‘Beautiful’ summers are a thing of the past, climate psychologists say: ‘We have to name things as they are’

Many people think it’s ‘nice’ weather this summer, but is that it? The consequences – such as extreme drought – are becoming more noticeable every day. Climate psychologists therefore believe that we should look at it differently. “The urgency must become clear.”

Newspaper headlines about ‘beautiful’ and ‘tropical’ temperatures, accompanied by photos of beautiful beaches and terraces full of happy people: it is still too common, according to climate psychologist and communication expert Sara Wortelboer. The persistent tropical temperatures are in fact largely the result of climate change and such positive frames are not appropriate in her opinion.

Influence of language use

Language and images have a strong influence on how people react and act on climate change, says Wortelboer. “Terms such as ‘nice weather’ are not useful,” she thinks. “The situation is so worrying and life-threatening. We can’t really talk about ‘good weather’ anymore. We have to call things as they are.”

“The weather should be nice and we can certainly enjoy that,” she emphasizes. “But the urgency must also be clear in language use.”

Far-from-my-bed show

Fellow climate psychologist Sara Helmink points out that for many people climate change is still a far-from-their-bed show. By choosing other words and terms, the message about the far-reaching consequences probably gets through better, she thinks.

“Terms such as 1.5 degrees of global warming are far too abstract,” explains Helmink. “But we understand ‘animals that die’ and ‘extreme weather’ better, because we feel and see that.” She herself therefore often speaks not of ‘warming’ but ‘overheating’ of the earth. “That already sounds a lot less fun.”

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‘The story is very important’

Climate psychologists would therefore like to see politicians and opinion makers change their communication about climate change. People who set an example do have influence, according to Wortelboer. “People look to others to know what is considered good and normal.”

She cites Prime Minister Mark Rutte as an example of how not to do it. In the announcement, he called the fact that the maximum speed was reduced to 100 kilometers per hour a ‘rotten measure’. “The story you tell is very important. If you undermine a measure in advance, you are not creating a strong narrative,” explains the psychologist.

Concrete and close to home

So how do you tell a good story about climate? Helmink: “Words like ‘disaster’ and ‘crisis’ can be used incorrectly, because they are often too abstract. What exactly is the disaster then? What will I notice?” It would be good to keep the consequences of climate change concrete and close to home, she says. “For example: if we do nothing, I will soon no longer get water from the tap. Or are the summers even warmer than now. Then you can feel it.”

If the consequences are easily manageable, people will be more inclined to act, concludes Helmink. “Doing green therefore has direct benefits for you. For example, if you want to keep making a snowman in the winter and want fewer wasps in the summer.”

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Is everything ‘taken away’ from us?

We have to get off the gas, eat less meat, fly less and now the ‘good weather’ is also ‘taken’ from us. Some Dutch people now have a strong feeling that we are no longer allowed to do many things because of climate change, while other things are forced on them.

According to Wortelboer, that feeling is not strange. “People feel that their autonomy is limited,” says the expert. “In psychology we describe a number of basic processes and autonomy is a very important one. It is therefore very healthy that we want to monitor our autonomy.”

‘Not all doom and gloom’

According to the psychologists, different language use could therefore help to take people into the bigger story around climate change. “Working on the climate is really not all doom and gloom,” says Wortelboer. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be happy anymore.”

It is best to be aware of climate change and enjoy a balmy summer evening or a nice long shower, Helmink agrees. According to her, it is important to emphasize that guilt is not the same as responsibility. In her opinion, the focus should be much more on the latter.

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Be happy with sustainability

Acting on that responsibility also has positive effects, explains Helmink. The climate psychologist refers to the so-called warm glow effect: people are happy with sustainable action. “The moment you start to have fun with sustainable trading, it produces feelings of happiness.”

Anyone who acts in an environmentally conscious way will therefore also benefit from it. “After all, you contribute to a solution, not a problem. That gives a sense of purpose,” adds Wortelboer, finally. “I think we should talk about that more often, instead of just about what you can’t do anymore.”


Climate psychology

Sara Helmink and Sara Wortelboer were not professionally involved with climate change a few years ago. Helmink, who works as a health care psychologist, and psychologist and communication specialist Wortelboer were concerned about climate change, but did not hear much about it within psychology.

Climate Psychology is now a foundation. With the aim of turning the climate crisis around with the help of knowledge from science and climate psychology.

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