The Psychology of Combatting Climate Change

Recent studies suggest that climate change messaging may need a makeover.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Climate change is scary. And coverage of the issue often aims to hammer this point home. The public is not only bombarded with scary weather events at an ever-increasing rate, but also with reminders from experts of various stripes that the scientific consensus is that we are, at least in part, responsible for them. The take-home message seems to be that climate change may kill us (all of us), and we have ourselves to blame.

Markus Spiske/Unsplash
Source: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

This messaging would appear to issue from the best of intentions. The logic behind it seems to be that calling the public’s attention to humanity’s role in increasing our own suffering is a good way of spurring collective action. If we can only get people to recognize their role in threatening humanity’s future, this will trigger a strong, positive response. Our attachment to our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, the fate of people around the globe and of future generations, will get us off the couch, out of the car, out of our airline seats and ready and willing to do something to turn the tide. Many appeals couple the dire warnings with assurances that it’s not too late. We still have time to right the ship, but not too much time. It’s only doom and gloom if we drag our feet.

However, there is a growing body of research that casts doubt on this logic. Building on the principles of Terror Management Theory, experiments suggest that reminding folk of the mortal danger posed by the weather has the effect of triggering various defense mechanisms. In TMT-speak, warnings about the dangers of climate change serve as “mortality salience prompts,” and they’re likely to have the effect of ramping up the existential terror we harbor given our awareness that we will someday die. The theory suggests that this is likely to trigger responses such as denial, distraction, rationalization, and behavioral responses aimed at building “self-esteem.” When people don’t ignore or explain away the threat, they will tend to behave in ways that demonstrate allegiance to a system of values that will outlive them. In this way, they may transcend their terrifying, mortal existence and achieve a measure of symbolic immortality.

Recent findings suggest some hard, counterintuitive lessons about the effects of climate change messaging. First, there’s evidence that awareness of the threat posed by climate change enhances people’s allegiance to what they perceive as their ingroup. Subjects exhibited greater conformity with ingroup norms when climate change threat was made salient to them, and this effect does not seem to be confined to any particular side of the ideological spectrum. The takeaway appears to be that bombarding people with information about the threat climate change poses to their lives will have the effect of further cementing allegiance to whatever group they already identify with—be it a nation, an ethnicity, a race, a political ideology, a religious denomination, etc. This finding poses a challenge for those who think that greater awareness of the dangers of climate change will spur collective action due to a motivation to preserve humanity in general.

A second finding is that people’s responses to information about the threat posed by climate change vary depending on their values. Materialistic subjects responded to anxiety-inducing messages about climate change by exhibiting greater materialism; environmental subjects responded to such messaging by exhibiting greater environmentalism. The researchers note that this has implications for climate change messaging. Collective action to combat climate change will be best promoted by carefully tailoring messages to different groups of people based on their existing systems of values.

Perhaps there’s a further lesson to be learned from this body of research. If people’s responses to being made aware of the threat posed by climate change prompt them to double down on their systems of values, whatever those may be, then perhaps there is good reason to try and instill certain values. People who value human life in general, who value their loved ones, and think the comfort of further generations is important, will, the research suggests, tend to respond to the threat of climate change by behaving in ways that show they are living up to these values. They will tend to respond in just the ways that much of the current messaging on climate change seems to expect. The trouble is that not everyone holds these values dear. And continuing to pepper them with scary facts and figures, coupled with reminders of their own complicity in the impending climate disaster, won’t change this.

Maybe climate activists should seek, not just to get people to do something in response to climate change by making them keenly aware of the threat, but also to get people to recognize the importance of the lives of strangers and future generations and the value of leaving behind an inhabitable planet. This would seem to be an important part of the puzzle of how to spur the kind of response that’s needed to effectively tackle the problem. The future, as they say, hangs in the balance.