The Psychology of Climate Change

The Science and Scholarship of How Humans Think and Feel about Global Warming


A wealth of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change actually result in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public. Efforts to link current natural disasters to climate change, some studies argue, motivate liberals and environmentalists, but alienate moderates and conservatives. Some people, one study notes, “are likely to buy an SUV to help them through the erratic weather to come” for example, rather than support fuel-efficiency standards.

April 8, 2014 | Breakthrough Staff,

A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public.

This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change.

Many of the same studies indicate that liberals and conservatives respond to fear-based appeals about climate change differently. Efforts, for example, to link current natural disasters to climate change motivate liberals and environmentalists, but alienate moderates and conservatives.

On a positive note, many studies show that framing climate solutions around technological and economic progress and solutions increases belief in global warming.

Climate Skeptics Swayed By Solutions, Not More Climate Science

Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers

Bain et al., 2012

Nature Climate Change

  • The likelihood of ‘converting’ climate change deniers using scientific evidence is limited because these attitudes increasingly reflect ideological positions. An alternative approach is to identify outcomes of mitigation efforts that deniers find important. To motivate deniers’ pro-environmental actions, communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society, rather than focusing on the reality of climate change and averting its risks. These conclusions are based on two studies. In the first study, climate change deniers (N = 155) intended to act more pro-environmentally when they thought climate change action would create a society where people are more considerate and caring, and where there is greater economic/technological development. The second study (N = 347) replicated this experimentally, showing that framing climate change action as increasing consideration for others, or improving economic/technological development, led to greater pro-environmental action intentions than a frame emphasizing avoiding the risks of climate change.

Geoengineering As Climate Solution Increases Concern for Global Warming

Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-channel Model of Science Communication

Kahan et al., 2012

Annals of American Academy of Political & Social Science

  • Making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions helps to offset cultural polarization over the validity of climate-change science. Moreover, subjects exposed to information about geoengineering were slightly more concerned about climate change risks than those assigned to a control condition. These findings are based on a two-nation study (United States, N = 1500; England, N = 1500) that tested a novel theory of science communication. The cultural cognition thesis posits that individuals make extensive reliance on cultural meanings in forming perceptions of risk. The logic of the cultural cognition thesis suggests the potential value of a distinctive two-channel science communication strategy that combines information content (“Channel 1”) with cultural meanings (“Channel 2”) selected to promote open-minded assessment of information across diverse communities. In the study, scientific information content on climate change was held constant while the cultural meaning of that information was experimentally manipulated.

Positive Rather than Fear Based Appeals More Effective Among Skeptics

Psychology: Fear and hope in climate messages

Stern, 2012, Nature Climate Change

  • Scientists often expect fear of climate change and its impacts to motivate public support of climate policies. This paper suggests that climate change deniers don't respond to this, but that positive appeals can change their views. This is not an original analysis but draws on the peer-reviewed literature presented in this list.

Catastrophic Climate Rhetoric Increases Climate Skepticism

Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs

Feinberg and Willer, 2011

Psychological Science

  • Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint. 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. Two survey-based experiments (N = 97 and N = 45) provide support for this explanation of the dynamics of belief in global warming. "In addition, we found evidence that this dire messaging led to reduced intentions among participants to reduce their carbon footprint – an effect driven by their increased global warming skepticism," the authors write.

Nuclear Power As Climate Solution Increases Concern for Global Warming

The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – the American Culture War of Fact

Braman et al., 2007

Cultural Cognition Project, Yale Law School

  • Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.


Appeals to Climate Change’s Victims Resisted by Republicans

Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies

Sol Hart and Nisbet, 2011

Communication Research

  • After exposing 240 adults to simulated news stories about possible climate change impacts on different groups, this study found that the influence of identification with potential victims was contingent on participants’ political partisanship. This partisanship increased the degree of political polarization on support for climate mitigation policies and resulted in a boomerang effect among Republican participants. The study drew from theories of motivated reasoning, social identity, and persuasion to examine how science-based messages may increase public polarization on controversial science issues such as climate change.

Climate Skeptics More Open to Environmental Actions Perceived as Patriotic

System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’

Feygina et al., 2010

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

  • Climate change deniers and resisters are less likely to defend their traditional views if they’re encouraged that pro-environmental change is patriotic and consistent with their political ideologies. Three survey-based experiments (N = 340, 563, and 41, respectively) provide support for this conclusion.

