Communicating the Biodiversity Crisis: From “Warnings” to Positive Engagement

The role of communications in wider transformational change. Given the complex and long-term nature of the biodiversity crisis, there are numerous psychological risks that can lead to avoidance (1), disengagement (2), or fatigue (3), all of which reduce pro-environmental action. Different kinds of messaging or experiences are likely to be important for the individual at each stage. Experiences of efficacy can help individuals begin to act, while experiences of positive emotions such as social validation, and the “warm glow” of acting in alignment with intrinsic values, are vital to maintaining long-term engagement.

de Lange E, Sharkey W, Castelló y Tickell S, Migné J, Underhill R, Milner-Gulland EJ. Communicating the Biodiversity Crisis: From “Warnings” to Positive Engagement. Tropical Conservation Science. 2022;15. doi:10.1177/19400829221134893

A policy brief based on this paper is available here.


Background: Effective communication can play a vital role in societal transformations towards sustainability and biodiversity restoration. However, the complexity and long-term nature of environmental change presents a communication challenge. If not carefully navigated, messages around environmental degradation can lead to audience disengagement and issue fatigue, at a time when motivation, engagement and positive action is required. Methods: In this Conservation in Action piece, we describe the principles of positive communication, which are being adopted by a growing movement of conservation organizations. We support this approach by reviewing evidence on the role of emotions in decision-making from diverse fields such as psychology and communications, paying particularly close attention to the experiences of climate change communicators. Results: Positive emotional experiences, including feelings of hope, collective efficacy, and the warm glow that follows actions aligned with intrinsic values, can play an essential role in sustaining actions that contribute to transformative change. While negative emotions prime specific action tendencies, positive emotions enable creativity, cooperation, and resilience, which are all essential for overcoming the challenging nature of acting on the biodiversity crisis. Conclusions: Communications from conservation researchers and practitioners need to reflect the reality of the biodiversity crisis. While some communications may seek to motivate action through warnings and threats, messages that trigger positive emotions in audiences can help inspire long-term engagement and action. We suggest that this positive communication approach is underutilized. Implications: We present a guide to help those working in conservation convey their messages in ways that are empowering and positive. As the biodiversity crisis intensifies, it is critical that conservation professionals continue to imagine and develop pathways to a better future and communicate with others in society in a way that supports transformative change towards this future.

Conservation Optimism and Politics

People from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity at a 3-day Conservation Optimism summit.

This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

Photo credit:

One really cool thing I’ve been involved with is the Conservation Optimism movement, which I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. This culminated in a 3-day summit at the end of April and I was very privileged to be part of the organising team through my supervisor EJ and the ICCS group at Oxford. Part of my job was to organise a panel of politicians with an interest in the environment. Unfortunately, although I’d secured commitments from very interesting speakers from all parties, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election led to all of them withdrawing. This was disappointing, and it was easy to despair at the lack of political engagement with environmental issues suggested, but the rest of the summit provided an antidote.

People from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity

I haven’t been to many conferences, but I’m sure there aren’t many like this. For three days, people from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity. As well as politicians from other countries, we heard from psychologists about the importance of optimism for completing challenging tasks. We heard from businesses about how they are trying to do better. And we heard from many conservationists who have achieved real victories for the environment. It was a celebration of successes, a moment to learn from past efforts and the opportunity to think about taking conservation into the future. Realistically, not enough is being done for the environment, but the tide may be turning.

Social media, the internet, are incredible avenues for spreading messages and building support

Two of the plenaries really inspired me in particular. The first, Anna Oposa from Save Philippine Seas, because she was a young person that I could relate to. In fact, we’d even done our Masters courses in the same place, just a few years apart. But despite being young, she has achieved a lot in her home country. Using social media and smart slogans, she showed how she has built public campaigns and put pressure on politicians and businesses to think about the impacts of their activities on the oceans. Before she’d finished her speech, my head was spinning with ideas for issues in my local area and how I could try to address them. Social media, the internet, are incredible avenues for spreading messages and building support. The second speaker that impressed me was Lisel Alamilla, an environmental activist who then became a minister in Belize. It was fascinating to hear from someone who had both been a vocal and effective critic of the government, and then had a chance to join the government and implement those policies. I was interested to hear how she navigated the messy world of politics while trying to do good, and she seemed like a very resourceful, tactful and strong person.

There were also hundreds of smaller sessions; from conservationists sharing their successes and lessons, to innovative new ideas being developed. I took part in a workshop for the ‘Green list’ – an optimistic and forward-thinking counterpart to the famous IUCN red list. The red list is a central tool in conservation for classifying endangered species and keeping tabs on how close they are to extinction. But how do we keep tabs on species that are moving away from extinction thanks to conservation efforts? How do we communicate this and how can we measure the success of conservation in a standardized way. Those were some of the questions we brainstormed in the workshop, and no doubt the ‘Green list’ may be an equally important tool as we move from a problem-focused to a solutions-focused conservation.

Check #conservationoptimism on twitter, which has gained a life of its own with good news stories being shared every day.