Finding hope for the climate: Lessons from a community climate party

The more you learn, talk, and act on climate change, the more opportunities you have to experience some seriously dark emotions. I certainly have — I know climate dread, fear, and anger pretty well. I allow myself to feel them sometimes, but I also believe that too much of those dark emotions will be our undoing. It’s a constant challenge to find hope amidst the crisis, to see progress amidst the chaos, and to keep trying to do my part to stop this runaway train when I feel so insignificant.

Last week, I found one antidote to my dark feelings, and with it, a renewed commitment to climate action. My local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter (Fairfax County, VA) held a community climate party to create a space where neighbors, friends, and families could learn and discuss climate change and solutions. Many of our guests shared their new understandings and ideas with us as they left, and we made connections with people we might not otherwise meet thanks to a shared commitment to improving our planet.

If you’re interested in throwing your own community climate party, here are some of the things we did and what we learned:

Carbon dividends: Since a big goal of this party was to talk about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act, we introduced everyone to an important component of the bill as soon as they arrived. We gave each person a “carbon dividend” — a hand-designed card that could be used to “purchase” refreshments. This setup gave people a sense of how the bill works, since it will provide each adult with a monthly dividend that they can use on anything they want. We placed a collection box for dividends by the refreshments and people were surprisingly diligent about “paying” for their snacks and drinks.

Refreshments: Many members of our chapter brought a snack or baked good, and many of our guests brought something too. We served beer from breweries who have signed the Brewers’ Climate Declaration, indicating their support for the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act. We encouraged people to bring their own cups to reduce waste, but we also had compostable paper goods and a compost bin on hand.

Games: Another premise of this party was that people could earn extra dividends by playing games (we acknowledged that the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act does not allow people to earn extra dividends, but by lowering their carbon footprint, people will effectively be saving money).

First, we had the carbon footprint game. People were invited to use stickers to write an action they currently do and one they plan to do to reduce their carbon footprint. They stuck these stickers on a large black paper foot that was taped to the garage door (the different feet represented different broad categories of action, like food or transportation). There was a list of possibilities to spark ideas, which encouraged people to discover new actions they could do (for example, quite a few people were surprised to hear the positive effect of washing their clothes in cold water) or to engage in curious discussions (I was especially intrigued by the suggestion to eat more invasive species, which apparently can be a beneficial thing to do). This table had some extra resources for those who wanted to learn more about carbon footprints, and we recommended that people check out coolersmarter.org from the Union of Concerned Scientists to better understand their own habits and opportunities for improvement.

We also had our climate trivia wheel. The wheel lists different categories like food, water, oceans, security, and history. People spin it and receive a trivia question for the category the wheel lands on. Kids and adults alike tend to get into this game.

We decided to incorporate some lawn games as well. We set up horseshoes with a stake that was nearer to the starting line (labeled “Reduce emissions 40% in 12 years,” which the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act would do) and another farther away (“Reduce emissions 90% in 50 years”). There was also a croquet set that encouraged players to hit their ball (representing the bill) through the hoops, which were labeled with important milestones like “Bill passes the House of Representatives” and “Bill goes to Senate Committee.” We had a disc golf game with a similar goal — can you throw the frisbee and knock down your target? It’s challenging, just like passing important legislation is.

Information: Of course, we set up a table with information about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act, including an overview of how it works, its benefits, and a list of the members of Congress who have cosponsored it. We also provided templates for people to write letters to their member of Congress at the party, which we’ll hand deliver when we visit their offices. We were excited to have a volunteer from another community climate organization, Mothers Out Front. Even veteran CCLers could learn about why and how they’re advocating for electric school buses, among other things.

Feedback: Most of the feedback we received was informal — people sharing how glad they were to learn about the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act or to engage in great discussion with people they hadn’t met before. We did make a survey to understand what people thought of the party and their thoughts about the bill after the event. We shared this with a few guests who we knew well and who aren’t (yet) part of our organization, and we received 6 responses. Most of these guests reported greater understanding of a carbon fee and dividend and were more likely to support the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act after the party. They also shared a range of activities that they plan to start doing to contribute to climate action, like engaging in more conversations about the topic.

