Transforming the stories we tell about climate change: From 'issue' to 'action'

Kris De Meyer, Emily Coren, Mark McCaffrey, Cheryl Slean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


By some counts, up to 98% of environmental news stories are negative in nature. Implicit in this number is the conventional wisdom among many communicators that increasing people's understanding, awareness, concern or even fear of climate change are necessary precursors for action and behavior change. In this article we review scientific theories of mind and brain that explain why this conventional view is flawed. In real life, the relationship between beliefs and behavior often goes in the opposite direction: our actions change our beliefs, awareness and concerns through a process of self-justification and self-persuasion. As one action leads to another, this process of self-persuasion can go hand in hand with a deepening engagement and the development of agency - knowing how to act. One important source of agency is learning from the actions of others. We therefore propose an approach to climate communication and storytelling that builds people's agency for climate action by providing a wide variety of stories of people taking positive action on climate change. Applied at scale, this will shift the conceptualization of climate change from 'issue-based' to 'action-based'. It will also expand the current dominant meanings of 'climate action' (i.e. 'consumer action' and 'activism') to incorporate all relevant practices people engage in as members of a community, as professionals and as citizens. We close by proposing a systematic approach to get more reference material for action-based stories from science, technology and society to the communities of storytellers - learning from health communication and technologies developed for COVID-19.

Original languageEnglish
Article number015002
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • climate communication
  • communication infrastructure
  • environmental education
  • outreach
  • public engagement
  • social psychology
  • storytelling


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