Is local always better for climate communication?

For people who have self-focused (rather than self-transcendent) values, ‘localising’ climate change communication may backfire

This guest post is by Michelle McCauley and Jonas Schoenefeld, co-authors of a new paper exploring the link between communication strategies which ‘localise’ climate change and people’s value-orientations. The post is also published at the Environmental Europe blog.

A popular saying goes that ‘all politics is local’. While public debate on climate change often focuses on international summits and the political drama of negotiations, the real steps to address climate change will be have to be implemented at a much more local scale. Ultimately, the way we lead our lives – how we use energy, design our communities, how and how far we travel, to name but a few examples – drives our personal climate impact and that of our communities. But although scientific insights indicate that climate change impacts are much closer than one may think, many of us still envision it as a far-away problem that will affect other parts of the world in the future. [1]

Unfortunately, we don’t care much about problems that will happen later and mainly to others. But we need to care. Scientists, journalists and communicators have thus turned to highlighting the local consequences of climate change – such as extreme weather events, sea level rise and the like – with the assumption that doing so will persuade people, and their policy-makers, to act. For example, in 2003, Rajendra Pachauri—then the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—stressed that

“I am aware that there is an opportunity for much political debate when you start to predict the impact of climate change on specific regions. But if you want action you must provide this information”.[2]

In a recent study, we tested this assumption about the effect of local climate information empirically. Our research[3] suggests that simply highlighting local climate impacts may not be enough stimulate action and could in some cases even backfire.

In an experiment, we asked people, who live in the U.S. state of Vermont, to what extent they care about other communities/people (self-transcendent values), or their own status and power (self-enhancing values). Prior research suggests that people with self-transcendent values tend to be more concerned about environmental issues and act on them compared with their self-enhancing peers. After assessing value orientations, our study participants received information about climate change.

One group[4] received information on local climate impacts (in the Vermont region), while another group received information on global climate impacts (focusing on other regions in the world – i.e., not in Vermont). A control group received no climate information. Following this stage, we asked participants how important they thought climate change was, the extent to which they were willing to make changes in their lives to reduce their personal contribution to climate change (e.g., driving less), and their support for climate policy measures.

As we expected, regardless of the kind of information (global or local), participants who held a strong, versus weak, self-transcendent values were more concerned about climate change, more willing to engage in pro-environmental behaviour (such as switching to public transportation), and more supportive of climate policy. However, the focus of the climate information – local or global – greatly mattered for individuals with strong self-enhancing values. For these individuals, hearing about likely local impacts of climate change was demotivating. Instead of spurring action, hearing the local projections about increased flooding and other likely local outcomes made self-enhancing people care less than their similar self-transcendent value oriented peers who read about global outcomes.

We had expected that giving self-enhancing people information about local climate impacts that could affect their personal status (e.g., through reduced incomes in the Vermont skiing industry) would highlight the importance of climate change and thus lead to increased action. But perhaps those high in a need for status, enhancement, and power, feel particularly threatened by reading about the local impacts of climate change.

This is a reminder that any connections among caring, values, and proximity are complicated and that there is not one message that will work for everyone. However, recent research hints at approaches that could prevent this backlash. Researchers from Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions  found that simply asking people to consider their legacy can increase environmental concern[5].

Perhaps if we had simultaneously grounded our self-enhancing individuals in local outcomes while asking them to consider their personal legacy, our findings would have been different. Future research should further explore the effects we identified, particularly in other regions of the world. But until we have better knowledge, we would caution against simply assuming that local information frames will increase concern and action, because doing so may prove ineffective or even counter-productive with some people.

[1] E.g., Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Smith, N. (2011). Global warming’s six Americas, May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University.

[2] Schiermeier, Q. (2003). Climate panel to seize political hot potatoes. Nature, 421(6926), 879-879.

[3] Schoenefeld, J. J., & McCauley, M. R. (2015). Local is not always better: the impact of climate information on values, behavior and policy support. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-9.

[4] Group assignment was random.

[5] Zaval, L., Markowitz, E.M., & Weber, E. U. (2015). How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy. Psychological Science, 26, 231-236.