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Climate communication: Is fear + collective action a winning strategy?

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

In a previous post from my series on why people don’t engage climate change, I described my interpretations of work by Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling1, which suggested that the use of fear can be a poor way to motivate behavioral changes to deal with climate warming:

Challenge 6: Fear can change perception but not willingness to take action and can lead to counterintuitive behaviors (like the “SUV effect”)

2006 was a watershed year in public opinion on climate change.  Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Time Magazine’s famous polar bear cover had the world scared to death about climate change.  They grabbed people’s attention and raised awareness, but they didn’t do much to galvanize widespread action against climate warming.  As we’ll see in the next post, 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.

Even worse, if people become fearful of climate change, it could encourage counterintuitive behaviors.  For example, people might think, if it really does get stormier or icier in my area, I will need the SUV because it has 4-wheel drive.  The irony is not lost, given that large vehicles and their greenhouse gas emissions are part of the reason why we have climate warming in the first place.

When I first saw the Time cover, I thought that mainstream media is finally getting climate change and that people would start demanding action.  Now I’m not so sure fear is an effective tactic for driving change.

I also noted in that post that when people are fearful but don’t know what to do in the face of complex problems like climate warming, there can be a tendency to do nothing.

New research by Martijn van Zomeren and colleagues in the Journal of Environmental Psychology2 is beginning to challenge these views (emphasis added):

An inconvenient truth, the book and documentary by Nobel-prize laureate and former US Vice-President Al Gore, is a real-life example of the presumed power of psychology to increase pro-environmental behavior by telling individuals what they could do, and by telling them what to fear if they fail to do this. Although many applauded Gore’s efforts to raise environmental awareness and action, there was a danger that the fear invoked by his message could be counter-productive. Raising fear about the consequences of smoking and safe sex, for example, is thought to undermine health behavior if individuals do not have a sufficient sense of efficacy to transform their fear into action. Without such a sense of self-efficacy, fear is thought to lead individuals to protect themselves against their fear (rather than to take action to reduce the cause for fear). A key aim of this paper is to challenge this pessimistic conclusion.

Although we believe concern for the counter-productive effects of fear appeals is warranted, we think that self-protective responses are most likely in the context of individual problems such as individual health behavior. When individuals perceive a problem as an individual problem, their individual action should be best predicted by their self-efficacy beliefs. Unlike smoking and safer sex, however, one can perceive the climate crisis as a collective problem that requires collective action. Collective action is aimed at promoting collective interests, even if it is pursued by individuals. When individuals perceive a problem as collective, their collective action should be best predicted by their group efficacy beliefs – the belief that group goals can be achieved through joint effort.

This team is arguing that fear of climate warming impacts needs to be coupled with a clear message that

  • climate warming is a collective-action problem;
  • people can work together effectively to deal with climate warming.

In a series of experiments with university students in the Netherlands, the researchers manipulated climate fear (fear vs. no fear) and collective action efficacy (group action can be effective vs. no information about group action) through the use of different sets of readings.

After completing the different sets of readings, the students ranked in the following order (highest to lowest) in terms of their intentions to take actions on climate warming:

  • fear + group action can be effective
  • no fear + group action can be effective
  • fear + no information on group action
  • no fear + no information on group action

What’s interesting about this is the apparent importance on providing information on how collective action can be important.  Their results suggested that even students who were not given fearful messages about climate warming were still willing to take action on warming if shown how to do so.

This brings us back to one of my points in the earlier post.

Challenge 3:  Specific warming impacts and solutions are seldom conveyed clearly

Rather than just telling people that warming will be bad and we should all be afraid, warming advocates should state examples of how the impacts will be experienced by people in a specific region and specific steps that people can take to help adapt to or mitigate them.  Empower people to become part of the solutions process rather than letting them sit on the sidelines. Climate warming is not a spectator sport.

To paraphrase FDR:  The only thing we have to fear is fear (when used by) itself.