Fear-Based Climate Appeals Fail

Fear Won’t Do It: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations

O’Neill and S. Nicholson-Cole, 2009

Science Communication

  • Although fear-inducing representations of climate change have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement. Nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals’ everyday emotions and concerns in the context of this macro-environmental issue tend to be the most engaging. The authors came to this conclusion after conducting two empirical studies that investigated the role of visual and iconic representations of climate change for public engagement.

Framing Climate Change as A Crisis Will Fail to Incite Agreement or Action

How to Talk About Climate Change and Oceans

FrameWorks Institute

  • Connecting the environment to larger values society holds and to larger systems in which humans see themselves; using science to make visible the processes that define global warming; explaining the human causes of and solutions to such warming; and avoiding crisis-oriented messaging are key to achieving broad support for climate change action. Framing climate change as a crisis tends to shut down thinking and incite polarization. These findings are based on both qualitative and quantitative research, including cultural models interviews, focus groups, media content analyses, and experimental surveys.


Photo Credit: Shutterstock


  • The right framing strategy for communicating climate change is, as you say, an extremely important thing to consider. We’ve done our bit to contribute to the debate in terms of the actual imagery that gets overused in the media i.e. most of it is too doomladen. Take a look here if you’re interested:

    By Anthony Giddey on 2014 04 10

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  • As a researcher who studies how the media influences perceptions of climate change, like Nordhaus and Shellenberger I was concerned by the marketing and trailer for the series that relied on fear appeals. The first episode is highly engaging, but that’s the tradeoff between entertainment and effective communication. The research in this area is well established (with examples posted here) and one of the key takeaways is that if you entertain and engage audiences with a powerful, attention-getting focus on global-scale risks and do not include solutions or localized actions that people can take to address those risks, then such portrayals can backfire. See this blog post on the topic:

    Research also suggests that we need to focus on a broad range of technologies like nuclear as solutions (as summarized in the Kahan studies above). Not only are they needed, but they open up space for agreement. My hope is that a broad range of solutions are part of future segments. More here:

    I do however want to congratulate the Showtime producers on “framing” climate change in unique ways in the first segment. See this article I wrote on the topic with several suggested strategies adopted. Katherine Hayhoe is particularly effective as a climate scientist/diplomat. Issues/March-April 2009/Nisbet-full.html

    By Matthew Nisbet on 2014 04 10

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  • So there is no way to get everybody on board?  What is the argument that convinces everybody while there are still groceries?  We already knew the bad arguments.

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 04 10

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  • Our species has no coherent view of itself other than that it is anti-nature. The fixes we put into action will doubtless reinforce this.
    We can’t go with what brung us but have no other option because we know nothing else. Remember we are a species which only in the past 150 years has been introduced to its evolutionary origin and are still arguing about that!
    We are in for a long slog no matter what political economy wants to hear.

    By Jim willis on 2014 04 10

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  • If they could somehow refrain from using the word ‘deniers’ and use the perfectly acceptable ‘disbelievers’ instead then they might communicate their message better. Disbelievers in AGW in fact better reflect the actual facts - which is that there is no actual evidence of a human fingerprint in the otherwise unremarkable 0.6K/century warming. Believers, if they are honest, will admit that, but believe we shouldn’t take the chance anyway.

    So of course win-win scenarios are possible but it requires the media to ignore those fanatics who link every weather event to global warming even when there is no data or even a theory to support it. Some of these fanatics are alas climate scientists.

    Just asking for any of this so-called ‘mountain’ of evidence of manmade warming - as distinct from background natural warming - that is not based on a demonstrably inadequate model brings about the irrational name-calling. Of course believers have to avoid debate because they cannot win it because it is really mother nature that is telling them to think again, not the skeptics. They just cannot admit to themselves that the pudding has been over-egged.

    Quite simply the case for manmade warming is thus:
    a) it’s warming
    b) we are to blame
    c) it will get worse

    Only the first is verifiably true. Believers think that’s enough to believe the other two to the fanatical extent of denying that there has been a verifiable pause in the warming for the last 15+ years - totally against everyones expectations and hence if you don’t believe b) and c) you are childishly accused of being a denier of climate change.