Looking back on the party, I’m confident that we shared helpful information about Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act with new audiences, which is great. But to me, the opportunity to talk to new people with different backgrounds and perspectives from mine, to learn from each other, and to walk away with a renewed optimism and commitment to working on climate were what made the event such a success.

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Add climate change to the agenda during this Women’s Wave

This weekend, women around the world will march in the third annual Women’s March. It will bring diverse women and communities together to push for progressive social change. This is important because women’s rights are so deeply entangled with nearly every other aspect of our lives — including the unignorable climate change.

Women disproportionately suffer from the consequences of climate change. This is because the majority of the world’s poor are women, and climate change especially affects poorer communities. These communities tend to directly rely on natural resources for their livelihood and have few resources for responding to natural disasters [1,2]. Richer countries continue to exacerbate climate change, while poorer ones suffer the most immediate and tragic impacts. At the same time, women are frequently cut off from resources that could help them cope with the effects of climate change and are underrepresented in decision-making bodies that provide opportunities for mitigation [3].

Yet in many cases, women are behind powerful, effective, and equitable solutions to climate change. The podcast Mothers of Invention has turned me onto the many ways in which “Climate change is a man-made problem — with a feminist solution.” In each episode former Irish President Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins discuss responses to climate change that help counteract the inequitable effects of climate change. More in-depth features of some of these “mothers of invention” can be found in Robinson’s book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future.

There are concrete solutions we can adopt to mitigate climate change and its disproportional  impacts. Thanks to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), I’ve recently learned about the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a proposal that was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018, that sets out a plan for addressing climate change in a way that benefits all Americans. Here’s how it works:

  • It imposes a fee on fossil fuels. It starts low (much lower than estimates of the damages fossil fuels incur) and gradually increases. In this way, it incentivizes industry to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels.
  • The government collects this fee and distributes an equal share to all Americans. The government does not keep any of the revenue, which means the government does not expand. It also means that Americans have more money to spend as they wish.
  • Imported goods will also be assessed a border carbon adjustment, and exported goods will receive a refund. This will protect U.S. jobs and manufacturers.

Independent assessments of this proposal have revealed that not only will it be make substantial progress in reducing climate change, decreasing emissions by at least 40% within 12 years. This means it will be good for people, who will benefit from a safer planet and better health and wellbeing.

Since every American will receive the same dividend through this policy, it will disproportionately benefit low-income Americans, as the same sum of money makes a greater impact for people who have less to begin with.

If passed, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act will help prevent extreme climate change without exacerbating inequality. To make sure it is passed, we need to communicate our support to elected officials. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) provides resources to make writing, calling, and tweeting to Representatives easy. If you’re as excited as I am about the bill, you can also join CCL to make sure our country takes this important step forward for the environment, the economy, and social justice.


Cover Image by Mobilus In Mobili, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women%27s_March_on_Washington_(32593123745).jpg

Climate change is a people problem

The Earth is warming. It’s because of humans, and it will negatively affect nearly every area of human life. The scientific consensus is robust and clear: we don’t need more research to conclude that climate change is happening because of human activities, is already harming our planet and people, and will have even more catastrophic consequences if it’s not curbed.

It might seem logical, then, that we, individually and collectively, would make rapid changes to mitigate climate change. We’d pass policies that ensure we stop relying on fossil fuels, we’d invest in technologies that improve our ability to stop climate change and adapt when necessary, and we’d adopt more sustainable lifestyles, changing how we travel, shop, and eat. But these things aren’t happening with nearly the speed they need to, and history shows that this inaction is not new.

This is because climate change is a people problem. Both in considering the causes of climate change and the things that need to happen to stop it, people are front and center. People make decisions about policies, about how to spend money, and about how to live their lives.

