Gotchas and gatekeeping: how we talk to each other about climate matters

Banner with colourful speech bubbles and the text 'powerful, positive climate conversations'

Welcome to our Powerful and Positive climate conversations series. This is the second in a six part series exploring what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to communicating with the people in your life about the climate and nature emergency and helping to build a movement for change. You can find part one here. 

Last week we asked whose job it is to talk about climate change, and discovered the ways in which each of us is a uniquely qualified communications expert within our own lives. Today we’re going to explore why talking about climate change is one of the most powerful actions we can take as individuals, and start asking how we can communicate in a way that’s positive and empowering. 

In 1964 a young woman was murdered outside her apartment block in New York. Media reports at the time claimed that thirty-eight people witnessed the attack and did nothing. Although this is thought to be a highly exaggerated number, it prompted social scientists Bibb Latané and John Darley to ask a question: what leads people to stand by and do nothing, or decide to intervene, in an emergency situation. They observed that the more people witness an emergency, the less likely any individual is to intervene. They termed this the Bystander Effect. 


Their fascinating work demonstrated, among other things, that people are much less likely to step forward and get involved in situations where the nature of the emergency is ambiguous. What’s more, in these kinds of situations we look to each other for guidance on an appropriate response, and if we don’t see anyone else springing into action we conclude that things can’t be very serious, no action is needed, and we continue with business as usual.


The bystander effect is a helpful way to understand our current situation – could there be an emergency more ambiguous than climate breakdown? I don’t mean to suggest there’s any ambiguity around whether it’s happening of course, rather that we find ourselves in a situation where the causes of the emergency are complex, and interconnected, and it’s not exactly clear whose responsibility it is to fix the problem. Often the victims are distant from us, nameless, not yet born; how should we help them? Impacts accumulate over months, years, decades, and there’s no road map for dealing with this kind of emergency, and we can’t call on prior experience to help us understand it. 

This is where the power of climate conversation comes in.

Faced with this ambiguity, we hold back from taking action and instead look around at each other, feeling awkward and confused, waiting for cues on how – and how urgently – to respond. This is where the power of climate conversation comes in.


The bystander effect locks us into a state of inaction, where each of us is waiting for someone else to act first, but speaking about it helps break that spell. When we have climate conversations – at home, at work, with friends, at faith groups and running clubs, in our presentations or podcasts or lesson plans – we support each other to stop wondering if we should take action and really get on with it. 

When it launches this Autumn, The Something Club will focus on what that action can look like in practice for different people, but for now we wanted to talk about talking. Because climate communication is a tricky topic and it makes people feel all kinds of weird. Even when we want to talk about it, even when we’re around people we’re close to and we trust, getting started can be really hard. Why is that? It could be that…

  • We’re worried about not understanding the details, getting the science wrong, or looking silly;
  • Expressing fear or worry or grief makes us feel awkward and vulnerable;
  • We don’t want to make the people we’re talking to feel sad or frightened;
  • We don’t know how the other person will react;
  • It’s hard to bring up a problem without being able to offer a solution;
  • The problem is so big that it’s hard to know where to even start.

In each part of this series we’ll discuss different tactics to help you have positive and powerful conversations about climate, and today we’ll start with a question:

Do some ways of talking to each other about climate work better than others?

The thing is, there’s no getting away from the urgency of the issue. When we need to get our message across in a hurry it can be tempting to throw everything at the problem and see what sticks, but a growing body of research on effective communication around environmental issues shows that choosing our approach with care will contribute to a stronger and more caring climate movement. 


So – to highlight the importance of choosing positive and powerful communication techniques we wanted to shine a light on three common tactics intended to promote climate action or sustainable choices, look at whether they work, and ask if they’re the kind of conversations we want to be having. 

Pink graphic reading 'the gatekeeper'

Even if you’re not familiar with the term you’ll probably know gatekeeping when you see it. Does this kind of statement feel familiar to you? 