It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not yet convinced for several reasons:

  • I’d like to see how well this resonates with working-class America rather than students from a country like the Netherlands where people are much more likely to be socially conditioned to take action on climate warming.   Put another way, in certain cultural contexts, fear + solutions may work.  In others, fear + anything may turn people off.
  • As I mentioned above, research suggests that 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.   Is there really a lack of information on what we can do collectively to deal with climate warming, or is there a lack of interest in taking collective action?  I think it’s both.  So long as climate warming solutions are framed in terms of national or international policy (cap and trade or C taxes) or matters of renewable energy innovation and investment, people will feel like they have little leverage to engage either of these approaches—either individually or collectively.
  • One might argue that collective action can be promulgated as political action at local, state, and federal levels.   However, the deep cynicism about the efficacy of federal institutions may dissuade people from investing the effort.  And when the world continues to struggle with the recession and unemployment, jobs will usually trump collective action on climate.
  • It’s a complex story with multiple layers of cultural and economic confounding factors.  Just as scientific evidence seldom speaks for itself, clear pathways for collective action may not translate to greater action either.

1Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling (2004) Making Climate Hot: Communicating the Urgency and Challenge of Global Climate Change. Environment

2Martijn van Zomeren, Russell Spears, Colin Wayne Leach (2010). Experimental evidence for a dual pathway model analysis of coping with the climate crisis Journal of Environmental Psychology : 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.02.006


Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, solutions | 3 Comments »

Al Gore weighs in on the state of climate change

Saturday, February 27th, 2010


…in an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times.

Excerpts (links his):

[T]he scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

….The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

….Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically….Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach.

Updates: There is a wide range of opinion on the IPCC these days:


Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Posted in climate change science, climate economics, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, energy, policy, sustainability | No Comments »

The humanities are key to environmental messaging

Friday, February 12th, 2010


It’s been an incredibly busy week, which explains the dearth of posts.  But good things are happening, which I look forward to sharing.

As most of you know, there’s an energetic, ongoing debate about environmental messaging.  With polls showing waning interest in climate warming as a serious issue, there’s  a sense that the battle is being lost.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s often assumed that climate change science speaks for itself.  All we have to do is publish good science and show the public a bunch of data, and this will lead to a collective consciousness demanding action on climate warming.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

One main problem is the failure to connect with people on a personal level.  Thinking about the environment is not just about climate or wild nature; it’s about human nature, human experience, the intersection of nature and culture, how we interact with one another—things squarely in the domain of the social sciences and humanities.  In order for society to connect with contemporary environmental issues, it’s critical that these voices become part of this conversation.

Yesterday, we brought back to campus Bowdoin alum Paul Miller (a.k.a., DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) to perform his major work, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.

Paul’s work is a beautiful illustration of how one artist has been able to put a human touch on climate warming.  His show was packed with a hyped-up audience that cut across a wide swath of young and old.

Try doing that with a science seminar.

Amanda Little reminds us that there are no silver bullets for solving climate warming, only silver buckshot.   Paul’s work (and the work of other popular artists like him) is a great example of one of those buckshot.


Photo Credit:  Tiffany Gerdes, Bowdoin Orient

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, nature and culture, polar ice, solutions | 2 Comments »

Where might farmers turn for help with climate change?

Saturday, December 12th, 2009


In the Online First edition of Climatic Change, Tyler Tarnoczi and Fikret Berkes assess1,2 the sources and availability of information about climate adaptation to farmers in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Farmers rely on several information sources for agricultural practices, which will likely be vital in helping food producers learn how to adapt to climate warming:

  • social networks/experiential learning
  • government
  • industry (e.g., seed, machinery)
  • producer and conservation organizations
  • media

Here’s what they found…


Posted in climate adaptation, communication and framing, food and agriculture, nature and culture, policy | No Comments »

Can guilt about climate warming drive people to do something about it?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


That’s the question asked by Mark Ferguson and Nyla Branscombe in a forthcoming article1 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

They begin by exploring the conditions in which climate warming might make people feel guilty:

First, people must believe that their group is responsible for the harm done… This suggests that collective guilt is more likely to be experienced when people believe that global warming is caused by humans than when caused by nature.

