The End Isn't Near: A Better Way to Spur Action on Climate Change

The End Isn't Near: A Better Way to Spur Action on Climate Change

From Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, to emotionally wrenching visions such as this video shown at last year's Copenhagen climate meeting, many climate change communicators opt for shock and emotional awe in their efforts to stir action. Given the scope of the fears, it's an understandable tactic.

In fact, litanies of massive environmental disruption -- often paired with images of imperiled children (here, here and here) -- have become a sort of visual cliché used by even the most sophisticated messengers in this arena. Gore's movie -- despite being essentially a PowerPoint presentation on steroids -- even won an Oscar. At their best, they can be educational, stirring visions meant to motivate the public.

At their worst, they do the exact opposite. Given the parlous state of climate efforts, it's pretty obvious that these apocalyptic warnings aren't winning over droves. I've seen it first hand: For every person moved to act by Gore's work, I've observe others who respond with a fatalistic shrug asking, in effect, what could I possibly do about it? Still others have vaulted clear over ambivalence to outright antagonism, angered by the threat these visions suggest, and their implicit accusation of fault.

Now behavioral researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shed some scientific light on these unintended consequences of climate communication. The new study, which will be published in the January issue of Psychological Science, suggests that dire descriptions of global warming, in isolation, can backfire, causing viewers to shut off, before considering the problem.

In their paper, "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs," [PDF] researchers Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer highlight the basic fact that fear and fatalism are poor motivators. The conclusion offers a reminder that, for all the billions being put into mitigating climate change, developing better understanding of human behavior could lead to more change at lower cost.

"Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people's fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming," said Willer, in a statement. A UC Berkeley social psychologist, Willer coauthored the study. Added co-author Feinberg: "The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it." Feinberg is a doctoral student in psychology.

The take-away of the Berkeley study is practically self-evident. Communicating findings in less apocalyptic ways, while offering and explaining solutions, can help the skittish process and accept the information more constructively.

What does that mean for private and public sector players trying to communicate about climate change? There are examples emerging, in California -- home to arguably the most climate literate market in the U.S. -- showing how version 2.0 of this messaging might look. Check out the smiling faces at the Engage 360 campaign, created by the California Public Utilities Commission to educate consumers about their energy options and climate change. The tone is more about possibility and progress than perdition.

Even Environmental Defense Fund looks set to tack. Till now, the group has targeted its heaviest messaging inside the beltway, including one of the most emotionally punishing videos of all. In Huffington Post earlier this week, EDF's head Fred Krupp wrote that -- in the face of a reinvigorated onslaught of climate opposition in the incoming Congress -- his group will refocus on cultivating grassroots efforts outside the Beltway, and will train its guns on companies that obstruct limits on greenhouse gases.

To instigate action, EDF and others will need to craft more sophisticated signals. Go lighter on the doom, with a dash of more hope, all without losing the sense of urgency.

Photo CC-licensed by AZRainman.