-protection. Urgent security and economic concerns risk overshadowing another crisis, which can feel more distant but is equally destructive: climate change.
In these turbulent times, public authorities must keep pace with the urgency around the issue and maintain climate action as a top priority of the public in order to achieve climate goals. Faced with the more immediate fears caused by multiple threats, it’s important to remember that climate change has both immediate and long-term impacts on economic stability, health and wellbeing, and security.
People perceive current crises differently than future crises
The Russia-Ukraine war is an immediate and high-intensity crisis that’s also highly visible. Widespread destruction and civilian victims appear in news coverage and social media. Ukrainian refugees arrive in neighborhoods across the European Union. Over 10 million refugees recorded or registered for temporary protection in Europe are seriously impacting the migration situation in countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.
Rising energy and food prices due to the war are also an acute and existential threat. The EU and national governments within the EU (under the joint REPowerEU program) are taking action to adopt measures and solutions to mitigate the immediate impact of the energy crisis for households, businesses, and industry—and to phase out Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and coal.
The climate crisis is more gradual and distant, with long-term solutions taking effect in 2030 or 2050 or beyond. This leads to it being perceived differently. Human attitudes to threat and risk are shaped by our short- and long-term thinking. Short-term thinking is about the present or immediate future, and it urges us to act now. Our brains evolved to cope first with the near and short-term. Long-term thinking is about the distant future that, as in the case of climate, pushes our sense of urgency back until later.
And yet, the threat of climate change is happening now. The heat wave that recently scorched the European continent was a potent reminder of that fact.
Over the past decade, weather-related events have triggered the estimated displacement of around 23 million people on average each year, and migration pressures will likely increase. By 2050, over 200 million people could need humanitarian assistance every year, partly due to climate-related disasters. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.
The psychology of climate change
As Europeans face current geopolitical shocks and increasing economic pressure, adding even more alarming climate impact figures won’t change public perception or ensure continuing support for climate policies.
During unstable and uncertain times people seek security, empathy, human connections, and an inspirational vision of the future. According to Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian specializing in the psychology of climate change, we have three main sets of values: egoistic (focused on our “self”), altruistic (focused on people, community, and broader humanity), and bio-spheric (focused on nature, ecosystems, and the future of the planet).
Long-term climate narratives can boost our altruistic and bio-spheric vision of the world, beyond self-enhancing and short-term (yet still important) concerns such as everyday comfort and material satisfaction. They should nurture our desire for safety, equilibrium, and social cohesion.
The global crisis is an opportunity to picture the net-zero transition as a path towards a more sustainable, prosperous, and secure world. One that is fueled by decarbonized energy and resilient to geopolitical shocks and natural resource dependencies.
The following narratives can help to set this new common vision, beyond the extensively used narrative of “green growth and green jobs.”
Narrative of community: Climate action nourishes the sense of community and togetherness. None of us can change the world alone.
Climate action reminds us that we are the most social of all species, dependent on each other throughout the cycle of our life. We live in groups of neighbors, colleagues, and friends and we seek their support. People easily feel helpless or frustrated if left on their own with a crisis as severe as climate change. Participating in the community or group that works for common cause is a good remedy for helplessness or passivity. Moreover, community (and peer behavior) is one of the strongest predictors of pro-climate societal change. Simply put, most of us tend to act according to what other people in our community or social group are thinking and doing.
Narrative of social justice and participation: The net-zero transition is our common path towards an equitable society that is respectful of ecological ceilings and ensures a good life for all of us.
Climate change is inherently a social challenge as it impacts people and communities. It is also deeply intertwined with global inequalities as it disproportionally impacts poor countries. Inequalities appear both between and within countries. Disadvantaged communities or vulnerable populations at a national level (and particularly in Europe’s coal-dependent regions) are more at risk in the face of climate change because of their revenue levels, education, and the lack of access they have to a low-carbon lifestyle.
It is critical to bring everyone along in the choices that need to be made. This requires transparency, access to information, and citizen engagement in order to create coalitions of support and overcome behavioral and political inertia to decarbonization. Fair and equitable distribution of both the benefits and burdens of climate change is a key objective of a successful net-zero transition. This is a crucial point in addressing the concerns of those who fear that they will be excluded and unfairly impacted by climate policies.
Narrative of security: We have entered a new era of global insecurity. Climate action makes us stronger and more resilient.
The war on the EU’s doorstep poses a threat to global security, drives new military investment, and forces us to rethink global security architecture. It also elevates the importance of easing the pressure on households and accelerating the clean energy transition. The focus should be on boosting Europe’s strategic sovereignty, not just in security and defense but also in terms of imports and energy.
The parallel with the climate crisis is strong. We must build a climate defense today so that we can avoid losing the war for our future. Future climate upheaval may release waves of unrest, riots, refugees, and destruction. Acting on climate and pushing for local and decarbonized energy sources is another way of investing in security.
These narratives can help connect the long-term impacts of climate change to the values of European citizens. Ultimately, they help keep focus on achieving climate goals even as new crises emerge.