    If this was all academic then we wouldn’t care but there is a huge danger that the medicine we are taking is much worse than the putative disease. Believers most certainly do not have the moral high ground and this is becoming more apparent as the poor more often have to choose between heating and eating. I have been a supporter of alternative energies all my life but not at any price!

    By JamesG on 2014 04 14

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  • JamesG:  I am not going to answer you point by point.  Take the course at:
    or a climate course from coursera.  The evidence is as good as science ever gets.  If you don’t believe it, disprove the law of gravity by jumping off a bridge.

    The holocaust that Global Warming will cause will be far worse than the Nazi holocaust.  It will be Billions rather than mere Millions of deaths.  That is why we want strong action to stop GW and that is why the term “denialist” or “denier” is appropriate.  Mother Nature is far better than the Nazis were at killing, so don’t anger Mother Nature.  99% of all species that ever lived are extinct.  Homo Sap is no exception.
    Denialists are called denialists because what they are advocating is GENOCIDE.  Make no mistake.  Global Warming can make humans extinct.  Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 04 14

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  • Sigh. The conversations I’ve had with a buddy are pretty much like Asteroid has stated here and it just makes no sense to me.

    Billions will die due to GW? Maybe, but it’s stated as a fact w/o any proof. Adaptation anyone?

    My buddy says “kick the deniers off the island”. Heck, why not just let ‘em die as part of the billions? (Sarcasm font).

    The article above says (unless I can’t read) that an alarmist approach is ineffective (a turn off) and yet that’s most of what is published.

    Global warming is a global problem and will take global change to address. And once we’ve done that either by “surviving the holocaust” or heading it off in some fashion we’ll then have to move on to other issues like overpopulation that’s as inevitable as GW if we don’t make changes.

    Those of us old enough to remember the 1970’s can recall being told of an impending ice age. Since that hasn’t occurred (yet?) it makes sense to me that folks have a skeptical eye on this topic.

    I’m a believer in GW. But it’s being treated like a political topic with inumerable variables.

    Seems to me that an inclusive approach with common sense grass roots (ground level) adjustments (lifestyle changes) will be way more effective that just debating the merits of one side or the other. And, by common sense, I’m suggesting things that are transitional towards more “climate friendly” activity without depriving folks of that to which they’ve become accustomed.

    It took time to change the belief that the earth was flat. If we paint a picture of death, destruction, and helplessness folks won’t respond well and indeed may turn off completely.

    Yes, GW might cause human extinction. So can disease (known and unknown), famine, war, and so on. And maybe it’ll happen without any of the above.

    You can sell me on things I can do to address “Global Warming” on a “local level”. But I can’t fix global warming. That takes “we”.

    Denier is all wrong as a term, as it indicates someone is wrong and only causes a fight. Folks, we’re all in this together like it or not. Taking sides is not the solution and forcing the issue only creates sides and not a team working towards a common goal.

    By Comeupwithsomething on 2014 04 23

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  • So, it seems that everyone who communicates about climate change in an alarmist way actually increases the problem.
    I’m working on a documentary film bringing climate change science embedded in a thorough set of solutions, including big-picture synergetic changes as proposed by for example Jeremy Rifkin - which have been acknowledged by numerous others.
    Please contact me if you want to help.

    By Sven Jense on 2014 07 21

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  • John Tyndall measured the optical properties of CO2 gas in the year 1859.  The first paper on global warming was written in 1898.  You can measure the optical properties of gasses yourself if you have the equipment and the expertise.

    The fact you need to know to understand Global Warming is this:  CO2 is opaque to infrared.  Oxygen and nitrogen are transparent to infrared. 

    Sunlight is mostly visible light.  Sunlight warms the ground.  The ground radiates infrared.  CO2 prevents the infrared from escaping into space.  The Earth heats up.  To get the numbers to work out, you have to consider the atmosphere to be made of layers.  More CO2 adds more layers.  Arrhenius didn’t understand this layers thing.

    If there is too little CO2, the Earth gets too cold.  This has happened before, about 700 Million years ago.  The oceans froze almost to the equator.  If there is too much CO2, the Earth gets too hot.  This happened 251 Million years ago at the Permian-Triassic boundary, alias the Great Death, killing almost everything.

