Messages about the climate tend to have negative framing, but there are many reasons and ways to adopt positive framing about the climate in tourism. | Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

April 8, 2024

When it comes to the climate and its knock-on impacts, there seem to be competing narratives about the state of the world.

On the one hand, 2023 was the hottest year on record, and the world recently exceeded the 1.5℃ warming limit over a 12-month period for the first time in recorded history. Sea ice in Antarctica has reached a dangerously low point, and scientists are increasingly worried about the knife’s edge we’re walking when it comes to loss of biodiversity and the extinction of ecosystems.

Yet, there’s a lot of good news too: Use of and investment in electric vehicles and renewable energy have seen incredible growth, and Portugal even ran solely on renewable energy sources for six days in 2023. Deforestation in Brazil has dropped considerably in recent years. And a number of initiatives demonstrate that everything from eco-friendly festivals to dam removals can tip the scales toward a more climate-friendly future.

From a tourism perspective, there is also a two-pronged position to consider: People working in tourism and across the leisure travel sector have long avoided acknowledging or integrating anything related to the climate in offerings or communication. However, tourism is both highly vulnerable to climate change and responsible for exacerbating it.

So which is it: Is the climate situation a story of doom and failure, or is it one of hope and opportunity? In coming to terms with how to understand the situation, what is the best way to communicate this with others?

And, importantly for those working in tourism, how do we do this in the travel context so that the severity of the climate situation – and tourism’s role in it – is acknowledged while also seeding hope? After all, the dream scenario is that travelers become more actively engaged in mitigating harm and maximizing positive impact.

Like the climate situation itself, it’s complicated.

Whether packaged in pre-trip communication, shared by tour guides, or delivered in some other way, here’s what you should consider when you craft your climate-related messaging in the travel context.

A Rapid Slide Toward Disaster: The Argument for Fear-Based Climate Communication

The world’s on fire, and that’s just the way it is. So seems to be the thinking when it comes to most climate communication these days. In fact, studies have found that most of the media’s coverage related to climate research doesn’t encourage pro-environmental actions or behaviors.

Because fear-based, negative framing of climate issues is so common, you might find yourself gravitating toward this angle when developing messaging – especially if you align personally with this perspective. 

And it’s true: Fear can be a great motivator. However, it’s important to note that, generally speaking, when it comes to fear-based communication and negative framing of climate issues, sweeping generalizations don’t drive change. Instead, use fear to promote a specific issue and lead people toward a clearly defined action.

Defining problems as problems.

With so much bad news, it can be hard to know which problems are actually problems worth focusing on. It makes sense: With an overabundance of messaging, it’s not always clear where to place energy and action. Feeling overwhelmed by so many messages competing for attention, people tune out.

This is why it’s important to define problems as problems. What is at stake, and why? And, taking this one step further, communication should also let people know they can do something to address the problem.

Scare those who don’t care.

Despite the over-abundance of alarming climate news, there are definitely people who don’t really care about the climate. There may be bigger areas of concern in their lives, or it’s simply not an area where they place much thought. Research has shown that, for people with low concern for environmental issues, negative framing can inspire action.

Importantly, simply sharing fear-based messages is not enough. They aren’t swayed by motivational messaging (“nurture the planet”), and they need tangible actions and solutions in order to do something.

Just say no.

Greenwashing is a legitimate concern when it comes to climate- and sustainability-related messaging. But when it comes to messaging about “green” products, research has found that outlining the harmful effects of not choosing a product is more effective than showing the environmental benefits.

This can be a hard sell in tourism, as it’s not in good taste to trash talk competitors. However, there is an opportunity to compare travel products or itineraries against generic “worse” (but mainstream) options.

The toxicity of good vibes only.

Hopeful news that exists only as sentimental, blissfully ignorant content isn’t helpful. Failing to acknowledge the legitimately concerning climate reality while cherry-picking things that make people feel good not only offers a false dash of cheer, but it also doesn’t point toward a helpful way forward.

Those in the wellness sector have been criticized for their “good vibes only” messaging, as if simply shifting our mindset and wishing our way to a better future will solve everything. Honestly, the tourism industry could be accused of the same thing. After all, the overarching narrative about leisure travel has been that it’s a way to “escape” the real world and an opportunity to relax while leaving life’s troubles “at home.”

The truth, of course, is that the climate crisis doesn’t just go away when people are on holiday. Failing to acknowledge the impacts of a warming world in the tourism context as if they don’t exist and going all in on a story of “good vibes” doesn’t serve anyone well.

The research matters.

Certainly, it is noteworthy that a lot of scientific data exists so that we understand the state of the climate crisis today and projected into the future. We shouldn’t sugarcoat this information or what the outcomes could be if nothing is done to mitigate the situation. If we do nothing, the future does, indeed, look grim.