This means that in order to address climate change, we need to start with an understanding of people. Although we will absolutely benefit from more work that advances our understanding of climate change itself and how we can mitigate it, we also need to drastically increase our prioritization of the social sciences in addressing climate change and all the challenges it brings.

Social scientists can help us understand the human dimensions of climate change, an understanding that is crucial for making sufficient progress in addressing it. The social sciences — fields like psychology, sociology, economics, geography, political science, history, and anthropology — equip us with ways to study and understand how people think about climate change and how they come to develop their beliefs; how our cultures and communities affect our beliefs and actions; what makes for a successful social movement; and how climate change will affect our political, food, and economic systems. The social sciences inform our understandings from the most specific levels (like how individuals behave in different circumstances) to the broadest (such as a consideration of human evolution across the planet over thousands of years).

We need to remember that people play the leading role in our planet’s climate change saga, and, accordingly, to prioritize the social sciences in everything we do to address climate change.

More Reading
If you’re interested in learning more about the role that the social sciences can (and should!) play in addressing climate change, here are just a few articles and organizations that I’ve found helpful and inspiring:

  • Rare: A nonprofit organization. From their website: “Rare is a global leader in using behavior change to achieve long-lasting conservation results.”
  • Climate Central: an organization that researches climate change and reports on it to the public. They’re deliberate about basing their communications in social science research to determine the best ways to get their messages to the public.
  • Humans are not just the problem; they are the solution to climate change, an article by Prof. Karen O’Brien, which discusses different levels, from individual behaviors to collective worldviews, that affect how people respond to climate change.
  • Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation by Nathan J. Bennet et al., an article about the importance of elevating the social sciences in order to improve conservation policy and practices.

Scientists agree on climate change: How should we communicate that?

Scientists agree: humans are causing climate change, and if we don’t drastically change our behavior, there will be catastrophic consequences.

The Consensus Handbook, a recent publication by communication researchers John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Stephen Lewandowsky provides a clear and concise compilation of research on communicating scientists’ consensus on climate change. Here are some of my highlights from the report*.

First, what percentage of scientists agree? There are a number of ways to measure consensus — examining published research, surveying scientists, or studying public statements made by scientists, for example. Different researchers have studied this question in a variety of ways, but each result has suggested that 91-100% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring. The majority of these studies actually converge on the estimate the 97% of scientists agree, which is why many of the studies that research the effects of consensus messaging use that number. Regardless, agreement is high. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe addresses this consensus in a great video on her channel Global Weirding.

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Does the public realize how high scientific consensus is? No.

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Why is there a gap between public perception of scientific agreement and actual scientific agreement? There are two primary culprits. The first, the authors refer to as a “cultural bias.” On average, people who are more conservative report lower consensus than those that are farther to the left. This report doesn’t delve into too much detail on the role of people’s ideological worldview in shaping how they think about climate change, but work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about here) is one resource for learning more about that.

The second — and larger — cause of the perception gap is a combination of a lack of information and misinformation. Misinformation campaigns have been relatively successful at confusing the public about scientific consensus on climate change. The most notable is probably the Global Warming Petition Project, in which “people” (some of whom are not real people and many of whom are not scientists) have signed a petition urging the US government to reject global warming agreements.

Adding fuel to the misinformation fire, the media often shows contrarian and climate scientist opinions in comparable ways, suggesting that there is a balance and that climate change is still an issue of debate among scientists.

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Why is it important for the public to know the true consensus on climate change? Research has shown that it’s a gateway belief:

what people think about expert agreement influences a range of other key climate attitudes, including whether global warming is real, caused by humans, resulting in serious impacts and importantly, whether we should act to solve it.

Since communicating consensus is also helpful for encouraging people to embrace other crucial beliefs held by climate scientists, the authors comment that “the 97% consensus offers a lot of bang for one’s communication buck.”

