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Discussing the necessity of positive rhetoric on climate change

On Sept. 16, the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design held its seventh annual symposium titled “Lessons from a Pandemic: Solutions for Addressing the Climate Change Crisis.” The first speaker, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, an affiliated professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, discussed why people should trust science. The panel explored the origins of climate change denial and suggested some potential solutions.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Dr. Christopher Barrington-Leigh, Associate Professor at the Institute for Health and Social Policy and the School of Environment, commented on how the overwhelmingly pessimistic rhetoric that surrounds the climate crisis can encourage climate change denial. 

“We don’t have positive stories for the future [because] everything Hollywood produces is apocalyptic,” Barrington-Leigh said. “People behave in very predictable ways when they don’t have [a positive vision of the future], and it’s all to do with closing off socially, [and] thinking defensively […], not creatively.” 

He also pointed out that cognitive dissonancethe discomfort people feel when a behaviour and a cognition contradict one anotherplays a substantial role in the persistent trend of climate change denial. 

“The thing with cognitive dissonance is that […] the more contrary evidence comes, [the worse it gets]. If a little bit of evidence comes along that’s contrary to your belief, you […] make up more conspiracy stories so [you] can enforce [your] belief,” Barrington-Leigh said. “You raise the stakes even more now [that] your ego is even more [under] threat, [so it can be] a positive feedback [loop].” 

Barrington-Leigh claims that even education on climate change, a commonly suggested solution to combat misinformation, can backfire if it puts too much blame on the individual for their beliefs. 

“Canada has been [implementing] public education policies about climate change for a generation and a half, and they amount to nothing,” Barrington-Leigh said. “The mistake is often that it’s about individual action, that people are bad or selfish [….] When you say we have to change our consumption practices, everybody starts looking at their own life [and] thinking: ‘Oh no, I’m a bad human.’”

Inspiring leadership, Barrington-Leigh suggests, may be the most important factor in constructing productive rhetoric on climate change. 

“[We need] somebody who frames things the right ways. We understand that people need a positive story they can buy into, and they need to not feel bad about themselves,” Barrington-Leigh said. “[People] need to have a story that brings them together with other people […] so they can […] take positive actions that are good for other people. That’s all any human wants.”

He also pointed out that plenty of progress is being made to combat climate change, and this progress will inspire even more push to combat the issue.

“On [Sept. 23], China […] surprised a lot of people by announcing it’s going to be carbon neutral by 2060,” Barrington-Leigh said. “China doesn’t come out with goals like that […] unless it’s credible. Now, the ball’s in India’s court, and of course, the developed countries had better move faster.”

Barrington-Leigh concluded by affirming the unique power of youth climate movements to rise above political divides. 

“We could have youth parties very suddenly come to power in a lot of countries,” Barrington-Leigh explained. “And they can mostly transcend the existing political partisan boundaries. They just have such a good premise, which is that youth are oppressed and excluded from power [….] If you look at the history of humankind I don’t think there is any time in which the stakes have been so large for young people [….] If you give young people power and let them face the issues, they [learn] faster than if you exclude them.”


In an earlier version of the article, the Tribune misquoted Barrington-Leigh as saying “China doesn’t come out with goals like that [….] That’s incredible.” In fact, Barrington-Leigh said “China doesn’t come out with goals like that […] unless it’s credible.” The Tribune regrets this error. 

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