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.

For the love of…what exactly?

How can the ‘For the Love Of…’ campaign move from being a slogan to a rallying call for the climate change movement?

At the London Climate March last month, there was one message that seemed to dominate all others: the ‘For the Love of…’ campaign, which was out in force with banners, heart-shaped placards, and a wide variety of things that people were passionate about and wanted to protect from climate change.


COIN carried out the research that informed this campaign, with one of our key recommendations being that the Climate Coalition should focus on making links between the wide variety of things that people love and are passionate about, and the risks that climate change poses to them.

Although we didn’t design the ‘For the Love Of…” slogan, it follows pretty closely from the findings of the research we conducted, with members of the public from a range of backgrounds.

Elena Blackmore at Values & Frames commented on the presence of the campaign at the March, noting that:

It was a genuinely uplifting and inspiring sight, and the atmosphere was palpably positive. It was a real triumph in motivational messaging.”

However, Blackmore also posed the question of whether this positivity and personal connection was enough – in and of itself – to form the basis of a campaign message. Specifically,  she suggested that there was little linking the passion people held to tangible solutions, or meaningful political action.

Blackmore’s analysis rings true: the challenge is to use people’s passion as a springboard for engaging them in a conversation about serious societal change. The value of highlighting the ‘things people love’ that are affected by climate change is that it starts to  break climate change out of its environmentalist niche, showing that a wide range of issues – from flooded football pitches, to the food we eat – are all linked to climate change. It also helps to overcome the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change, by making it more relevant to people’s lives.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail. A flooded football pitch is a reason to start a conversation with someone who might otherwise not have been interested in talking about climate change, but it is not enough of a reason on its own to decarbonise society. Links must be made between the things people love, the things other people love and – most importantly – the kinds of policies that can produce a safe and secure climate for everyone.

Building a bridge between the things people love and the ‘self-transcending’ values that underpin public concern about issues like climate change is the central challenge, ensuring that we don’t unintentionally promote the idea that loving a pair of new shoes or a bigger house is a reason to care about climate change. This kind of ‘self-enhancing’ orientation is likely to lead people to care less about the collective challenge of climate change in the longer term.

The ‘For  the Love of’…campaign feels like a positive step forward, and has been design in line with solid social science evidence.  The challenge now is to breathe life into the campaign so that it doesn’t only exist as a one line slogan but as a social norm and a feeling, because a shared passion for the things we collectively love is a powerful and inclusive rallying call.

You say “Global Warming”. I say “Climate Change”- Let’s call the whole thing off!

George Marshall argues that debates over whether ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ is the right label detracts from the bigger divisions that come from values, ideology and the absence of social/cultural meanings

This article originally appeared on the Climate Denial and was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.


A new US survey by the Yale  Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?

The Yale survey is fascinating  (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption” and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern.  It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.  The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches.  Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.

The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”– that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack?  Craig’s List?  Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.


Are Christians more likely to be climate sceptics?

What is the relationship between God and green?

In debates about climate change scepticism, much has been made of the influence of people’s political beliefs. Especially in the US, but in other Anglophone countries too, climate change has become one of those flagship issues – like gun control, gay marriage and reproductive rights – that are reliable indicators of left and right.

However, in many western democracies, millions of people don’t have strong political affiliations. In fact, many do not vote at all. And in the US in particular, there are other forces at play that affect people’s belief systems.

Some 30% of the population of North America describe themselves as evangelical Christians, with a much larger number following or practising other forms of Christianity. This means that the relationship between humans and the natural environment, from a theological perspective, is likely to be a significant influence on how people think about climate change and sustainability.

In a paper currently in press at the journal Global Environmental Change, Nick Smith and Antony Leiserowitz conducted a survey of over 2,000 North Americans, including approximately 600 evangelical Christians. Their aim was to better understand how evangelicals think about climate change, by comparing their views to those of non-evangelical participants in the survey.

Compared to non-evangelicals, American evangelicals were less likely to believe that climate change was happening, less likely to believe that human activity was the cause, and less likely to express worry and concern. And although a majority of evangelicals supported various policy measures to tackle climate change, they were less likely to do so than non-evangelicals.

