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.

5 strategies for better climate communication

From distance and doom to simplicity and vision – Norway’s Per Espen Stoknes and Sigrid Møyner Hohle sift the evidence.

This is a guest post by Per Espen Stoknes and Sigrid Møyner Hohle. Stoknes is a psychologist and economist, co-leader at Center for Climate Strategies at the Norwegian Business School. This post in based on his article “Rethinking Climate Communications and the Psychological Climate Paradox”, recently published in Energy Research & Social Science. Hohle holds a master’s in psychology.

Climate scientists have never been more certain or had higher consensus in their conclusions about dangerous climate change. However, public concern is declining. We call this surprising gap the psychological climate paradox. 

Why are We not Concerned?

In order to improve climate communication, it is essential to understand some basics about human psychology. These are five psychological mechanisms that hinder effective climate communication:

1. Distance: The climate issue is construed as distant in time, space and influence

Many feel a huge distance between themselves and the climate issue. Threats that are perceived as remote and distant produce far less concern than threats that are close and salient. As a result, people do not sense a real threat or an urgency to prioritise climate action.

2. Doom: The climate issue is framed as disaster, cost and sacrifice

Most of us hate losses. If we’re told that we have to lose comfort, sacrifice beef or one’s long-distance travels, many turn negative towards climate change mitigation. Apocalypse fatigue and numbness is a second effect of negative climate information.

3. Dissonance: Lack of convenient climate friendly behaviors weakens concern

People feel bad when their thoughts and actions conflict (e.g.: I know that I should not fly so much, but I’m off to Asia anyway). The theory of cognitive dissonance states that if you fail to change action, you can always change how you interpret the action. If they fail to lower their emissions, they instead adjust their attitudes so that they harmonize better with what they do. E.g. “It is far from certain that CO2 causes global warming since this winter has been freezing cold!” or “I have installed a heat pump, so I deserve a vacation to Thailand.”

4. Denial: Gives refuge from fear, guilt and threat

Denial is a form of wishful thinking that defends against anxiety and shame. When the climate issue becomes too uncomfortable over time, many begin to deny it; either actively by ridiculing the facts, or passively by avoiding exposure to information about climate change.

5. iDentity: Climate messages are filtered through cultural identity

People are not empty buckets in need of more facts. We all interpret information through a filter made up by political views, identity and existing beliefs. If climate solutions such as taxes or more regulations clash with my identity, than the climate science facts tend to lose.

How to Make People Care?

In order to overcome these five barriers, a radical rethink of climate communication is necessary. It is not enough to simply give people more information. These are five new emerging strategies and solutions for climate communication.

1. Social: Use the power of social networks

Studies have shown that social comparison (neighbors that conserve more energy than you) is more effective to motivate energy saving than price incentives or information about environmental impact. Moreover, climate change communications is too often directed to the individual as a single unit. This can make the problems feel overwhelming. Through an emphasis of what other people are doing, a stronger sense of in-group and collective purpose can be developed.

2. Supportive: Find deep framings that are positive and inspire action

Rather than continuing the climate discourse within the “disaster,” “too uncertain,” or “too expensive” framings, we should use other metaphors. Such new frames could be insurance, health, defence, and opportunity. For instance, within the insurance framing the discussion will turn to questions such as: How much is it worth to pay today to avoid a burn-down of the planet in the future? Messages within the health framing could be that coal emissions are a health issue, that vegetarian food and biking is excellent for both health and climate.

3. Simple: Make it easy and convenient to act in a climate-friendly manner

Nudges can be used to facilitate sustainable actions. Studies show that reduced plate sizes in restaurant buffets lead to less food waste, and changing the default on printers to two-sided printing reduces paper consumption. More people would probably buy CO2 emission allowances with their plane ticket if this were the default choice. When more of people’s daily actions become consistent with climate knowledge, it also becomes easier to avoid cognitive dissonance and maintain supportive attitudes.

4. Story: Use the power of story telling

Humans create meaning through stories and narratives. The story that has been used most often in climate communication is the apocalyptic narrative: storms, drought, sea level rise and damaged ecosystems. Such narratives produce fear, guilt and helplessness. To raise hope and inspiration, we need more positive environmental stories. We need stories of nature’s marvelous ability to restore vital ecosystems, of people who stand up against destructions and of ingenious solutions for green growth. We need attractive images of a future in which we live with more jobs, higher well-being and lower emissions. If it cannot be imagined, then people will surely not work to make it happen.

5. Signals: Use indicators and metrics that monitor progress on green growth and jobs

In order to maintain interest in climate mitigation and adaptation, there has to be a way to get feedback to stakeholders on the progress made. Without such feedback, there is little learning and less motivation.

