Climate Reality Leadership training left me feeling drained and demoralized. Is there a better way?
Updated: May 20, 2022
I am always curious about how I can communicate climate change more effectively, so during the summer of 2020 I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, the premier climate change communication training offered by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Because they were unable to offer live trainings due to COVID, the training took place online over a number of days. It consisted of a mix of synchronous talks and small discussion groups along with asynchronous content to watch over the duration of the training as well as completing a few “homework” assignments, like writing our personal climate story.
What struck me about the [Climate Reality Leadership Corps training] was how drained and demoralized I felt at the end of the day.
The Climate Leadership Corps training prepares people to give presentations about climate change using an updated version of the slideshow originally introduced in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. If you’re familiar with the 2007 Academy Award winning documentary, you know that the presentation starts with the basics of the science behind climate change followed by a firehose of facts about how and where climate change is impacting us. Forests, oceans, glaciers, rising seas, warmer temperatures, spread of disease vectors, animal migration, human health, environmental justice, more rain, less rain, more snow, less snow, water shortages, climate refugees, political instability, extinction events, extreme weather, loss of infrastructure, cost to the economy, ocean acidification, agricultural impacts, and on and on.
The main slide deck that gets presented during the three day training, and the one available for trained Climate Reality Leaders to use afterwards, includes nearly 600 slides of captivating images. The trouble with it, from my perspective, is that the slides are in a roughly 4:1 ratio of devastating impacts of climate change to solutions. To be fair, there was some content on renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, green jobs, regenerative agriculture and encouraging social and political trends. There were also several breakout sessions with panels of speakers talking solutions, yet those seemed to be more ancillary to the main training.
I don't know whether the training has become more focused on solutions since 2020. Perhaps it has. What struck me about my training experience was how drained and demoralized I felt at the end of the day after being bombarded with the doom and gloom trope. Many of the other 10 participants in my small discussion group voiced similar feelings. I feel that the Climate Reality Leader training was a missed opportunity to move people away from the doom and gloom trope of climate change into a more aspirational framework that might attract more people to sustained climate action.
I should say that I am guilty of giving talks and hosting workshops that, judging by the look on the faces of participants, left people feeling anxious, demoralized, and well, just done with the whole shit show. Maybe I inadvertently scared them into switching to LED bulbs or flirting with a less meat-centric diet, but I'm unsure whether my doom and gloom approach motivated anyone for the type of sustained, collective climate action we need.
Fear activates our amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. These responses have evolved to be quick, protective, and occur without much deep thinking involved. They are intended to move us away from the edge of a cliff or prepare us to fight off the mountain lion that is stalking us. When our amygdala is going berserk, the solutions our brains (rightly) jump to involve a narrow set of actions aimed at keeping us safe. What we need to respond to the climate crisis, though, is the opposite. We need to take a step back, calm our brains, and be able to consider a wide-range of creative solutions and opportunities that exist. I've found that helping people create a vision of a future worth running toward, rather than away from, excites people and motivates repeated engagement with a troubling reality.
What if, instead of sensationalizing the impacts of the climate crisis, training helped aspiring Climate Reality Leaders talk about climate change as an opportunity to rethink the way society operates so that all beings can thrive?
I'm not saying we should be all rainbows and unicorns about climate change or steep our work in toxic positivity. We're deep in the shit here. I don't think most people realize just how deep in we are, but I also don't think that pounding that point home helps foster the long-term engagement we need from people.
I appreciate that the Climate Reality Project is taking on the necessary and ongoing task of building climate awareness among the general public about the climate crisis. They're doing a bang-up job. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have completed this training, and countless more have heard presentations by the Climate Leadership Corps therefore building awareness of climate change to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
However, what if the Climate Reality Corps. training and slides flipped the 4:1 impacts to solutions ratio on its head? What if, instead of sensationalizing the impacts of the climate crisis, the bulk of the training helped aspiring Climate Reality Leaders to talk about climate change as an opportunity to rethink the way society operates so that all beings can thrive? What if Climate Reality Corps. training helped people envision and talk about what they are most looking forward to in the future if we get this right?
In honesty, I feel presumptuous even questioning a behemoth like the Climate Reality Project which clearly resonates with millions of people. Maybe I'm way off base. Still, in the spirit of playfulness, I wonder if the Climate Reality Project could advance their cause on an even grander scale by helping participants see a future worth running toward, not from.