Within the sample of evangelicals, though, there was variation in people’s views – and this variation was partly accounted for by their values and political ideologies. To the extent that people in the study were both evangelical and individualistic, they tended to doubt the reality of climate change. But evangelicals who were more egalitarian in their outlook were less sceptical – and more concerned – about climate change.

Partly because of the significant overlap between Christian beliefs and politically conservative ideology, therefore, right-leaning evangelicals were more sceptical than the general population about humans’ impact on the climate. Climate change, as the authors of the survey note, has become as divisive within this group as it has among the broader American public.

The survey is important because it provides the first direct comparison between the beliefs of evangelical Christians and the rest of the US population on the contemporary environmental issue of climate change. But debates about what the teachings of the Bible imply for society’s relationship with the natural world go back a long way.

Did God grant humans dominion and therefore domination over nature? Is nature there simply to be utilised by us? Or does dominion mean a duty of care – a responsibility for stewardship and a mandate to live within our means?

The question of how God and green relate to each other is not confined to the US. Operation Noah is a British Christian organisation that describes itself as “faith inspired, science informed and hope motivated”. It campaigns for the complete decarbonisation of the British economy by 2030, in response to the “growing threat of catastrophic climate change endangering God’s creation”. The theology thinktank sees no contradiction between radical lifestyle change and the teachings of Jesus – and provides resources and support for Christian groups who want to make climate change part of their identity.

And although the Church of England has been in the news recently for defending fracking (arguing that it will reduce fuel bills, and therefore help people with lower incomes), there is also broad-based agreement among British Christian institutions that climate change is a serious threat. International charities such as Christian Aid have been at the forefront of the push for a binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions. So it is certainly not the case that Christian beliefs and scepticism about climate change necessarily go hand in hand.

Even in the US, there have been examples of evangelical groups calling on their supporters to confront climate change, arguing that a commitment to Christianity implies a duty and responsibility to protect the planet. And climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe are evangelical about both climate change and their Christian faith. The relationship between God and green is not straightforward: there is no monolithic Christian view on the climate.

Human influence on the climate is a question of science. But the challenge of how to respond to climate change is squarely in the realm of morality – where religious and other belief systems reign supreme. And given the limited impacts of most campaigns to communicate climate change, might our dry, detached discussions of scientific uncertainties have something to learn from the passion and commitment of the pulpit?


Originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 11.09.13

Communicating climate change by celebrating nature

Celebrating nature offers one way of bringing home to people what the challenge of climate change is all about. And in this way, its a powerful communication message.

In this guest post, Ralph Underhill, from the Public Interest Research Centre, explains why their new report ‘Common Cause for Nature‘ offers one way of bringing the meaning of climate change home.

Why does climate change matter to me?

It is not that I have an issue with a change in the long term weather patterns of our planet, if these had no knock on consequences I might be indifferent to the human impacts on the climate. The reason I care about climate change is because of it’s potentially massive social and environmental consequences. I care most about climate change because of what it will do to the natural world and the wildlife that has provided me with my most inspiring and memorable experiences.

Importantly I am not alone, although some might not currently share my concerns, they do value the same things that I do.

The combined membership of the conservation organisations in Wildlife and Countryside Link is over 8 million. People aren’t motivated to join these organisations because they think nature conservation contributes significantly to the economy or because of the ecosystem services that certain wildlife rich habitats provide, they join because they love wildlife and want it to be protected. Some of these members are the civil servants, politicians and other decision makers that environmental organisations spend our time trying to persuade.

If a large number of people are motivated by the awe inspiring brilliance of nature why don’t those in conservation speak about it more?

This week marks the publication of the Common Cause for Nature report. Commissioned by the 13 leading conservation organisations (including WWF, RSPB and the Ramblers) and drawing on social psychology, it provides an original analysis of the values being encouraged in the communications of the sector.

The research shows that conservation organisations don’t talk about how inspiring and engaging the natural world is any more frequently than the rest of society. If the conservation sector is not celebrating the beauty and wonder of nature, who is? Social psychology shows that experiences or communications celebrating and appreciating the natural world are likely to strengthen people’s connection the natural world and bring about lasting concern about conservation.

The findings also show that the sector tends to focus heavily on the threats and dangers to nature, something familiar to those working on climate change. Research shows that the emotional responses to such communications can actually reduce people’s motivation to act environmentally, particularly when people aren’t given a way of responding that is proportionate to the scale of the threat. This is not to say that negative messages have no role: but they should be appropriately balanced with actions people can do and framed in a way that illustrates how it will help address the overall problem.