Second, people must believe that it is possible to repair the harm done. This suggests that collective guilt is more likely to be experienced when people believe that global warming will have minor effects than when it will have major effects. When people believe that the harm produced by global warming will be catastrophic, then there is less sense that repair is possible, reducing the potential for collective guilt.

Since collective guilt motivates behavior to repair wrongdoing, it follows that collective guilt should increase mitigation behavior.

Next, they interviewed 79 people, using a survey to determine understanding of climate warming, human roles, and any associated guilt.

What did they find?


Posted in behavior, communication and framing, nature and culture | No Comments »

High school science teachers: Make it relevant

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009


In this week’s issue of Science, Chris Huelleman and Judith Harackiewicz argue1 that making science relevant lends a big boost to high school students with low expectations of themselves.

In a controlled study, they passed out textbooks to 9th grade science students from a small city in the Midwest.  One set of books had questions that asked an experimental group of  students to write essays about how the material was relevant to their lives.  The other (control) set of textbooks asked students to write essays simply summarizing the material.

Furthermore, they gave students a survey at the beginning of the semester to assess whether students had high or low expectations for success in the course.

The team found that, for the low-expectations students, connecting the material to their lives led to a significant improvement in interest and grades over the semester.  There was no difference for students with high expectations.  In fact, the students with low expectations who connected the course material to their lives had the highest average second quarter grades among all students.

Bottom line:  For high achievers, taking extra steps to make science relevant may not matter as much as it does for students with low expectations or self esteem.

1Hulleman, C.S.  and J.M. Harackiewicz (2009) Science 1326: 1410-1412.


Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, environmental literacy, K-12 | No Comments »

David Orr ends his column at Conservation Biology with some final thoughts about nature and culture

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

After 21 years of writing a column for the journal Conservation Biology, here are a few excerpts from Orr’s final piece—a retrospective1:

  • I believe that all of us working for a habitable planet should have focused more clearly on politics and on the question of how good ideas move across the chasm from being right to being effective in the conduct of our public and international business.
  • I think we should have learned to be more adept, personable, and creative in talking to the public and the guys down at the truck stop and the women working two jobs to make ends meet. I think we might have gone to fewer scientific conferences in exotic places and to more Rotary meetings and  tedious city council sessions. We should have talked less often to ourselves in a scientific jargon and more often to the public and in the common tongue. And we should have mastered the art of persuasion on radio and television the way some others have. We in the “environmental movement” are sometimes accused of being effete, overly intellectual snobs more concerned about nature than people, and there is some truth to that.
  • [W]e know enough right now to make far better decisions than we typically do about wildlife, ecosystems, and landscapes….What ails us, rather, is  fundamentally political and is the result of the yawning chasm between the  world of science (and intellect generally) and that of public affairs.
  • [T]he worldwide conversation about sustainability and the human future is  larger than just the issues of biodiversity, pollution, climate change, land use,  and resource scarcity.
  • [W]e are rapidly becoming an indoor species with fewer people spending time  outdoors and with fewer experiential connections with nonhuman nature.
  • Finally, 21 years ago it would have been difficult to plausibly imagine the scope, scale, and rising intensity of the global movement to build a decent, fair, and sustainable world. The resilience of the human spirit in difficult times is the news of our age.

1Orr, D. (2009) retrospect and prospect: The unbearable lightness of conservation. Conservation Biology23, No. 6, 1349–1351

Posted in communication and framing, environmental studies, environmentalism, nature and culture, race and class | 1 Comment »

In this week’s issue of Science: Climate communication —Has ‘climate fatigue’ set in?

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Richard Kerr asks this question1 amid new polls by Pew and Gallup suggesting that fewer Americans (from 2007 to 2009) think warming is happening (71% to 51%) and that the seriousness of warming is being exaggerated (30% to 41%).