However, stopping with the data isn’t an effective tactic for getting people to care about the climate crisis. Use the facts, but then help people connect with the situation by explaining how climate change is directly impacting the local community these people care about, talk about the present moment and not the future, and focus on issues of personal interest. Additionally, a lot of research – and messaging – about the climate crisis starts and ends with the data, but we need to highlight more solutions and ways for people to take tangible action. These four tactics offer incredible opportunities for framing meaningful climate conversations in the tourism context.

A Light in the Dark: The Argument for Hope-Based Climate Communication

Hope tends to be a misunderstood concept. Naysayers claim that hopeful people rely on wishful thinking and are in denial about reality. In truth, hope is a more calculated concept, one that acknowledges the ability to act. Author Charles R. Snyder, author of The Psychology of Hope, defines hope as “the tendency to see desired goals as possible, and to approach those goals with ‘agency thinking,’ a belief that you or others have the ability to achieve the goals,” even if they aren’t guaranteed. It is a positive motivational state (not an emotion) that takes into account a plan for achieving goals, imagining a better future and then taking action to move in that direction.

This kind of hope is known as “active hope,” versus more passive forms people adopt where they won’t acknowledge reality, refuse despair in the face of an inevitable bad outcome, or won’t follow through with action because they only expose themselves to positive visions of the future.

When it comes to the climate, there are many areas where active hope and hope-related communication offer promise.

Uncertainty offers a compelling reason to act.

We don’t know what the future holds. Humanity stands on the brink of a moment when everything could go wrong … but it could also go right. We simply don’t know what the outcome of the climate crisis holds because we’ve never been here before, nor do we know how all the levers of the current situation can and will interact with each other.

Climate scientists have identified several “tipping points” that could catapult us toward a point of no return – but there are positive tipping points too. Not knowing what will happen means that the very best outcome is still possible.

Positive framing leads to more effective messaging.

Financial benefits aside, if you didn't believe the work you did every day mattered, would you have any compelling reason to show up? This is the same question people ask themselves when debating what – if any – action to take regarding the climate crisis. When people constantly encounter negatively framed communications and feel our impending doom is inevitable, there’s no compelling reason to exert energy to change it.

Conversely, research has shown that positive framing is more effective. Encouraging people to take individual action combined with motivational messages about societal benefits is more impactful than focusing on sacrifices. 

There are lots of examples of climate wins – even in tourism!

The news we encounter tends to center on “bad” news. Shocking and scandalous headlines still grab attention, even in digital spaces, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by dismal reports, stories, and events.

But, as noted in the opening paragraphs of this article, there are a lot of climate wins. On the tourism front, the UN’s Glasgow Declaration has accumulated hundreds of signatories, and carbon labels are becoming increasingly popular as a means for educating travelers and offering an incentive for improvement. Destination management organizations (DMOs) like 4VI are adopting brilliant ways of supporting local communities, and social enterprises around the world are finding ways to provide great travel experiences while supporting marginalized communities. 

Stories like these demonstrate that companies and initiatives big and small offer examples and blueprints for what a “better way” looks like. Browsing the impact reports of dozens of travel companies also offers compelling evidence that this work pays off.

Highlighting opportunity and success provides a path forward.

Artificially elevating stories that fail to acknowledge the climate crisis and make people feel good for the sake of feeling good is not helpful. Hopeful messaging can’t stand on its own. It is far more effective when it’s combined with a sense of personal agency and goal-directed projects or instructions in which people can actively engage.

Additionally, it is impactful when meaningful good stories highlighting helpful examples, significant events, and key milestones help people visualize a way forward. These pragmatic stories showing where the work has led and how it can be positively impactful in the climate context offers a blueprint for others also heading in this direction.

Importantly, context and scale matter. Yes, it’s nice when an accommodation installs low-flush toilets and solar panels, but what does that mean? How much water is saved and how much electricity is produced? How does this positively impact the local community?

There’s a community of hopeful believers.

Look for others with hope and you’ll begin to find them. They come in the form of individuals, like-minded online gathering spaces, and conferences – and once you find others who are hopeful about the future, your own sense of hope is likely to be renewed. Keep company with those who remind you why your contribution toward addressing climate change and building a better model for tourism matters, and that circular reinforcement helps continue work in a positive direction.

This is a compelling reason to share a story of hope with travelers: If people can see that there are others who have hope – and there are a lot of people who do – that can bolster their own conviction of working toward a better future, in tourism and beyond.

The climate crisis can feel overwhelming.

Creating content about it doesn’t have to be.


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