Another key finding of the report is that many communications share much in common with those of commercial businesses providing the ‘product’ of conservation to their supporters who are viewed as ‘customers’. Research shows that appealing to peoples consumer side reduces their willingness to act on behalf of the environment, something I covered in more detail in another blog.

CCfN sets out the values theory and how it applies to many different work areas – communications, working with volunteers, membership, the media, influencing government. There should be something in the report that is applicable to all staff in nearly every role and many of the recommendations should apply equally to those working on climate change as they do to those who are focused on conservation.

What I have laid out here is just a very short overview. The research and theory of this work, as well as many more findings and recommendations are in the full report. I encourage you all to read it and welcome any feedback that you have.

I feel strongly that Common Cause for Nature is a significant step towards understanding how we can inspire people to work with us to save nature and address climate change.

Frackers: Ignore public values at your peril

A new report finds that fairness, security, affordability and avoiding wastefulness are key to forming public views on energy. Frackers beware!

Certain truisms have wormed their way into the national discourse of how people think about energy. We’re told that no-one wants a wind turbine in their back yard. It’s common knowledge that going green is only for the economic good times. And everyone knows that the only thing people are interested in when it comes to the energy system is the cost of their bills.

The trouble with truisms, though, is that they aren’t always as true as they first appear. And as a new report on a major programme of work exploring public attitudes towards the UK energy system shows, many widely shared assumptions about what motivates public views on energy are probably in need of revision.

The report – produced by researchers in the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University for the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) – is one of the first to document public perceptions of the energy system as a whole (rather than as individual technologies such as nuclear or solar power).

Based on a series of interviews, in-depth discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, the project documented how people think the energy system should change between now and 2050 – the date by which British emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced to 80% of their current level.

First and foremost, people expect and even want change. Taking a pragmatic position in the face of inevitable transformation over the next 30 years, most people see an opportunity to “do it right”. And for the majority of people, doing it right means a reduction in fossil fuels – seen as archaic, polluting and finite – and an increase in renewables.

There were mixed views on whether wind turbines spoiled landscapes, or were actually good for local communities. But when considered in the context of other technologies, such as nuclear power, the message was clear: 21% opposed the building of a wind farm in their area, while 54% opposed the building of a nuclear power plant.

Cost was found to be a critical determinant of public perceptions, with energy bills understandably featuring prominently. But, strikingly, the cheapest options were not necessarily the most preferred, particularly if they came with other undesirable attributes (eg fossil fuel reliance).

In fact, through a closer inspection of the underlying principles on which public views were based, the report was able to describe a set of core values on which perceptions of the energy system seem to crucially hinge. These values included fairness, security, affordability, minimising damage to the natural environment and avoiding wastefulness.

Particular technologies or social practices that embodied these values were likely to be viewed more favourably. Fairness, for example, was found to underpin beliefs about the openness and accountability of energy suppliers, the involvement of local communities in decisions about siting new technologies, and the potential for importing fossil fuels to cause global conflict.

Only by taking a more holistic approach to the study of public views about the energy system were commonalities like these possible to identify. And, as the increasingly heated debates around fracking demonstrate, these are lessons that urgently need learning.

Despite acute concern over the development of fracking operations in Balcombe, West Sussex, and broader debates about the implications for climate change and energy policy, government and industry rhetoric has failed to engage with public values. In fact, local authorities have apparently been advised by central government to ignore fracking protests.

This strategy, however, is likely to run into trouble. As the Cardiff report says: “If actors do not consider and take into account public values in their decision-making, resistance to energy-system transformations or conflict over particular issues is more likely to result.”

In other words, governments and energy companies ignore the views and values of the public at their peril: a contract for social change will not be achieved by marginalising or otherwise excluding public views from the debate.

And nothing less than a contract for social change is likely to deliver transformation in the UK energy system between now and 2050. For sure, there are multiple pathways to sustainability. But none will come to fruition if they do not embody values such as fairness and frugality – the underlying drivers of public beliefs.

Public views about the energy system are about much more than household bills and nimbys. The sooner the government and industry bodies engage seriously with the values the public cares about, the more successful – and politically popular – that transformation is likely to be.