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 07 21

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  • If you want to understand GW, it is easy, just like evolution.  If you don’t want to understand, you never will. 

    “SOME people heed warnings that are rather implicit.  Some people understand when they read about it. Some people understand it when they see it happen to somebody else.  Some people don’t understand electric fences until they piss on one themselves.”

    Some people will die still refusing to understand.

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 07 21

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  • So, Breakthrough Staff, convince them.  Show us how.

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 07 21

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  • This is a scary article in that global warming has not occurred in at least fifteen years.  Levels of CO2 have risen 1/1000 of the total atmosphere and can not give the Earth a “fever”.  This study is bias in using terms “Deniers” for those actually utilizing the scientific method and “Believers”  to those who worship the theory of Global Warming.  It is the same as believing all objects orbit the Earth.  This as in Global Warming has been disproved.

    By John Smith on 2014 09 16

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  • Global Warming HAS happened in the past 15 years,  The ARGO floats have told us that the ocean is warming up down to a depth of 2000 meters or 2 kilometers.  The oceans have so much heat capacity that a tiny change in temperature represents a huge change in heat content.  Also,  The Greenland ice sheet and the West Antarctic ice sheets have been loosing hundreds of billions of tons of water per year recently.  Heat of thawing that much water is enormous and helps hold the average temperature down where you are. 

    John Smith is disproved.

    The paper I would like to give you is embargoed.
    “Drought Under Global Warming: a Review” by Aiguo Dai

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published.  Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming]. 

    By Asteroid Miner on 2014 09 17

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  • But people have wardrobes full of clothes, song to do that.

    By on 2015 10 14

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  • I feel as the society should become more aware of the problems that can arise from climate change that is not so easily detected. A psychological change can occur and the person might not realize that his changes affect the others around him. Climate change can also cause migrations of populations of one society to move into another. The graphs shown do illustrate the on rising effects. Greenhouse gases do cause temperature changes around the world.

    By Wajid Amjad on 2015 10 30

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  • To those who are using the word “believe” and its variants:

    In science, we get more and more confident and eventually act like we believe something.  When the odds are a billion to one in favor, that is almost equivalent to belief, but we never use the word “believe.”  Believing is taboo.  If you say you believe anything, you are labeled as not a scientist.  Charlatans/preachers believe things.  Scientists never believe anything.

    So please never never never put the word “believe” in my mouth.

    The real universe is based on probability and statistics.  Certainty is wrong.  Anybody who is absolutely certain is a liar.  The Universe just doesn’t have certainty.

    Probability and statistics is a laboratory course that changes you into a different person.  Once you are changed, you can’t go back.  You had best be a math or physics student before attempting to take it. It is the course that separates those who will be scientists from those who won’t.

    Most physics majors change majors during their first Prob&Stat; course. There is no royal road to mathematics, and Prob&Stat; is probably the toughest undergrad course there is.  As with all physics/math courses, it only gets harder in graduate school.  There is definitely NOT any way to express it in English, plain or otherwise.  

    The Physics Prob&Stat; course is transformative:  It makes you into a different person.  There is no going back.  Absolute certainty exists only in the minds of people who do not understand.

    Probability and statistics is taught by math departments except that at Carnegie-Mellon University, the physics department has its own probability and statistics course.  I learned my probability and statics from the physics department.  The course was formerly called physical measurements.  I struggled through it and passed in 1965 at Carnegie-Mellon university where I was an undergraduate physics student.  As taught in the physics department, Prob&Stat; differs from the math department Prob&Stat; in that the laboratory mimics problems that the pioneers in physics solved while doing original research in physics.  For example, one experiment involved shooting bb’s at a hidden shape and recording where the bb landed.  This was to simulate the scattering problem when you fire electrons at atoms.  The job was to discover the shape of the plastic target.

    Probability and statistics is a laboratory course that changed me into a different person.  Once you are changed, you can’t go back.  I never used the word “believe” in the same way again.  The Physics Prob&Stat; course is transformative.  It was also the course that separated those who became scientists from those who switched their majors to something else.  No other course changed as many student from being a physics major to being some other major.  I got my BS degree in physics at CMU in 1968.

    By Asteroid Miner on 2015 10 30

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