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Climate Narrative and Emotional Intelligence


Polarized perspectives on climate science and traditional climate knowledge have become increasingly tied to social and economic identity, causing people to perceive climate-related messages with immediate and often emotional reactions. These conditions make talking about climate change- and taking climate action in systemic ways- very difficult. These conditions also position climate narrative and the skill of emotional intelligence with great importance. Emotional intelligence helps you find ways to adjust your narrative accordingly to make the most impact on your community; therefore, the two work hand-in-hand. 

Why it’s Important  

Neuroscience studies show that how a person perceives disturbing information can be correlated with how they self-identify with one of two groups. One study found that people who identify with primarily individualistic values and political thought are more likely to perceive disturbing information through their amygdala- the part of the brain that is associated with your fight or flight reactions to threats. People who associated more with egalitarian or communal values and political thought tended to process threats with the part of the brain that deals with uncertainty and decision-making- the cingulate cortex.1 

On top of how one may process disturbing information, we also must consider one’s psychological distance from climate change issuesPsychological distance refers to how people mentally represent objects and events and impacts how that information is used in everyday judgment and decision making. When something (i.e., climate change) is psychologically close, it will be mentally represented in more concrete (vivid, detailed) ways than something that is psychologically distant. When someone is psychologically distant from climate change, they likely don’t consider it as something that will affect them personally. To better engage those individuals, include specific, local examples or topics that increase the proximity of climate-related impacts.  

Whether you believe climate change signals or not, or whether it is physiological close or distant, the catastrophic reality being painted by science and traditional knowledge can generally be considered “disturbing information.” Recognizing that some people can be predisposed to denialism when faced with the doom-and-gloom of climate change means it is important to build your climate change and action narrative on shared values; this is an effective way to begin to define  climate change mitigation and a shared future. 

Establishing Climate Narrative 

1. Identify shared values. Drawing on shared values draws out your audience’s sense of morality, which is a great way to motivate them for action and encourage their investment in your projects. You may choose 2 to 3 shared values as a basis for your narrative, to help organize your story, and to express your purpose. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Commonly shared values in the context of climate change may be: 

  • Family and future generations 
  • Justice and equity 
  • Freedom 
  • Natural beauty 
  • The future of work

2. Keep it action and solutions-oriented. Providing clear and attainable action items can also counter denial. Providing solutions is also a great way to make a lasting impact in those you share your narrative with and involve them in your movement. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]When building a solution and as we learned in our Strategic Planning unit, consider the SMART approach: 

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant) 
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating) 
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable) 
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based) 
  • Time-Bound (time-based, time-limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive) 

3. Be aware of who your narrative includes- and leaves out. To make your narrative as effective and relevant as possible, it is important to ensure there is a balance of Western and traditional climate knowledge. Western climate knowledge is rooted in the mainstream sciences we’re all familiar with; traditional climate knowledge is rooted in community experience and Indigenous worldviews. Traditional climate knowledge comes from the lived experience of living on and with the land over the span of generations and is often ahead of Western climate knowledge in identifying signals of climate change and solutions. To engage in both and acknowledge that you are doing so will enhance your narrative.

“For Indigenous people, taking care of the Earth is not a movement, it’s a culture. And that’s what I want to see out of these strikes and out of our pressure… Right now I’m seeing a lot of Indigenous voices being lifted up… and we’re saying all that knowledge of taking care of the Earth for thousands of years is so important, because the environmental movement didn’t start 60 years ago. It’s always been here.” - Xiye Bastida, 17-year-old Indigenous climate activist from Mexico.” 

4. Engage storytelling to humanize your narrative. There are reasons Indigenous Peoples around the world have worked so hard to protect their oral traditions, and have structured entire education systems on stories for time immemorial: because they work. Storytelling Stories are also more engaging and memorable when they include personal and emotional components; again, this is backed by neuroscience!  

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.2 

When practicing storytelling to enhance your narrative, consider: 

  • Personalizing your story: This helps humanize your work, and makes it more relatable to your audience. Think about what sparked your interests, who inspired you, or your “AHA!” moment that called you to the path that you’re on. This can also be as a result of lived experiences by yourself, your family, friends, or community.  
  • Simplify your story: A story in its simplest form is one of cause and effect, and it’s how our brains function. We think in narratives, all the time.  
  • Use a story instead of suggesting: With audiences that may be less eager to engage with a climate narrative, nevermind engage in climate action, using a story to warn, prompt action, or suggest can be an extremely powerful way to reach your audience. 

5. Leverage past- and future-oriented messaging. Past-oriented messaging emphasizes how the climate has changed to-date; future-oriented messaging emphasizes how climate could change in the future. Past-oriented messaging is effective when communicating with older generations, as it can highlight concrete, specific changes that have occurred over their lifetime. It can be used to highlight loss (of ecology, biodiversity, etc.) - emphasizing loss encourages people to take risks to avoid further loss and can incentivize action (but be careful of expressing fatalism or hopelessness, which is demotivating).On the other hand, future-oriented messaging can be effective when communicating with parents, by encouraging them to think of their children and their children’s future wellbeing. 

