By Meg Kinney

This article is the second of a 4-part series that is adapted from an independent study by Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) alumna Meg Kinney. The project titled “Finding New Climate Messengers: cultural context for the breakthrough narrative we need” can be accessed here. (A breakthrough narrative is a forward-looking mindset that invites collaboration and shared possibilities for addressing wicked problems; it is the opposite of a declinist mindset).


A 2021 Pew Survey found that a majority of Americans a) believe global warming is happening, b) disagree with the idea that it is too late to do anything about it, and c) disagree with the idea that actions of individuals won’t make a difference. Urgency around climate change surrounds us in popular culture and news media. Yet the topic remains an instrument of political division while climate pledges declared by corporations and government are seen by some as more talk than walk. If the takeaway here is that we think these problems are real and it’s not too late for us to make a difference, why the gap between the information and the action? As citizens, why can’t we seem to focus our power?

When I think about my own coming of age in environmentalism, I can recall being mobilized by environmental messages to “give a hoot and not pollute”, to turn out the lights, to recycle, to ride a bike, and so on. These all seemed so straightforward and manageable; these were single actions recommended to us by trusted information authorities to address seemingly single-silo problems. Today’s wicked environmental problems are far more complex to communicate and to solve. Compounding the challenges is the fact that today’s media landscape is fragmented and journalistic trust is fractured.

I think the systemic nature of climate and the media monetization of information both play a role in why people feel stuck and overwhelmed in the climate conversation. Here’s why:

The concept of Hyperobjects
The environmental philosopher Timothy Morton coined the term “Hyperobjects” in 2008 to describe events or phenomena that are so vast temporally and spatially that we cannot comprehend them. They defy our preconceived notions of what a thing is in the first place. Climate is such a thing – too unwieldy and interdependent of an ecosystem to point to one thing and say “that’s it” because “it” is ubiquitous. Power and responsibility are decentralized and hard to wrangle. The internet or plastic might be other examples of Hyperobjects. These things are complex adaptive systems, not single- issue silos. Simply said, we can’t wrap our heads around Hyperobjects.

When it comes to climate, trying to grasp the idea that the Earth might be uninhabitable in this century paralyzes us because we cannot even fathom where to start addressing it.

The loss of journalistic credibility
Information distribution has shifted from a “one to many” model (pre-cable, pre-satellite, pre-internet) to an algorithmic “peer to peer” model where any person or any organization has a platform and can monetize an audience (programmatic, social media, live streaming). The world of information is now in our pocket. Anyone can publish or broadcast.

This massive shift in who gets to be a trusted authority has had a profound effect on how people decide what to believe and how to respond. Institutional trust has been eroded by corporate and political influence in the media. Journalistic integrity unravels under the strain of today’s publishing financial model and today’s TikTok attention spans.

Image of Willy Wonka with the following text "You think global warming is fake? Please tell me how you get all your facts from politicians and oil companies."
Image source: Creative Commons

In his Substack “The Honest Broker,” Roger Pielke Jr., points out five recurring headlines that grab attention and get clicks but don’t inspire collective action:

  1. “We can explain everything with climate change.” Feeding a need for continuously fresh editorial.
  2. “The coming apocalypse.” Proselytizing doom as if it were productive.
  3. “Good guys and bad guys.” This is lazy stereotyping and politicizing.
  4. “The extreme weather that just happened.” Climate is reduced to weather.
  5. “Cheerleaders for our team.” Publications themselves have a point of view.

Additionally, a new analysis of climate change research journals shows a high degree of redundancy and loss of diversity when it comes to what data is cited in news articles. The analysis shows a predilection for reporters to cite data from natural science over findings on social and economic research relative to climate. So, if all the public hears about is reporting on CO2 parts per million“ versus “childhood asthma rising due to poor air quality,” then personal consequences of inaction are opaque.

Journalism and the attention algorithm are in a feedback loop that prevents us from seeing that climate is connected to economic prosperity, public health, and poverty. Things most Americans can find a deeply personal reason to mobilize around.

So, can understanding why we are stuck help us get “unstuck”? I think it can. Let’s forgive ourselves for being overwhelmed and feeling powerless. Instead, let’s find what makes climate personal to us and our communities and galvanize around that.


Photo of Meg Kinney

About the Author:
Meg Kinney is an ethnographer and cultural strategist as well as a 2023 graduate from Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program focused on leadership for global sustainability. She works with brands, sustainability leaders, and social innovators helping them understand the context of progress and telling relevant stories to inspire change.