Only a TRUE Buffy fan will get 10/10 on this quiz
If you don’t have kids you have no idea what tired feels like. 
Seriously? If you were really depressed you wouldn’t be able to leave the house. 
Real men don’t waste their time on video games.

Nice, huh?


Whenever an individual or a group takes it upon themselves to decide who gets to be in their gang, that’s gatekeeping.


Often the gang is totally arbitrary (awesome Buffy fans, tired people, ‘real men’, 90’s kids, tropical fish enthusiasts). Sometimes the gatekeeping is silly, sometimes it’s mean, and sometimes it’s aggressive. Gatekeepers pop up in unexpected places, laying down rules on who’s allowed to laugh at a joke, enjoy a movie, experience unhappiness, grow a beard, call themselves a geek and on and on and on. 


One place you might hope to avoid gatekeeping is in the environmental movement – we need everyone, right? – but this behaviour pops up time and time again, on social media, in campaigns (looking at you Peta) and sometimes in casual conversation. 

Screenshot reading 'Can you call yourself an environmentalist if you have kids?'
Screenshot reading 'Don't call yourself an environmentalist if you're indulging in Black Friday sales' accompanied by a picture of a woman smiling and holding an asos bag.
Screenshot reading 'You can't call yourself a climate change activist if you're doing coke'
Screenshot reading 'Can I call myself an environmentalist if I am not offsetting my environmental footprint?'
A handmade protest sign reading 'Shut the f up about climate change if your mouth is full of meat', illustrated with images of meat products
A meme of Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard, the lines read 'You can't eat meat and be an environmentalist'
Screenshot reading 'Can you be an environmentalist and fly?
Take a moment to think about how the images above – or any other examples of gatekeeping you’ve come across – make you feel.

What kind of relationship is created between you and the messenger? Would you be likely to change your behaviour or make different choices as a result of this kind of communication?

Gatekeeping is a passive aggressive (or sometimes just aggressive-aggressive) way of saying ‘you can’t be in our special group’. How do you feel when you encounter it? Does it act as a wake up call, shaming you into drastically altering your lifestyle?

Probably not.

Because our brains handle ‘social injury’ in a similar way to physical injury, the effects can be significant: weirdly, an excluded person may experience actual physical pain. Neuro-imaging research has found that the parts of our brain that kick off if we stub a toe are the same parts that fire when we’re feeling left out. Kipling D William, a professor of psychological sciences, writes: “Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time.

Williams broke the experience of being excluded down into three stages: After the initial experience of being ignored comes the ‘coping’ stage in which people try harder to fit in. This sounds promising – do people who feel excluded from the climate movement take more meaningful climate action?

The final stage of Williams’ model, resignation, suggests not: as he explains, “people who have been ostracized are less helpful and more aggressive to others in general.” A paper published in 2001 titled ‘If you can’t join them, beat them’ found that excluded people “blasted a target with higher levels of aversive noise” while a 2008 study found that feeling excluded impairs our ability to self-regulate our behaviour, particularly if we already suffer from social anxiety. Yikes. 

So while gatekeeping continues to appear in well intentioned articles,  campaigns, and conversations, all we’re really achieving when we choose this communication tactic is alienating others, shrinking the movement, and shutting out any voice who hasn’t achieved a highly prescribed (and usually white, middle class) idea of eco-perfection.  As  David Wallace Wells says:

“it seems so strange to me that people who are so devoted to [climate action] might choose to pick a fight with someone who is ten feet to their left, or ten feet to their right, rather than saying ‘all hands on deck’ 
Blue graphic with text reading 'The finger pointer'

For pretty much forever journalists, bloggers and organisations have been delivering sustainable living guidance using the following format:

That thing you’re doing is killing the planet.

The thing is usually something innocuous and everyday: your cat, your emails, your shampoo, your lunch. This approach is presumably intended to be hard-hitting and straight-talking but does it work in practice? 