First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business on 20.08.13

Morality is missing from debates about behaviour change

Moral values, not facts and figures, will inspire transformative behaviour change. So why do we waste so much time tinkering at the edges?

Every now and again, it’s good to remind yourself of the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. Leaving aside the small matter of the rest of the world, the UK has committed to reducing its own carbon emissions by 80% in just over 35 years. This will require an unprecedented reversal of a universal trend among industrialised nations: that as economies grow, so do carbon emissions.

Although reversing this trend will involve many different transformations, underpinning it all is human culture – our attitudes, behaviours and social practices. Our collective decision making is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story.

Tinkering at the edges of sustainable behaviour is not enough, because even on our own terms – judged by our own decarbonisation targets – we will fail unless we drastically change gear on sustainability. This means we have to find a way to get beyond the plastic bags and low-energy light bulbs. But how?

It’s a cliche, but sometimes it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees. Over the past two decades, a huge amount of time and effort has been expended trying to understand how to nudge, persuade, cajole or regulate people into more sustainable patterns of behaviour. But in our eagerness to understand the drivers of behaviour, and our enthusiasm for measureable behavioural outcomes, we may have overlooked a critical point: that sustained and substantive behavioural transformations come not from gradually ‘reprogramming’ our behaviour but from internalising the reasons for doing so.

A recent paper by Dr Rachel Howell at the University of Aberystwyth illustrates this point well. Instead of asking how the everyday behaviour of the general public could become incrementally more sustainable, Howell started with people who had already made major changes in their lifestyles, and worked backwards from there.

What motivated this group of people to make considerable changes to their lifestyles was not their participation in a programme of social marketing, nor exposure to clever advertisements about climate change. The single biggest motivation for their behavioural changes was a sincerely held conviction that climate change was a matter of social justice – that it was unfair for individuals in industrialised nations to use more than their ‘fair share’ of carbon when poorer people elsewhere would suffer the consequences.

This is not the only evidence that catalysing significant behavioural changes might involve moving away from single behaviours and measurable outcomes, and towards the underlying ethics of the issue. As Professor Andrew Dobson has argued, if a sense of ‘environmental citizenship’ can be fostered in individuals and communities, then their pro-environmental behaviour is rooted in a commitment to the principles and values underlying sustainability, rather than to financial or other types of external stimuli.

However – and in common with Howell’s findings – it is not necessarily ‘the environment’ that motivates environmental citizenship. Rather, it is a sense of fairness, justice, and civic responsibility that plays the most important role. The bottom line is that when people come to see taking action on climate change as simply the right thing to do, a raft of behavioural changes are likely to follow.

So Barack Obama’s recent description of climate change as a moral issue – a matter of right and wrong – is exactly the kind of rhetorical strategy that international leaders should be pursuing. But climate change as a moral issue has faded from British politics.

If children were taught that they would receive a pound coin every time they resisted physically hurting another child, they would not learn that hurting others was wrong – they would learn that restraining themselves was profitable. But it is precisely this logic that runs through major government initiatives such as the Green Deal. Saving energy is presented not as the right thing to do, but as a way of saving money.

To be clear, there is no reason that the cost of a green energy revolution should be met through higher energy bills: the major power companies’ profits contain more than enough surplus to cover the transition. But it should not surprise us that bribing people into acting in an environmentally responsible way doesn’t translate into meaningful engagement with climate change.

Ultimately, it is morals and values, not facts and figures, that inspire public support for policies, and transformative behavioural changes will not follow from superficial methods of engagement. Perhaps it is time we stopped obsessing about behaviour change, and concentrated instead on re-connecting with a straightforward idea: that morally, confronting climate change is simply the right thing to do.

Originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 19-07-13

A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change

How can climate change be better communicated to citizens with centre-right values?

On Thursday 13th June COIN will launch our new report, ‘A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change’, hosted by Policy Exchange, at the Ideas Space, Westminster.

Funded by the BRASS research unit at Cardiff University, the report is a response to a roundtable meeting COIN convened with of some of the UK’s leading  experts on engaging centre-right audiences with climate change (including Greg Barker MP and Zac Goldsmith MP). The ground breaking report – the first of its kind – presents the evidence for more effectively engaging centre-right citizens around climate change. It argues that if climate change is to break out of its ‘left wing ghetto’, it must be communicated in a way that resonates with the values of the centre-right – and offers four narratives for bringing climate change into the mainstream.