Scientists and politicians have been doing their part to convey the seriousness of our situation:

  • Chris Field (Stanford ecologist):  We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we’ve considered seriously.
  • Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General): The [2007 IPCC] report is a wake-up call. The time for hesitation is over.
  • Stephen Schneider (Stanford climate change scientist): Things are looking much worse than was thought in the 1970s and ’80s.

But Roger Pielke, Jr. suggests that climate scientists may have boxed themselves into a corner after such a strong consensus statement in the 2007 IPCC report:  “Where do you go after ‘unequivocal’?”

One direction, which some scientists have turned to, has been to ramp up the sense of urgency by emphasizing how changes in the Arctic are happening faster than expected, as we saw in the last post on accelerating Greenland ice thaw. As someone who studies climate impacts in boreal and Arctic ecosystems, I can attest that this approach is not exaggeration.

However, this may not be working.  Matt Nisbet suggests there is still a messaging and communication problem:

“[I]t’s very difficult for any single [climate] event to break through competing issues and information.” For Americans, those issues now include two wars, a lurching economy, and health care reform. “Given the complexity of climate change,” Nisbet says, “any one event will be downplayed [by partisan critics]. I think the real long-term challenge is public education, to prepare people. What does it mean to be an American in an era of climate change?” Climate scientists need to refocus their message, he says, from the broad sweep of global warming to small regions such as New England and the Southwest and to immediate issues such as personal health. At the same time, new conduits to individuals need to be created to replace crumbling traditional media. A tall order (underlining mine).

That’s part of the purpose of this blog, and it needs to become part of the mission of higher education.

Update:  Nisbet also wrote this week about the reach of scientific claims at his blog, Framing Science.

Related posts:

1Kerr, R. (2009) Amid worrisome signs of warming, ‘climate fatigue’ sets in. Science 326:926.

Posted in communication and framing, environmental literacy, higher education | 1 Comment »

Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 5: A perfect storm of climate change denial

Sunday, November 8th, 2009


Climate change skepticism and denial are fueled by a perfect storm of all four problems coming together.  This is why skeptics and deniers won’t go away, and as long as they’re influential, some people will stay disengaged.

  • Problem 1—Environmental literacy:  When people don’t know enough about climate change, they can be easily persuaded by contrarian arguments.  If the average person can’t explain (1) why modern warming is more influenced by greenhouse gases than natural causes and (2) how we know we are breaking out of natural ranges of climate variability (i.e., a clear sign that warming is anthropogenic), then climate deniers will always be able to peddle credible-sounding misinformation to the public (more on how to answer these correctly in a future post).
  • Problem 2—Communication: As mentioned in an earlier post, media plays a role here.  Traditional media balancing of competing claims adds to the perception of uncertainty.  And when there is uncertainty, people tune out because they think the issue  is not resolved.  By keeping climate warming shrouded in as much uncertainty as possible, skeptics prevent people form forming strong opinions about it.  The media needs to do a better job distinguishing legitimate criticisms of climate science vs. dubious claims from deniers.
  • Problem 3—Personal perception, values, and behavior:  We saw how sociodemographic factors and cultural identity affect whether people engage climate warming.  Half of Americans have not yet accepted the idea that warming is real, and 82% have not taken personal action.  When political parties, certain religious groups, and some conservative think tanks align themselves on the anti-warming side of the issue, there will always be a political base for denial.
  • Problem 4—Political-economic context:   The enormous inertia built into techno-institutional complexes and the huge sums of power and money exchanged by politicians and the fossil fuel industry ensure that there will be constituencies at the highest levels of government who deny warming and fight mitigation.

The question is how much resistance will these problems pose to enacting real reform?


Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmental literacy, nature and culture | 3 Comments »

More on climate communication…with cartoons

Friday, November 6th, 2009


Grist is running an interesting piece by Jonathan Hiskes, Climate psychology in cartoons: clues for solving the messaging mystery, that describes another approach at the climate communication problem.

Related posts:


Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, nature and culture | No Comments »

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