Given the importance of understanding scientific consensus, how should we communicate about it? The handbook offers a number of evidence-driven suggestions:

  • Use the number (97%). This is more effective than a description of the consensus as “an overwhelming majority” for convincing people of the reality of the consensus.
  • Consider a pie chart to show consensus. A study led by van der Linden (which I’ve written about previously) showed that the pie chart was more convincing than a simple description or analogy.
  • Encourage people to estimate consensus first. Revealing the consensus after people have estimated it has been shown to be more influential than simply revealing the same information.
  • Inoculate against misinformation (I’ve also written about this strategy). Research shows that people can encounter misinformation about the consensus and still come away with favorable climate attitudes if they’ve been warned about tactics that contrarians often use before they encounter them.

These are all promising tactics for communicating the climate change consensus, but amid these nuanced strategies, we should also not lose sight of the golden rule:

  • People need to encounter straightforward and clear messages that are repeated often and from a range of sources.

*All are figures from Cook, J., van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Lewandowsky, S. (2018). The Consensus Handbook. DOI:10.13021/G8MM6P. Available at http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/all/consensus-handbook/

Cover image from NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/images/index.html

Climate change and mental health

Sometimes I think about climate change and feel a gripping fear. I might step outside to a 60-degree day in the middle of January or read an article about the worsening state of our air, land, and sea, and experience a sudden panic. I have a feeling of impending doom, lack of control, anger at decision-makers who aren’t doing enough to fix this global problem.

But that’s just me.

How does climate change affect other people’s mental health? In previous posts, I’ve written about how the way climate change is framed can affect the way people think about it — whether they think it’s a real threat and what they might be willing to do about it. This post takes acceptance of climate change as a starting point, and focuses on the psychological effects of perceived and actual effects of climate change. Once climate change is accepted or experienced as a reality, what are its impacts on mental health?

A recent study revealed two distinct responses. While some people have little anxiety, others experience substantial stress, and in some cases, depression, to their perception of the impacts of climate change. What causes different people to have such different reactions? The researchers examined the extent to which people had egoistic concern (about the effects of climate change on themselves), altruistic concern (about the effects of climate change on others, such as future generations), and biospheric concern (about nature, plants, and animals). They found that people with biospheric concern reported the highest levels of stress related to climate change, as well as the highest levels of depression.

Other reviews (1)(2) describe additional mental health conditions that, for some people, are linked to the gradual effects of climate change. These include anxiety, depression, and substance use. We can also expect climate change to negatively impact physical health — for example leading to increases in asthma, allergies, exposure to pests and toxic substances, and heat-related death, and a decrease in general fitness.

The gradual effects of climate change will continue to wear away at our mental and physical health until we address the problem.

The sudden effects of climate change are also harmful to mental health. As natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, they threaten the mental health of those who are directly affected. One project that shows these mental health impacts clearly is the The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (“RISK”) Project. For this project, the researchers had already begun a longitudinal study of vulnerable women (poor single mothers in community college) in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, they continued to conduct surveys and interviews of these women, which allowed them to better understand the tolls that a natural disaster can take on mental health, particularly for people who are already vulnerable.

An article on “Katrina Brain” reports what they found: 4 years after the storm, 20% of their participants still reported anxiety and depression that was higher than they had reported before the storm. A small group of participants reported even more serious mental health impacts like PTSD. The mental health impacts of storms like Katrina tend to be especially bad for people with low incomes and those without strong social supports.

Fortunately, about a third of the participants reported “post-traumatic growth,” a sign of resilience. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all completely doomed to psychological ruin when disasters hit, but it’s not consolation for the “psychological scars” that disasters like Katrina inflict on those who are directly affected and most vulnerable.


Cover photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

The Pope’s #scicomm: Effects of Laudato si’ on beliefs about climate change

Climate change is an extremely polarized issue: while many people firmly believe scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is ruining the planet and our health, many others adamantly maintain that it is not a problem. Figuring out how to communicate the gravity of climate change has been an urgent puzzle for climate change scientists and communicators (a topic I’ve written quite a bit about).

