Be Careful how you put the Climate Change message

Celsias Team


Ever wondered how best to persuade others to take action on climate change?4 horsemen

Ever pondered whether really strong warnings – the sort of apocalyptic approach to climate change - actually get the message across or whether they could actually work against it ?

 Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer at Berkeley did wonder about that and tried a number of experiments .

One was to have 97 undergrads read one of two versions of a newspaper article about climate change and what would likely happen to the earth in climate change .Both articles started the same way with the findings of the IPCC but then they diverged down two different paths. One went on to talk about the catastrophic impact and the other talked in a much more upbeat way about technology solutions.

So what happened?

The effect on the students skepticism about climate change depended partly on their world view ( as measured by agreement with statements like “I believe that, by and large , people get what they deserve “) Strangely , those people who had stronger beliefs that basically the world was fair and just , were actually made more skeptical about climate change by the article that was more shocking and apocalyptic .And the more positive article actually reduced the student participants’ skepticism, no matter what the strength of their world beliefs.

It seems that even though  scientific evidence of both the reality and the impact of climate change increases in the United States and other countries, the capacity to ignore that information or to deny it, has also grown . One possible explanation that was the subject of this research  is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs about the world as  just, and orderly, and basically fair . Individuals may overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of climate change and this may mean decreased willingness to act on climate change.

So it may be that stories of terrifying doom and gloom just don’t have the effect of spurring people into action , and that people respond better to a story that offers some hope.And this may be true regardless of their initial world view.They also did other studies that backed these findings in different ways.And by the way it also seems really scary anti smoking advertisements can actually backfire if they clash with people’s underlying beliefs .

hopeThey also found that in climate change framing environmentalism as patriotic can be more effective than appealing to fear as a motive.We don’t know that this works beyond the US, in that patriotism may not be such a powerful force outside of the US .

And it is also interesting that even though we have seen the same visual images of climate change all over our TVs and the internet for the past decade the acceptance that climate change is man-made and real is very different in different countries

But it’s a really interesting reminder about how we frame our messages.


This article is based on work that can be found below

Feinberg, M., and Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34-38 0956797610391911

 See other great stories on Celsias

Dire Straits-Media Blows the Message of UC Berkeley Study

Green Psychology-What it takes to make a Mind go Green

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Evangelical Ecologist (anonymous)

You're tapping in to classic risk communications theory here. Actually, the number one issue in communicating with the public is empathy/caring/concern for their audience, something climate change action advocates have thus far not tapped into at all. This is something we learned the hard way in the 1980's and 90's in other environmental areas like toxic site cleanups and environmental impact assessments.

Strongly recommend Dr. Vincent Covello's work on this subject at centerforriskcommunication-dot-com

Written in March 2011

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