It’s time to rethink the climate emergency narrative

Is calling climate change an emergency working? The latest elections and trends worldwide call the effectiveness of this narrative into question. With people prioritizing other concerns, is it time to look for a new narrative that would resonate with a broader audience?

Raz Godelnik
5 min readDec 1, 2023
Credit: John Englart

“The science is clear. The world is in a state of climate emergency, and we need to shift into emergency gear.” This is the opening sentence on the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP) page on climate emergency.

The first part of the sentence is indisputable. Not only is the science clear, but scientists are also increasingly vocal, using the term ‘climate emergency’ more frequently in their publications. A recent Washington Post article revealed a significant rise in papers mentioning “climate emergency” in the Web of Science research database, from 32 in 2015 to 862 in 2022.

The second part is also a no brainer if we listen to the science. As Ripple et al. argue in a recent paper:

“In 2023, we witnessed an extraordinary series of climate-related records being broken around the world. The rapid pace of change has surprised scientists and caused concern about the dangers of extreme weather, risky climate feedback loops, and the approach of damaging tipping points sooner than expected (Armstrong McKay et al. 2022, Ripple et al. 2023).”

Yet, while the scientific community is unequivocal about the climate crisis and its dire repercussions, it’s not clear if most people see climate change as an emergency. Don’t get me wrong, most people recognize climate change is real and human-driven. However, it doesn’t mean they also view it as an emergency that requires “to shift into emergency gear.”

Don’t confuse a concern with emergency

It’s easy to get confused if you only look at surveys focusing just on climate as they indicate that people recognize climate change as a serious and imminent threat to the planet, and actually consider it to be a global emergency. At the same time, in reality we see a more complicated relationships with climate change. Yes, it is a concern for many people, but not the top one or even one of the top three. This is evident, for example, in recent election outcomes, notably in Argentina and the Netherlands, where winning candidates are hostile to climate policies in the case of the latter and even skeptical of climate science in the case of the former. This sentiment is further reflected in the strong support for Trump in polls, and general surveys asking voters about their primary concerns.

It seems like that while people may worry about climate change, they prioritize other pressing issues such as economy, health, safety, and societal matters. In other words, for many voters, climate is not an immediate concern to the extent that they are willing to support candidates whose policies are likely to worsen the climate situation because they prioritize other urgent matters like the economy and personal finances. This is not great for those of us seeing climate as one of the top threats to humanity, if not the top one, but this is the reality and we need to acknowledge it.

All in all, this is a problem. If most people don’t see climate change as an emergency, it suggests that this narrative is not working.

Understanding why it’s not working requires exploring what we mean by an emergency. According to the Oxford Dictionary an emergency is “a sudden serious and dangerous event or situation which needs immediate action to deal with it.” Most people associate it with personal health, safety, property, or finances. While these may be indirectly (and in some cases directly) linked to climate change, there’s no clear connection for most individuals. For many, ‘the house is on fire’ only becomes an emergency when it’s their actual house.

The problem extends beyond personal priorities; emergencies usually have short-term durations. Dealing with long-term emergencies like Covid-19 is challenging, and climate change, which will significantly shape our lives for decades without a clear endpoint, poses an even greater psychological challenge.

Therefore, given this disparity between the science and public perception and our challenge with long-term emergencies, it’s no surprise that most people don’t view climate change as an immediate, personal danger.

We need a better narrative

So, what do we do? In my opinion, we have two choices: double down on the emergency narrative or seek an alternative for a different narrative that will get better results in terms of fighting climate change.

I believe the latter is a better direction. Yes, we can double down on the emergency narrative but is it likely to change the fact that most people do not see it directly related to their livelihood? I doubt it. Then, there is also the risk of removing people even further away from the science on climate, if they perceive climate emergency as nothing more than crying wolf. Additionally, describing it in terms that most people cannot relate to will make it more challenging to defend climate action against anti-climate populism.

On the other hand, changing the narrative could help getting more people engage in serious ways in the fight against climate change. It should be clear that the idea is not to diminish the seriousness of climate change, but to ensure we address it effectively. Failing to address the gap between science and action and the role of narratives such as climate emergency in creating this gap is a disservice to our fight against climate change. Not only that, but using narratives that do not drive engagement play into the hands of those who are happy to shut down any serious climate efforts, from Milei to Trump.

So, what’s next? What narrative could replace the climate emergency narrative? I’m not sure we have a good answer yet, which is why we probably should approach it as a design challenge, involving ideation, experimentation, and testing efforts. The goal should be to find a more populist climate narrative capable of spurring serious action (such as a shift to 1.5C lifestyles), resonating with a broader audience, and aligning climate solutions with the issues people prioritize — chiefly, financial stability, personal well-being, and addressing discontent with current economic and political systems.

So, what narrative do you suggest? Feel free to share!

Raz Godelnik is an Associate Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.



Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach