The Psychology of Climate Change

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

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.

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