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  • Writer's pictureNoah Lee

Communicating the Climate Crisis: The Problem with Environmental Rhetoric Today

Updated: Jun 28

As a competitor on the national high school Public Forum debate circuit, I spend many hours each month poring over the pros and cons of various policy topics, ranging from right-to-work laws to student loan debt forgiveness to US military presence in the Arctic. In February 2024, the focus was an environmental hot topic: banning single use plastics in the United States.


When I initially began my research, I was impressed by the wealth of knowledge about plastic pollution that had accumulated over recent years. But upon closer inspection, I started to realize that many environmental websites were virtually identical, and not in a good way. Take the below graphic from plasticoceans.org; while there are useful facts about the global plastic crisis, the numbers are taken without context, citations only occur sparingly, and it illustrates its points with stock images of people and trash cans.



Compare this to the aesthetic, well-cited design of a pro-plastic website like RKW Manufacturing. The below graphic includes citations for specific statistics, in addition to a polished bar graph (RKW, 2022). This issue is not only limited to the debate around plastics for high school debaters; rather, it is pervasive throughout the entire climate change issue. It’s not surprising, then, that a PBS poll from 2022 finds a 9% decrease in the amount of Americans concerned about climate change’s impacts (PBS Newshour, 2022). It’s important to identify the causes of this trend and potential solutions in hopes that civilians take the issue of climate change seriously. 



I’ve found that this problem is not only concentrated in bad websites but also more broadly in the climate and environmental rhetoric used in the media. The language used to describe the climate change problem doesn’t connect with many civilians. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that people often deem claims of climate change consequences as exaggerated (Funk et al. 23). Whether or not this is justified, it should be a sign to scientists that civilians are not especially concerned with doomsday messaging. It desensitizes the issue (since people receive large warnings with very few tangible results), causes an audience to become skeptical of the large claims, and puts people into denial about the progress they can achieve on their own. 


Finally, there is a lack of clarity in the world of environmentalism. Although common sense tells us that our individual contributions to emissions and pollution are not the reason global climate change occurs, we’re constantly hammered by environmental websites telling us to recycle, save water and energy, and pick up our trash at the beach (Smith 2022). 


I think we’ll need to see shifts in the attitudes of three groups of people if we want to shift the trajectory of climate advocacy. First are the scientists. Science can’t speak for itself. The research that scientists conduct, as essential as it is to solving this climate crisis, is too complex to be easily digested by the layperson–or it simply takes too much effort on the part of the layperson to understand. We cannot persuade the general public by handing them 50-page studies with dozens of figures and jargon-filled paragraphs.


This is where the second group of people comes in: the explainers of science. Not only should the explainers strive to be appealing to those with less scientific knowledge, but they should also make sure that their headlines are backed by science. For example, take the news story: ‘Plastics killing up to a million people a year, warns Sir David Attenborough.’ While this is an attention-grabbing headline, and Sir David Attenborough does make great documentaries, he certainly didn’t conduct this study. And does the study even claim what he quotes? The study states: “Between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste.” Not only is the statistic not even specifically concerned with plastic, but the diseases are only related to the waste and may not be directly caused by it. An endorsement from someone like Sir David Attenborough is great, but it could be utilized to a far more substantial effect if paired properly with sound scientific studies. Further, ensuring that images like the plasticoceans.org graphic are posted with proper citations and formal design choices in mind can go a long way in bringing more positive attention to environmental efforts. 


Not only this, we need to shift away from the apocalyptic messaging commonly used to describe climate change. While many see these cataclysmic claims as appeals to fear, it feels much more plausible (and relatable) to link climate change to localized impacts that still affect day-to-day life. In the same way that people often care more about local news on city tax rates than about international foreign policy, making messaging more personalized, prevalent, and relatable for different demographics could be more persuasive. This might also clarify the individual’s role in solving a global problem. Although counterintuitive, departing from the “inevitable doomsday” messaging about climate change could actually motivate more people to put their best environmental foot forward. 


Finally, there’s us–the people! While it’s great to change our everyday environmental practices when we encounter a well-cited and credible explanation for doing so, it’s also important to be skeptical of arguments that have been poorly made and numbers that have been accidentally manipulated. For example, the aforementioned number that Sir David Attenborough quotes should be approached with skepticism, since the study is being taken out of context. Recognizing this and doing enough self-research to educate ourselves is crucial for a better environmental activism movement.  


Environmental practices are important. Human activities are having a serious effect on our environment, and our current climate path is troubling at best. But maybe this problem isn’t just rooted in the quantity of carbon emissions we produce, but also in the minute, everyday ways that environmental ideas are communicated to the public. It’s a difficult thing to do. In many ways, I’ve found Public Forum debate to be about much of the same rhetoric–and across the board I’ve realized how small shifts in how issues are framed can generate outsized increases in persuasiveness.


Citations


Funk, Cary; Pasquini, Giancarlo; Spencer, Alison; Tyson, Alec. “Why Some Americans Do Not

See Urgency on Climate Change.” Pew Research Center (blog), August 9, 2023.


PBS News. “Many in U.S. Doubt Their Individual Impact on Fighting Climate Change,” August


Plastic Oceans International. “Plastic Pollution Facts | PlasticOceans.Org/the-Facts.” Accessed


Pombinho, Miguel, Ana Fialho, and Jorge Novas. “Readability of Sustainability Reports: A

Bibliometric Analysis and Systematic Literature Review.” Sustainability 16, no. 1


rkw-group.com. “Benefits of Plastic,” June 14, 2022.


Smith, Allison. “Why Don’t Donors Give to Environmental Nonprofits?” June 9, 2022. 


Tollefson, Jeff. “UN Climate Reports Are Increasingly Unreadable.” Nature, October 12, 2015.

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