The event will comprise a panel discussion chaired by James Murray (Editor in Chief, Business Green). The panel will discuss the findings of the report, as well as the broader implications of communicating climate change with centre-right audiences.

The panel will feature:

Dr Adam Corner (Author of COIN’s report ‘A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change’)

Zac Goldmsith (Conservative MP for Richmond)

Guy Newey (Head of Environment, Policy Exchange)

Claire Jakobsson (Chair, Conservative Environment Network)

If you’d like to attend please RSVP

It’s (not just) the environment stupid!

Dr Rachel Howell describes some findings from her new research showing that concerns like altruism are more likely to motivate low-carbon lifestyles than concern about the environment per se.

This guest post by Dr Rachel Howell of Aberystwyth University was originally published at Values & Frames.

People who cut their carbon footprint because they’re worried about climate
change are ‘environmental’ types, right? They love ‘nature’ and get fired
up by those photos of polar bears stranded on melting ice. They might even
rate ‘protecting the environment’ or ‘respecting the earth’ as their number
one value.

Well, no; not necessarily.

As part of a research project on promoting lower-carbon lifestyles, I
interviewed people who have cut their carbon footprint because they’re
worried about climate change, to try and understand more about what
motivates them. Concern about ‘the environment’ for its own sake is not
generally their main reason for action. They tend to be more bothered about
the effects of climate change on poorer people in developing countries.
They’re often motivated by a deep sense of the injustice of a situation
where those who will suffer most are those who have contributed least to
the problem, and they talked in terms of trying to live with a fairer –
therefore smaller – share of the world’s resources.

When I asked them to imagine that we live in a different kind of world, one in which climate change would threaten polar bears with extinction but would somehow have little effect on humans, several interviewees said they would probably not be so anxious about the issue, and would not be trying so hard to address it.

Moreover, their stories about how they’d got engaged in climate change
action were about human rights groups and issues as often as environmental
ones. Sally said that because she believed that all the gains she’d worked
for in terms of women’s rights in developing countries were threatened, “it
was probably actually feminism which brought me into climate change.”
Deepta explained that many of her friends in her university Amnesty
International group were also involved in environmental campaigns so she
joined in with them too. David talked about growing up in South Africa,
where “you really had to have a view about what you thought of race
discrimination and so on.” This led to political and social awareness that
developed into concerns about many issues, including climate change.

It seemed to me that these were people who cared about the environment but
who cared even more about people and social justice. To check this, I asked
interviewees to answer a short questionnaire testing the strength of
‘biospheric’ (environment-centred), ‘altruistic’ (people-centred), and
‘egoistic’ (self-centred) values as guiding principles for their lives. The
top-rated value was ‘social justice’, with ‘equality’ second. ‘Protecting
the environment’ came third, and ‘respecting the earth’ was only sixth
(after being ‘helpful’ and ‘a world at peace’). The majority of
interviewees scored higher on the altruistic values scale than the
biospheric one. Not surprisingly, they scored egoistic values low.

I also asked interviewees “what images come to mind with the phrase ‘a
low-carbon lifestyle’?” Although many gave a list of things to do (or to do
without), some offered quite different ideas:

“For me it’s more local living, stronger communities, more time for each
other [. . .] a less materialistic lifestyle where we don’t need to have so
much and hopefully meaning that we don’t need to work so much and have more
free time.” (Paul)

“Somehow I see sunshine. Yeah, lightness actually. Brightness and a sort of
small place to live. Gre
en grass and everything bright. There’s something
healthy about that. Healthy and wholesome I suppose.” (Aileen)

“Living really close to nature. I think that is the most dominant one.
That’s the one that makes me happy and that’s the one that makes me
inspired […] I think communities is another one. Connections with nature
and community living” (Deepta)

These aren’t images that would translate into ‘carbon reductions per year’.
They show that lower-carbon lifestyles are associated, at least for some
people, with a much broader vision of the good life’, and benefits such as
health, happiness, and community. This also seemed to be true for some of
the people who answered with the more typical list. For example, Claire
thought fewer cars on the streets would be “lovely” because people would
interact and not have to worry about traffic. Prue repeatedly stressed the
satisfaction she gains from cycling (“it’s not only that you are not using
resources, but you see a neighbour and you stop and say hello in a way you
don’t when you use the car”) and buying local produce (“you are eating
healthily, and you’re saving money”).