Collectively, we’re trying many different ways of communicating this issue. I especially love these videos by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and others by researcher M. Sanjayan with the University of California and Vox. Pope Francis also contributes to the scicomm effort — in 2015 he published an encyclical called Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which called for global action toward climate change (he also gave a copy of this encyclical to Donald Trump recently when the two met).

Was Laudato si’ effective?

Did the document influence beliefs about the seriousness of climate change and its effects on the poor? Recent research by Asheley Landrum and colleagues took up this question.

The work is based on survey results from Americans — the same people reported their beliefs about climate change before and after the encyclical came out.

They found that the encyclical did not directly affect people’s beliefs about the seriousness of climate change or its disproportionate effects on the poor.

But… the encyclical did affect people’s views of the pope’s credibility on climate change, encouraging them to see him as more of an authority after the document was published than before. This was especially true for liberals, though, reflecting a sort of echo chamber effect: people who already found climate change to be an issue gave the pope more credit for his stances on climate change after he published the encyclical.

Importantly, these altered views of the pope’s credibility did in turn affect how much people agreed with the pope’s message on climate change. In other words, there wasn’t a direct effect from the publication of the encyclical to agreement with its message; instead, there was first an effect of the document on beliefs about the pope’s credibility, and then an effect of those credibility assessments on agreement with the pope’s message.

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This work reminds us that science communication efforts can’t be considered in isolation. Whether people agree with a message is influenced by factors like their political beliefs and the credibility of the source. This point calls for two directions for future scicomm: for one, communicators should do their best to consider their message and audience holistically — what factors are likely to shape an audience’s receptiveness to a message, and how can those be influenced? This work also reminds us that we need more research on the science of science communication. We need to continue working to understand how people perceive scientific issues and communicators, and how they respond to the scicomm they encounter.


Featured Image: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

Scientists Agree on Climate Change: A Gateway Belief

 

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https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

It doesn’t get much clearer. The Earth’s climate is warming. Humans are the reason. But how many people are actually aware of the scientific consensus on this issue?

Research by Sander van der Linden and colleagues shows that when people believe that scientists overwhelmingly agree about climate change, they increase their a) own beliefs in climate change and b) beliefs that humans are responsible. They feel c) more worried about climate change, and as a result of a, b, and c, they support public action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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At the beginning of the study, participants indicated the percentage of scientists they thought agree on global warming and they answered some questions about their own climate change beliefs. People then received a message about scientific consensus, which took the form either of a) a simple description, b) a pie chart, or c) a metaphorical comparison related to trusting engineers’ consensus about bridges (i.e., if 97% of engineers agreed that a bridge was unsafe, would you use it?) or doctors’ consensus about illness. All the messages included the info that “97 % of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Then participants again indicated what percent of scientists they thought agree on global warming and answered questions about their own beliefs. All messages “worked,” in the sense that people perceived greater scientific agreement after the messages telling them that 97% of scientists agree than if they hadn’t read anything about the consensus at all (though the simple description and pie chart were more effective than the metaphor. People shifted their climate change beliefs more after encountering one of the more straightforward messages than the more complex metaphor. Great food for thought, as many science communicators insert metaphors wherever they can).

Of course, having people believe that there’s strong scientific consensus about climate is only one step toward the larger goal of having them endorse actions that mitigate the effects of climate change. But in follow-up analyses, the researchers identified that perceiving scientific agreement is a gateway belief: believing that scientists agree about global warming led to other beliefs, ones that get us closer to the goal of actions in favor of mitigating climate change. Specifically, it led to greater belief that climate change was real, human-caused, and worrisome. These beliefs, in turn, led to greater support for public action against climate change. It’s often hard to know what leads to what, especially when it comes to beliefs we keep hidden in our own heads, but with some semi-fancy math, these researchers quantified those relationships.

