From September 19-27, a temporary “Climate Clock” in Manhattan’s Union Square counted down the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds left until we are unable to avert climate disaster. You probably saw it — it’s hard to miss the large, glaring red numbers. My concern with the climate clock is not that I think the timeline is wrong, but that I worry the clock’s effect will be the opposite of what the artists intended. What happens when a human is confronted with such a threatening fact? Especially amidst racial injustices and a pandemic that are already taxing people’s emotional health?
With a threat as large and scary as climate change, our brains are forced to find a way to cope. There are a few ways we humans do that: we either work to solve the problem or we cope emotionally through distancing, avoidance or denial of the problem. Both are valid responses to protecting our mental health. However, we need to take action. The problem with responding to climate change with action lies in the fact that individuals alone do not have the ability to solve climate change. Our brain, then, when it conceptualizes climate change within a “doomsday” framework like the climate clock employs, feels even more inadequate to face the problem head on.
Therefore, the clock likely either reinforces denial responses for individuals who have already been relying on that form of coping, or it may further induce climate anxiety upon those who already know we need to take climate action. Neither are conducive to change. In fact, environmental education research has proven doom and gloom messages to be ineffective at initiating long-term sustainable behaviors.
When I think about the types of messages and artist statements that will move the American public to action, I am more interested in the second, less well-known number the climate clock displayed: the percentage of our supply of energy that is already renewable. Showing people a future to hope for and highlighting the positive actions others are already taking to get there (like renewable energy) can help counteract feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
If, like me, you have climate anxiety, it can be hard to not want to shake people and tell them they need to care “or else.” I suspect the “Climate Clock” artists felt this way too. But, if you are able, I challenge you in your daily life to notice when climate change communication is framed negatively. How does it feel to look at a climate countdown? If instead you shift the conversation to imagining what it would feel like and look like to live in a sustainable world, how others are currently working to get there and what realistic actions you can take to help, does that change how you feel? While the climate clock had good intentions, positive framing is more effective at giving people the resilience they need to face climate change head on and take action.