To me, perhaps the most remarkable finding was that some of these highly
motivated people weren’t even that keen to talk about climate change. They
thought the phrase was off-putting, or they were irritated by it because
it’s overused, or they were simply not that interested in climate change.
One person said she didn’t think you even have to believe in climate change
to want to live a lower-carbon lifestyle, because of the benefits you’d
gain from it.

These findings have important implications.

For example, appealing to altruistic values and to desires for things like
quieter streets and stronger local communities may be more effective ways
of encouraging people to change their behaviour than focussing on
information about climate change impacts on the natural world.

People who want to promote lower-carbon lifestyles might find it worth
working with human rights and development groups, and with organisations
that place emphasis on altruistic values, like many religious groups.
Development charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid are already
campaigning on climate change, but more could be done to make links between
the concerns of organisations promoting women’s, children’s, and refugees’
rights and welfare and the potential impacts of climate change on these

The wide-ranging positive visions of what ‘a low-carbon lifestyle’ means to
people, and the fact that ‘climate change’ is not necessarily seen as
interesting suggests that action campaigns should promote a much broader,
more holistic view of a lower-carbon future, not just a ‘to do’ list to
‘combat climate change’. People do need information and advice about what
action they can take, but “Ten Tips to Save the Planet” type messages may
not be the best way of framing it – or not for everyone.

Obviously, these interviewees are not typical of the general population,
but if “It’s the environment, stupid!” is not a catchphrase that really
captures the range of motivations of even these committed people, the
approach it represents is probably even less likely to inspire widespread
behaviour change among the general public. Climate change is a complex
problem with social, economic, political and ecological dimensions. This
research suggests that it shouldn’t be framed merely as an ‘environmental’
issue by those who hope to engage the public in dealing with it.

All names used in this post have been changed.

Blue valuing green? Public engagement with climate change on the centre-right

An economic framing of climate change might seem like a good way to reach voters on the right – but it may cause people to externalise responsibility for climate change, and express higher levels of fatalism.

This guest blog is by Valerie Mocker, who recently completed her postgraduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University. Here, she describes findings from her dissertation research. They suggest that framing climate change as an ‘economic’ challenge may not be the best way to engage conservative audiences, leading people to externalise responsibility of climate change and express higher degrees of fatalism about the issue.

The question of how to more effectively communicate with members of the public who hold centre-right political views is becoming increasingly important. Numerous studies show that in the UK – as elsewhere in the Anglo-Saxon world – sceptical voices and beliefs about climate change are concentrated among Conservative voters (Whitmarsh, 2011), the conservative media (Painter, 2011) and think-tanks on the political right (e.g., the Global Warming Policy Foundation). For scientists, policy makers and the wide range of actors who speak to right-leaning audiences about climate change, the question of how to communicate more effectively is a critical one.

In new research that I conducted as part of a post-graduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University, I asked whether different ways of framing messages about climate change in order to appeal to different types of values would produce different responses from Conservative voters.

It is widely assumed that reaching right-wing audiences on environmental issues means spelling out the economic advantages of low-carbon industry, or the value of renewable energy technologies for the economy. However, my findings showed that in several important ways, using an explicitly ‘economic’ framing for climate change messages is likely to be counter-productive, even for Conservative voters.

Conservative values for sustainability

The link between different values and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour has been widely discussed. According to Schwartz’s (1992) widely-used model, values can be broadly separated into extrinsic and intrinsic types. Extrinsic values include economic success and anthropocentrism (valuing the environment for its services to humans). On the other hand, intrinsic values include altruism, benevolence (enhancing welfare of people outside ones immediate group which can include future generations) and biocentrism (granting nature intrinsic value).

Intrinsic values have been shown to positively correlate with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours in a wide range of studies, whereas extrinsic values seem to be unhelpful in provoking such attitudes and behaviours. As a result, there have been calls for climate change communication to be framed around intrinsic, rather than extrinsic values (e.g., Crompton, 2010). In addition, there are different types of intrinsic and extrinsic values that are relevant for those of different political persuasions. For those on the centre-right, intrinsic values are likely to include an emphasis on intergenerational duty, and the idea that people are responsible for their local communities (both forms of the value type ‘benevolence’ – Shrubsole, 2011). Cultural conservatism, to preserve the nation’s heritage – such as the British countryside- is a form of biocentrism and thereby another intrinsic value.