Screenshot reading '5 ways you're killing the planet'
Screenshot reading 'Your website is killing the planet'
Screenshot reading 'Your cat is killing the earth'
Screenshot reading 'Your diet is cooking the planet'
Screenshot reading 'Did you know your mattress could be destroying the planet?'
Screenshot reading 'Your morning coffee is destroying the planet'

What do you notice when you look at the screenshots on the left? We think there are two big issues with this approach:


  1. A hyper-focus on individual lifestyle choices;

  2. Accusation and shaming (it’s always ‘you’ or ‘your choices’, never our or we).

The finger-pointer, whatever their intentions, appears smug, even sneering, telling you that the avocado YOU ate that one time is single-handedly responsible for climate breakdown and you should feel really, really ashamed. 

Do people who feel shamed take more climate action?


Again, the answer is probably not (although there is a lot of interesting research on shame vs guilt – perhaps a post for another day!) The impacts of the climate emergency are global, and complex, and our individual choices do matter, but, as Mary Annaise Hegler writes:

“when we talk about the causes, the conversation suddenly narrows to our navels. [...] A population beset with shame so heavy they can barely think about climate change — let alone fight it.”

Research on the psychological impacts of shame suggest that it’s “an emotion that erodes moral agency” – that is, it leaves the person experiencing it feeling so worthless and alienated that they become less capable of making pro-social and pro-environmental choices. What’s more, as we’ll see in part four, shaming someone – deliberately or not – has some surprising consequences.


So exclusion, blame and shame are all out – how about our final common climate conversation style?

Orange graphic with text reading 'the gotcha'

The gotcha is one of my all time pet peeves, when I see it I gnash my teeth and have to go and eat some bombay mix to calm down.


The gotcha takes the finger pointing we saw above and directs it specifically at people already trying to live sustainably. It looks like this:

That thing you thought was saving the planet is actually killing the planet.

Not content with shaming you, the gotcha wants you to feel daft too. 

Screenshot reading 'Everything you know about recycling is wrong. Well, most.'
Screenshot reading 'All eco sneakers do is kill the planet a little bit slower (study)'
Screenshot reading 'Reusable bags aren't the sustainable solution you might think they are'
Screenshot reading 'Your cotton tote is pretty much the worst replacement for a plastic bag'
Screenshot reading 'The truth about your biodegradable toothbrush'
Screenshot reading '9 things you think are eco friendly - but aren't!'

So, do people who’ve been made to feel stupid take more meaningful climate action? Perhaps you’re sensing a pattern here: once again the answer is no.


If you adopt a new behaviour in good faith – taking a reusable tote to the shops for example – only to be told your efforts did more harm than good then you’re likely to feel ashamed (again), embarrassed, and foolish. Next time you’re advised to take some kind of climate action you might think twice (‘I’m not falling for that again’) or be wary of telling others about it in case someone pops up with a gotcha.


Either way, making people feel foolish for trying their best nurtures scepticism and apathy, and brings us back to the idea that there’s some kind of environmental purity test we’re expected to pass in order to contribute to the climate movement. 

Over the next couple of weeks keep an eye out for examples of climate communication, online or out in the real world, and make a note of how you respond to them.

What gets your attention and what makes you feel empowered to act? And what has the opposite effect?  Think about what it is that makes these techniques effective or not. 

Breaking the Bystander Effect

I’m not trying to be the finger-pointer here – I haven’t pulled together these examples because I think for one moment that you’re out there gleefully shaming and excluding people. I’ve shared them with you because these approaches to engaging people with the climate and nature emergency are still far too prevalent, and they demonstrate why positive and powerful climate communicators are so needed: online and offline, at every kitchen table and in every community and classroom and workplace.


Too many people have been alienated from the climate movement because their only experience with it has been a cycle of negative messaging. We can change that. We can break the bystander effect in positive ways that empower people to take action. 


In the next part of this series we’re going to talk about the language and imagery we use when talking about climate issues, and how we can make some simple tweaks to ensure our conversations are authentic and inclusive. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your feedback on the things we’ve explored today – comment below, drop us an email, or find us on social media to let us know what you think. Please do let us know also if there are particular questions or topics you’d like us to cover as part of this series in the future. 

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