6. Meet the interests, needs, and language of your audience. Understanding your audience will significantly impact your ability to reach your audience. You may keep your shared values consistent; however, for different audience you may need to present those values in different ways and with different language. You will likely need to “code switch” to do this. “Code-switching” requires an awareness of how words are loaded with social queues and meanings, and that they will be interpreted differently depending on the experiences and background of your audience. This is especially important in your efforts to humanize your climate narrative. Some characteristics of your audience can be anticipated in advance, such as knowing their general age range, geographic locations, occupations, or experiences in the field. In your attempts to meet your audience consider: 

  • Informal vs. formal language: For some audiences, using complex words and little-known theories may come across as elitist or inaccessible; on the contrary, for some audiences this tactic will demonstrate credibility.  
  • Triggering language: Recognize that for some audiences, terms such as “racism” may trigger a certain reaction that inhibit their ability to digest what you say from there-on-out. Don’t avoid using triggering language if it adds value, but ensure that you provide satisfactory build-up and rationale for using it. 
  • Presentation: How you present yourself will be perceived by the audience just as much as the language you use, and so will your presentation materials. Take these elements into consideration when delivering your climate narrative. 

Understanding Emotional Intelligence 

 Unlike general intelligence (IQ) which tends to remain stable over the lifespan, emotional intelligence (EQ) is a dynamic skill that can grow with practice. Emotional intelligence is a key skill, especially in the context of climate change and action.  

 Emotional intelligence is composed of 5 factors: 

 1. Self-awareness: Having self-awareness and a deep understanding of your character, feelings, and values allows you to draw boundaries as a unique and separate individual. It also enables you to see your areas of strength and areas that need improvement. 

  • Practice mindfulness: mindfulness is simply observing without judging, or acknowledging your surroundings, feelings, sensations without thinking of them as good or bad. This works to increase your immediate self-awareness and creates space for you to think about and approach things with a new perspective. 
  • Track your progress: set aside time for personal reflection to monitor areas that you’d like to improve on, and if/how you’re changing over time.  

2. Self-regulation: Self-regulation refers to your ability to mediate your emotions and responses. Poor self-regulation leads you to react impulsively based on your emotional experiences, while effective self-regulation allows you to keep your emotional experience and your behavioural response separate.  

  • Think back to times when you were emotionally reactive and identify your triggers. What happened? Who were you with? What were they feeling? Where did it happen? What outcome/response would you have preferred? 
  • Anticipate your feelings: think ahead to how a situation, conversation or event might make you feel and how you would like to respond.  
  • Reappraise the situation before you respond. Consider how others that are involved might be perceiving and/or feel about the situation and avoid jumping to conclusions.  
  • Know how to make yourself feel better - what kinds of activities comfort you? Calm you down?  

3. Motivation: Motivation includes your drive to achieve, commitment to your goals, openness to take on opportunities, time management, optimism, and resilience. Motivated people: seek feedback for continued growth, set high goals and follow-through, persevere through obstacles, and seek out and take opportunities. 

  • Motivation can either be intrinsic (passion or interest) or extrinsic (external reward, such as power or money). Intrinsic motivation is especially more powerful and particularly resilient in periods of stress. 

4. Empathy: Empathy is the awareness of others’ needs and feelings, and the ability to see from others’ point of view.  Cultivate empathy by asking questions, actively listening and trying to genuinely understand someone’s perspective - keep in mind that empathy is often about listening more than offering an opinion or judgment of the situation.  

  • In addition to understanding others, empathy also involves developing others and supporting them in meeting their needs and concerns and meeting their full potential. This often looks like offering rewards or praise to others’ strengths and accomplishments or providing constructive feedback to help them improve.  
  • Empathy often comes with the service of putting others’ needs first. While it’s important to consider and support others’ values and feelings, this should never come at the expense of your own needs and wellness.  

5. Social skills: In the context of emotional intelligence, social skills are key skills in handling and influencing emotions effectively. These skills include: 

  • Communication and Active Listening  
  • Conflict Management  
  • Change Management 
  • Persuasion and Influence 
  • Building Bonds 
  • Cooperation 

Your climate narrative and emotional intelligence skills will be essential in your ability to reach your audience and respond to conflict as you execute your in-person practicum projects.  


Emotional Intelligence: The ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions, and recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.  

Psychological Distance: A person's separation between the self and other instances such as persons, events, or times.  

Cognitive Dissonance: Mental discomfort a person feels by holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.  

Self-efficacy: A personal judgment on your own ability to execute behaviours necessary to complete tasks, goals, and challenges