However, the way that climate change is talked about in UK policy documents is overwhelmingly extrinsic in its focus. My research found that climate change is typically framed around economic burdens and benefits. Low carbon transport policies are an excellent example of that. With its title “Creating (economic) Growth, Cutting Carbon”, the 2011 White Paper on Local Sustainable Transport is a case in point as it utilises a heavily economic framing.

Framing transport policy to reach Conservative audiences

My experiment tested two opposing ways of framing sustainable transport policies with Conservative voters. Both frames were designed to appeal to the values typically held by those on the centre-right, but one focused on extrinsic, the other on intrinsic values. Participants saw one of two video speeches on low-carbon transport (which you can view here and here).

Both speeches were identical in the way they introduced UK transport problems and the need for the electrification and increased use of public transport, as well as cycling and walking. Whereas the “extrinsic” video framed these issues around economic and nationalistic concerns, the “intrinsic” video discussed dangers and benefits for the health of communities, intergenerational duties and the intrinsic value of the environment. Among others, two very interesting results emerged from this study.

Firstly, people who were exposed to economic arguments showed a much stronger externalisation of responsibility to the government, who they considered responsible for achieving a sustainable transport system. In addition, this group also showed higher levels of fatalism which significantly impeded people’s perception of their own ability and responsibility to make a positive difference to transport and climate change. Both externalisation of responsibility to the “Other” and a sense of fatalism have been shown to be serious barriers to personal engagement with climate change issues (Lorenzoni 2011). In contrast, the intrinsic video seemed to provoke a feeling of empowerment that then translated into motivation to act.

Secondly, the intrinsic frame resonated particularly well with women, whereas no gender difference appeared in the group that saw the extrinsic video. Indeed, previous research already established that women tend to show greater concern for environmental issues. However, this study implies that such tendencies can be further amplified when emphasising community health and intergenerational responsibilities.

In short, extrinsic and intrinsic frames differed most significantly in their ability to raise a sense of personal responsibility to make policy goals happen. However, it is the economic frame that is widely employed in current policy communication – which I found caused stronger externalisation of responsibility and feelings of fatalism. This is a significant problem as behaviour change, which is heavily dependent on a sense of empowerment and personal responsibility, will be crucial for achieving significant carbon reductions (Banister 2010).

The implications for climate change communication

First of all, policy makers should explore intrinsic framings, especially when they want citizens to take on responsibility for change. When talking to Conservatives specifically, the values employed should embrace intrinsic shades of Conservatism, such as an emphasis on community well-being, intergenerational duty and representation of the environment not as a service provider but as (for example) something that deserves to be protected.

Secondly, policy makers could broaden their support network by strategically targeting particularly receptive groups. Women, and organisations such as The Conservative Women’s organisation, would be a good starting point when employing intrinsic frames.

However, reframing is not enough. Firstly, whereas my experiment showed that the intrinsic frame was more successful in provoking feelings of personal responsibility and empowerment, such pronounced differences did not appear for other measures, such as an increased issue recognition or changes in scepticism. Secondly, despite successful communication, various subsequent barriers often prevent behaviour change, among them infrastructural constraints and habit.

Interestingly, a qualitative part of my study showed that uncertainties about electric cars were the most common criticism of the speeches. Respondents argued that electric cars only made sense if those were part of a wider policy set including clean energy production. Additionally, participants were uncertain about the meaning of “sustainability” and the mechanisms of achieving it. In other words, despite the importance of exploring different framings, the substance of the message still matters – and there is no substitute for a coherent policy proposal that shows clearly how governments and citizens can work together to achieve meaningful action on climate change.


Anon, 2011. Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon. Making Sustainable Local Transport Happen, London.

Banister, David, 2010. Cities, urban form and sprawl: A european perspective. In ECMT Road Table Report 137. p. 112.

Crompton, T., 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with Cultural Values. London

Painter, J., 2011. Poles Apart. The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism, Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Schwartz, S.H., 1992. Universals in the content and structure of values: Theory and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press, pp. 1-65.

