Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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Affective Stances Around Climate Change

Impulse text by Dr. Nicole Seymour, California State University, Fullerton, USA

Climate change communication has for too long deployed modes such as “doom and gloom” and sentimentality—to many negative effects, including paralyzing audiences with fear (Norgaard 2011, Kelsey 2014) and reasserting normative values such as heterosexual reproductive futurism (Johns-Putra 2017). Consider, for example, how mainstream environmental organizations pull at heartstrings by asking us to “save the planet for our children.”

Further, dramatic discourses of “doom and gloom” often rely on the notion of climate change as an “unprecedented” crisis—when Indigenous communities have been dealing with the alteration of climate, food sources, and animal habitats for centuries (Whyte 2018). Similarly, as COVID-19 began to spread in Spring 2020—a phenomenon directly tied to climate change, of course (van Dooren 2020)—Indigenous experience was conveniently forgotten in favor of a media narrative of newness. As Indigenous studies scholar Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) tweeted in response, “Unprecedented? … see photos of 19th c. Indigenous ppl afflicted with smallpox : 75% death rates.” While crucial, one could argue that TallBear’s response also contributes to a tragic image of Indigeneity, one not too different from “doom and gloom” environmentalism.

My recent research (Seymour 2018) argues for a different set of affective stances around climate change, one inspired by but not exclusive to queer and other minority communities—including irony, irreverence, camp, absurdity, perversity, frivolity, indecorum, awkwardness, sardonicism, playfulness, humor, and glee. I have also recently turned my attention to the work of queer Indigenous poet Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay) and Indigenous visual artist Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow), who use irony and humor to, among other things, ridicule settler-centric environmental relations (Seymour forthcoming and Monani and Seymour 2020, respectively). The works I study also engage in self-awareness and self-reflexivity, thus circumventing environmentalists’ reputations as elitist know-it-alls. These works and modes contrast those affective stances associated with mainstream environmentalism in the Global North—including, in addition to doom and gloom and sentimentality, wonder, guilt, shame, didacticism, prescriptiveness, reverence, seriousness, sincerity, earnestness, sanctimony, and self-righteousness.

I therefore propose two concrete ideas drawn from this recent research, and a third drawn from a brand-new project, which I will outline in more depth below:

  1. Those communicating climate change to the public, politicians, or students should consider mobilizing alternative affects such as irony and humor—or, at the very least, cultivate self-awareness and self-reflexivity.
  2. Those communicating climate change should avoid framings that invisibilize Indigenous experience—and, in fact, must recognize the central role that settler-colonialism has played in creating climate change in the first place. (The work of Pico and Red Star hints that #1 and #2 could and perhaps should go together.)
  3. Those communicating climate change should consider the value of another alternative affect: embarrassment. Embarrassment is the affective state we need (to articulate) in order to register our discomfort with sentimental environmental discourses. And it’s the state we need (to endure) in order to have difficult conversations about climate grief and other pressing political emotions.

Tommy Pico exemplifies this understanding of embarrassment. In his 2017 book-length Nature Poem, he insists, “I can’t write a nature poem / bc it’s fodder for the noble savage / narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face, / I say to my audience.” Later, he confesses, “There is something smaller I say to myself: / I don’t hate nature at all.” Pico thus manages to both register his embarrassment with the sentimental, romanticized trope of the so-called “Ecological Indian” (think: Pocahantas) and assert his environmental concern. Similarly, in his 2016 work IRL, Pico confides in the reader,


Don’t tell anyone I’m at / Urban Outfitters, got it? / They sell ‘native american’ / shit n I’ve a reputation [to uphold] / Like Narragansett—how / fucking disgusting Naming / a beer after an NDN tribe? / That company is pure scum. / I mean, I’ll have a ’Gansett bc / that shit’s tasty / cheap but I have / at least the good sense to h8 / myself.


While at first such moments may seem far afield from environmental issues, they oppose the kind of “purity politics” that, as scholars have shown, have proved stifling to environmental engagement (Shotwell 2016). Further, Pico’s report on his “trashy” behavior locates him in a contemporary world of consumption, thus contesting tropes like the Ecological Indian and the Vanishing Indian.


While my life experience as a white settler scholar is very different from Pico’s, I, too have a “reputation [to uphold]”: that of the ironically-distanced, witty professor. And I, too, experience embarrassment—especially as I have begun to incorporate “touchy-feely” and “hippy-dippy” activities such as meditation into my literature and the environment courses, in an effort to address my students’ climate grief. Like Pico, I am learning to endure this embarrassment, in part by publicly sharing it. As he would joke, “Don’t tell anyone.”


Johns-Putra, Adeline. 2017. “Borrowing the World: Climate Change Fiction and the Problem of Posterity.” metaphora vol. 2.

Norgaard, Kari. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. MIT Press.

Kelsey, Elin. 2014. “Dear ______: Writing Our Way Beyond Doom and Gloom.” RCC Perspectives.

Van Dooren, Thom. 2020. “Pangolins and Pandemics: The Real Source of this Crisis is Human, Not Animal.” New Matilda.

Monani, Salma and Nicole Seymour. 2020. “How Wendy Red Star Decolonizes the Museum with Humor and Play.” Edge Effects.

Pico, Tommy. 2016. IRL. Birds, LLC.

Pico, Tommy. 2017. Nature Poem. Tin House Books.

Seymour, Nicole. Forthcoming. “Junk Food for Thought: Decolonizing Diets in Tommy Pico’s Poetry.” Cambridge Companion to American Literature and the Environment, ed. Sarah Ensor and Scotti Parrish. Cambridge University Press.

Seymour, Nicole. 2018. Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age. University of Minnesota Press.

Shotwell, Alexis. 2016. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. University of Minnesota Press.