Constructive Climate Communication
A Discourse About the Future that Gives Rise to Hope

How a sustainable Munich might look in the future.
How a sustainable Munich might look in the future. | Photo (detail): © Reinventing Society

Positive visions of and narratives about the future are rare, yet these are precisely what we need if we are to move away from polarization and a sense of hopelessness and embrace a proactive approach. An appeal for constructive climate communication.

The catastrophic flooding in Germany, raging wildfires and the latest IPCC report make it clear how urgently we need to completely transform our society. When we examine current media discourse about future-related issues and sustainable development, however, it is noticeable that there are plenty of doom-laden scenarios but very few genuinely inspiring stories about where our efforts might lead us. Many people feel helpless as a result and see no real opportunity to make a difference. Groups that fuel further fears and a sense of frustration are becoming ever more popular, while our society is becoming increasingly fragmented.

What we lack is a discourse about the future that gives rise to hope and does not simply revolve around demonizing or blaming others. A discourse that addresses people’s yearnings, makes it possible for them to experience a better and more beautiful world, and awakens our creativity and desire to help shape it.

Using Positive Visions to Inspire Optimism about the Future

Successful climate communication needs to address our fundamental needs and those elements that for many people constitute a happy life – good relationships, health and physical wellbeing, safety, a sense of purpose and a sense of beauty. Findings from neurological and behavioural research suggest that positive climate communication is the key to overcoming the crisis. We know from cognition research that facts alone will not prompt people to act, and that a debate that focuses frequently on shortcomings will tend to provoke feelings of powerlessness and fears of loss.

If we wish to communicate constructively, we need to describe in concrete terms what it is about a sustainable future that will make life worth living: the increased quality of life and sense of connectedness, the decrease in noise and egoism, the added value offered by healthy foods and durable electronic products. We should be using stories and images whose beauty and aesthetics touch us humans emotionally; we are after all multisensory mammals.

Most of the visions that we are presented with in the public sphere are technological utopias: intelligent user interfaces, robotics and smart algorithms, that promise to make our lives easier and to solve the climate crisis. The danger is that these visions will not materialize but instead will turn us into passive consumers by failing to convey vital future competencies such as empathy, cooperation, systemic thinking and creativity. For example, we find ourselves confronted with designs for smart future cities that are energy-efficient and computer-controlled but rarely focus on issues like social cohesion, the value of community or the need for people to actively help shape their living spaces. Another question that likewise remains unresolved is whether artificial intelligence and electric mobility can reduce our absolute consumption of energy and resources while the causes and consequences of our current economic model – based on the concept of “more and more” – fail to be addressed.

Making Living Laboratories and Real Utopias Visible

Trailblazing projects in cities, municipalities or regions that involve the future being jointly researched and developed can serve as inspiring examples in communication. Places like Barcelona, where local residents have set up their own cooperative energy system that is run by citizens and funded by the city, or indeed Copenhagen – a pioneer of green urban infrastructures – demonstrate how sustainable transformations that improve quality of life can be brought about and form the basis for new, positive narratives. Permaculture and syntropic farming, two forms of regenerative agriculture that aim to achieve high levels of diversity and preserve soil quality, not to mention foodsharing, an initiative to prevent food waste, also make change tangible and, through principles such as regeneration, regionality, cooperation and participation, create a better future for all generations.

Constructive, future-oriented climate communication by politicians, governments, journalists and civil society can pick up on these so-called real utopias and address them in discourses about the future. These concepts, which in many cases are not widely known, have the potential to be translated into bigger contexts. They demonstrate that a climate-friendly lifestyle and a departure from material growth do not necessarily mean a reduction in living standards but can in fact enrich one’s own life. Community-supported agriculture for instance is not about maximizing profits but about ensuring sustainable land management and reducing transport distances. Members cover the costs of a regional operation, receive fresh regional foods and establish personal ties to one another and to the farmers. Though Copenhagen’s cycle superhighways have forced a reduction in car traffic, they have played a key role in improving the wellbeing of city residents and in helping more people to get to work in a quick and healthy manner.

Sustainability is neither left nor right wing, neither urban nor rural, neither rich nor poor, neither liberal nor conservative. It is an undertaking for society as a whole and one that is of existential importance to people of all professional groups and ages. Blaming one another will not allow us to make any progress in current debates about the future, and ideologically entrenched debates serve merely to exacerbate divisions in society. Non-violent and solution-oriented future communication, in which the focus is placed on our actual basic needs and in which differences of opinion are tolerated, can counter any further polarization and unleash creative potential. Let us inspire optimism about the future!