The climate crisis is causing widespread climate anxiety, which leads to inaction and paralysis. Ad Net Zero US Director John Osborn argues for a more positive and hopeful approach using clear language that shows people a path forward.

The climate emergency is a true existential crisis, which is a term referring to anything that threatens our very humanity.

Climate anxiety is another term I’ve heard recently, and it reflects how many of us are feeling in the face of such a dire outlook. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that more than two thirds of us are feeling some level of climate anxiety.

I bet just by reading this, you’re feeling a little anxious.

The question is if a focus on climate anxiety is good or bad. Certainly knowing that we have an emergency on our hands is good, and it can snap us to attention. But focusing on the anxiety and negativity that it creates can also foster feelings of hopelessness and paralysis. That’s certainly not going to help us answer the alarm and make the changes we need to improve our situation.

We’re all trying to figure out how to talk to our colleagues and our consumers without sparking hopelessness and paralysis.

I believe, supported by some interesting research below, that a more positive and hopeful approach will spur more action and drive more change than where we are today – focused on the gloom and doom.

Find messaging that works for everyone

Back in the 1960s, advertisers tapped into psychology to learn how to create messaging that resonated with their target audiences. By appealing to emotions, wants and even subconscious thoughts, advertisers were able to increase the effectiveness of their message. Climate change is no different.

We must tap into our collective understanding of human behavior to create messaging that really works. What works, it turns out, is clear language that shows people a path forward.

John Marshall, an advertising veteran and sustainability leader created a TED Talk called ‘How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen.’ John has found a number of great approaches that still share important information, but that resonate with people and help to power change, such as focusing on what we can do today, and what impact we can make locally. These insights are relevant both in our own industry and when addressing consumers. By focusing on what our industry and our consumers can do today, we can spur more action. By sharing examples that are local and relatable, more people will understand what we mean and feel a sense of connection.

For anyone at a company without a designated sustainability leader, share with the executive team the positive benefits that a competitor experienced as a result of having a designated leader and by committing to sustainability goals. Companies have saved energy costs, created more efficient ways of working, won awards and contracts, and gotten out ahead of coming regulation. Sustainability best practices contain a lot of practical and approachable actions that can help drive growth, impact and scale across a number of goals. The headline is sustainability and business performance are not mutually exclusive; they work together as a double win; progress and profit.

Marshall also finds that a lot of our negativity has actually fed into climate denial and inaction because climate action simply seems too difficult. Most people aren’t ready to buy an electric vehicle (EV) or put solar panels on their house. Marshall shows a new way forward that does two things. First, it shows the value in making small but valuable changes like eating less meat. Second, it puts the ownership back on the big polluters. Individual people can’t stop airplanes, factories, trucks and data centers from spewing out CO2, but big companies can. Once we see that we all need these macro changes to happen, we can be more united and make change happen faster. 

Advertisers can empower consumers with practical changes they can make today. They can also inform consumers about the positive actions their corporations are taking now to reach Net Zero Goals. This is much more effective than avoiding the conversation or worse, scaring people. What’s more, this approach is not greenwashing. It’s not only possible, it’s more effective to talk about action and progress within a realistic context.

Take collective action

Climate anxiety requires a new way of talking about how to manage it. Unlike typical anxiety which tends to exaggerate things, climate anxiety is real and must be dealt with differently. Experts at Yale University shared that taking collective action can reduce anxiety and create change faster. 

Anyone with a case of climate anxiety, don’t despair. There are so many of us in advertising who feel similarly. Reach out! Create a sustainable lunch group! Meet together on Zoom! Sharing ideas, educating each other, taking real action can help with anxiety and with our climate crisis. 

For advertisers looking for more guidance, Ad Net Zero is the advertising industry's drive to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing and “running” advertising to real net zero. Supporters include major brands, agency holding companies, supply chain companies and media companies in collaboration with major industry groups. We have a five-point action plan to help the advertising community take steps toward Net Zero.

Here are a few more actions that can be taken today to start making real positive change:

1. Look at your travel policy

Do you have efforts in place to track emissions from flights in particular, with categories by class, long-haul vs. short-haul, and do you have a policy that forces critical thinking around whether or not a trip is needed? Flights are 60%+ of emissions for a business. Ad Net Zero has collaborated with Green The Bid and our US supporters to develop guidance for the commercial production industry to help reduce the number of stakeholders traveling by air to shoots, but this is a universal problem across any type of business.

2. Look at your events

Industry events and company gatherings can be some of the biggest sources of emissions, which are produced by travel, food and waste. There are tools such as isla TRACE that help you measure your carbon footprint and provide an excellent library of resources with best practices to reduce emissions.

3. Look at your emissions from advertising itself

Whether using a carbon calculator like AdGreen to measure emissions from production projects, or a tool to measure emissions from media (there are many out there, and many ad tech platforms with sustainability controls built in), start to get your arms around the emissions coming from your advertising. For some, advertising emissions are actually greater than emissions from packaging, and yet packaging gets a lot more attention. Advertising emissions are a critical part of the emissions from your value chain – the critical scope 3 emissions, which typically make up 90%+ of a company’s total emissions. And regulation is coming to standardize reporting on these in the coming years.

Most of all, don’t fall victim to hopelessness. There are very real steps we can take, that many of us are already taking today. If we each resolve to spread the message of action, more of us will join in and create the wave of change we need to solve the climate crisis.