Shrubsole, Guy, 2011. The environment and conservative values. In Boyle, D. Different Politics, Same Planet. Values for sustainable development beyond left and right. London

Whitmarsh, L, 2011. Scepticism and uncertainties about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Environment & Planning A, 43(2), 258-261

Self-interest and Pro-environmental Behaviour

Should campaigns use selfish reasons to promote pro-environmental behaviour?

This guest post is by Dr. Laurel Evans, who led a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study is one of the first direct tests of a question that has been at the center of debates about climate change communication: Should we talk about self-interest when promoting environmental behaviour?

We all have values, even if they aren’t always part of the public discussion.

Research has shown that we value similar things, like the environment, our health, and personal achievement, although we prioritize them in different ways. It’s also clear that we are shaped by what we see in our daily lives; reminders of our values come to us in books and TV shows, posters and images, and the actions of those around us. Psychologists call this “priming”. It means bringing to mind, or reminding.

But, perhaps most interestingly, researchers have found that priming some values actually decreases the priority of “opposing” values. There are several sets of values that conflict with each other in this way. For example, values of openness and exploration typically conflict with values of tradition and security. Also, values of self-transcendence or caring about communal impacts (like the environment) conflict with values of self-interest and personal achievement.

Greg Maio and his colleagues found that priming benevolence values made participants in their experiment more helpful to the experimenter later than a control group, but decreased their performance on a word search task (i.e. a test of self-focused achievement) compared to the controls. Those who were instead primed with achievement values performed better than control on the word search but were lower than control in helpfulness. This is interesting because participants could have all been good at the word search and highly helpful, but instead their value focus determined which one they were “good” at.

We wondered whether the messages people receive about environmental behaviours have a similar effect on people’s values and behaviour. Many campaigns focus on the money savings that could be achieved by various environmental activities, such as installing efficient appliances and energy-saving light bulbs. We thought that this self-interested messaging might promote the environmental behaviour in the message, but fail to bolster overall environmental behaviour.

We tested this by giving out different messages about car-sharing (carpooling in the US), in the form of a true-false questionnaire. Some participants received questions reminding them of the money-saving aspects of car-sharing, some received questions reminding them of the positive environmental impacts of car-sharing, and some received both sets of questions. There was also a control group who only answered generic travel questions.

We then wanted to test everyone’s environmental behaviour in a domain other than car-sharing – to see if the effects of the message would “spill over” or not. So we included, among other tasks, the instruction to dispose of one of the sheets of paper, with a general waste bin nearby and a recycle bin further away.

We found that participants who read the environmental questions were significantly more likely to recycle the paper than the control group, but those who read financial questions, or both environmental and financial questions, were not. When doing a statistical comparison, the environmental priming was significantly better at causing recycling than the financial priming. The case was less clear for the combined priming, but it was overall less effective than environmental priming.

What does this mean for environmental campaigners? Well, it might mean that they should reconsider the types of messages they use. Reminding people of their environmental values clearly has benefits beyond the single targeted behaviour, but there is a danger that reminding people of their self-interested values will fail to cause such spillover.

Further, psychologists have found a great deal of evidence for self-perception theory, which says that we monitor our own actions and reasons for acting, and use these to build our identities. Acting for monetary reasons, instead of helpful reasons, is more likely to lead to requiring monetary reasons to act in the future.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as changing entirely to environmental messages. Some people prioritize money savings, plain and simple, and they may need a message that resonates with their core values. More research is needed on whether this might be the case, what their reaction might be to an environmental message, and whether the net benefits to the environment are greater with one type of message or another.

However, one thing is certain: The messages we send about our values act as beacons, reminders to others around us. We bolster each other. Psychologist Niki Harré spoke to me recently about leaving a “behaviour trail” for others to follow. It may mean carrying your bike helmet with you, talking proudly about your energy-efficient dishwasher, or using social media. But whatever you do, your values and actions are likely to leave an imprint on others.

In my view, this means that all of our personal actions are meaningful, even in the case of large-scale problems like climate change. Contrary to what some say, it is not only government policies that will make a difference. Living and acting on environmental values, and acting as examples to others, may well help to turn the tide of public opinion, potentially winning support for those all-important climate policies even as we shave down our own personal emissions.