To sum up, government, climate scientists, social scientists, businesses and NGOs all have to coordinate, rethink, test, document and learn how to implement these strategies into specific actions. The new climate communication must address the psychological barriers in a way that makes a) the climate issue feel more personal. Good climate communicators should use b) constructive framings, c) nudging the public towards action so that cognitive dissonance and denial are reduced. d) New stories of opportunity and attractive futures with appeal across the political spectrum should be told. Lastly, e), we need to get meaningful signals and response indicators on our progress towards societal transformation.

A symphony of reason and emotion

Why pit thoughts and feelings against each other, asks guest blogger Sander van der Linden…climate change is in reality a ‘symphony of reason and emotion’.

This guest post is by Sander van der Linden,  a doctoral candidate in social-environmental psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a visiting research scholar at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University (2012 – present). His research explores judgments and perceptions of environmental risks, the determinants of pro-environmental behavior, risk communication, behavioral change as well as theories of social influence and persuasion.

In a forthcoming paper that will be featured as part of the Journal of European Social Psychology’s special issue on Climate Change, I tackle a crucial question that has so far remained unaddressed: what is the nature of the relationship between personal experiences with extreme weather, negative emotions (or ‘negative affect’) and risk perceptions of climate change?

I try to answer this question in the context of a wider discussion, one that has daunted scientists for centuries, namely; the cognition-emotion debate.

About 30 years ago, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc, published an influential and at the time, somewhat controversial paper in which he suggested that “affect” (the term social psychologists use to denote a specific type of emotion) is fairly independent of, and precedes in time, perceptual and cognitive operations.  In other words, we ‘feel’ before we ‘think’.

In a similar vein, more recently, Paul Slovic and colleagues formulated what has now become widely known as “the affect heuristic”.  We can think of “affect” as a fast, automatic and evaluative gut reaction that has become associated with a particular object (through learning and experience).

For example, the work of some of my colleagues at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has clearly shown that (a) most people tend to have immediate, negative and unpleasant affective associations with the term “global warming” and that (b) “affect” is a key predictor of climate change risk perceptions.

Yet, others have maintained a different perspective. For example, diametrically opposed to Zajonc is the work of the late psychologist, Richard Lazarus.

Lazarus wondered how it is possible that different individuals can experience different emotions given the same situation. In response, he formulated “appraisal theory”, which along with the work of many others, suggests that individuals first perceive, interpret and process information in terms of how it relates to their personal values, goals and experiences. From this point of view, affect is seen as a post-cognitive process (i.e., we must first perceive or appraise a risk before we form any type of affective response). Think of it this way: if you don’t know what it is that you are perceiving, how can you generate an emotion in response?

In light of this debate, recent neurological research has pointed out that thinking in terms of two separate, independent systems (cognition vs. emotion) is really not all that useful at the level of neuroscience, as the pathways related to cognition and emotion are deeply interconnected. Indeed, our cognitions (“thinking”) can influence how we feel (“emotions”) and in turn, our “affective” feeling-states can influence our thinking (“cognition”). Yet, the way in which affect functions in relation to cognition can be strongly dependent on the context.

In fact, when talking about climate change, context is key. Climate change is a relatively unique type of risk in the sense that it cannot be experienced directly. One question that has been puzzling climate change researchers is to what extent personal experiences with extreme weather influence risk perceptions of climate change. It is not unreasonable to assume that people only associate extreme weather with climate change if they make some sort of perceptual or cognitive mental link that these two phenomena are related.

To illustrate, when faced with extreme weather (e.g., a hurricane), most people are likely to experience an instinctive fear-driven emotional reaction. However, at the same time we must retrieve cognitive information about the nature of the perceived risk as well (i.e., how do you know that you should be afraid of a tornado or hurricane?).

What is crucial to understand is that in order for the experienced emotion to be directed at climate change, some type of cognitive link relating the risk event (“extreme weather”) to climate change is needed first. Thus, this perspective seems to be well aligned with Lazarus’ interpretation that affect is post-cognitive. Yet, at the same time, when this link has been made, we would expect that affect is also a strong driver and determinant of risk perception.

Using results from a UK national survey, I found exactly this: negative affect towards climate change is only formed when a conscious risk attribution is made (i.e., people first have to interpret and connect their personal experiences with extreme weather to climate change). However, when that link has been made salient, affect not only clearly functions as a strong driver of risk perception, affect and risk perception actually mutually influence each other in a dynamic feedback system. These results strongly favor a so-called “dual-processing” perspective – implying that both psychological theories hold true.

You might ask; so what?

The way in which cognitive and affective process mechanisms shape our beliefs and perceptions about climate change is important. Indeed, the interactive engagement of both cognitive and emotional processes is key to fostering more public engagement with climate change. For example, research has shown that negative affect motivates people to seek out information about climate change. Additionally, while of course no single weather event can be linked to climate change, based on my research and that of others, one way to increase negative affect is by making the link between the rising incidence rate of extreme weather and climate change much more explicit.

In conclusion, when it comes to climate change communication, pitting cognition against emotion is not a very useful approach, as it is not their separation that is interesting but rather, their interrelation.