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Climate 365 by NASA Goddard Space Space Flight Center. CC BY.

These studies have some clear takeaways for science communicators (especially when communicating about climate change — but maybe these ideas apply to other topics too — need more research!)

  • Emphasize scientific consensus, that an overwhelming percentage of scientists agree that climate change is a real problem caused by human activity.
  • Don’t worry so much about immediately pushing for public action against climate change. When people understand that scientists agree, they come to agree themselves that climate change is a problem that should be addressed, and THEN they come to support public action. Be careful about skipping steps.

At the same time, there’s not only one right way to communicate about climate change. There are truly effective ways, ineffective and potentially backfiring ways, and many in between. There aren’t cut-and-dry rules because every audience is unique, and taking the audience into account — their beliefs, values, and past experiences, for example — is crucial. But this work sheds light on communication strategies that are probably pretty far toward the “truly effective” end of the ways-to-communicate-climate-change continuum.

Communicating climate change: Focus on the framing, not just the facts

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How you package the information matters.
Frame image via www.shutterstock.com.

Rose Hendricks, University of California, San Diego

Humans are currently in a war against global warming. Or is it a race against global warming? Or maybe it’s just a problem we have to deal with? The Conversation

If you already consider climate change a pressing issue, you might not think carefully about the way you talk about it – regardless of how you discuss it, you already think of global warming as a problem. But the way we talk about climate change affects the way people think about it.

For scientific evidence to shape people’s actions – both personal behaviors like recycling and choices on policies to vote for – it’s crucial that science be communicated to the public effectively. Social scientists have been increasingly studying the science of science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. It turns out the language you use and how you frame the discussion can make a big difference.

The paradox of science communication

“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced but agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in the science of science communication.

Kahan’s work shows that just because someone has scientific knowledge, he or she won’t necessarily hold science-supported beliefs about controversial topics like global warming, private gun possession or fracking.

Instead, beliefs are shaped by the social groups people consider themselves to be a part of. We’re all simultaneously members of many social groups – based, for example, on political or religious affiliation, occupation or sexuality. If people are confronted with scientific evidence that seems to attack their group’s values, they’re likely to become defensive. They may consider the evidence they’ve encountered to be flawed, and strengthen their conviction in their prior beliefs.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence does sometimes contradict some groups’ values. For example, some religious people trust a strict reading of the Bible: God said there would be four seasons, and hot and cold, so they don’t worry about the patterns in climate that alarm scientists. In cases like this one, how can communicators get their message across?

A growing body of research suggests that instead of bombarding people with piles of evidence, science communicators can focus more on how they present it. The problem isn’t that people haven’t been given enough facts. It’s that they haven’t been given facts in the right ways. Researchers often refer to this packaging as framing. Just as picture frames enhance and draw attention to parts of an image inside, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas.

One framing technique Kahan encourages is disentangling facts from people’s identities. Biologist Andrew Thaler describes one way of doing so in a post called “When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science.” Instead, he talks about things that are important to his audiences, such as fishing, flooding, farming, faith and the future. These issues that matter to the people with whom he’s communicating become an entry into discussing global warming. Now they can see scientific evidence as important to their social group identity, not contradictory to it.

Let me rephrase that

Metaphors also provide frames for talking about climate change. Recent work by psychologists Stephen Flusberg, Paul Thibodeau and Teenie Matlock suggests that the metaphors we use to describe global warming can influence people’s beliefs and actions.

Ready for combat?
Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

The researchers asked 3,000 Americans on an online platform to read a short fictional news article about climate change. The articles were exactly the same, but they used different metaphors: One referred to the “war against” and another to the “race against” climate change. For example, each article included phrases about the U.S. seeking to either “combat” (war) or “go after” (race) excessive energy use.

After reading just one of these passages, participants answered questions about their global warming beliefs, like how serious global warming is and whether they would be willing to engage in more pro-environmental behaviors.

Metaphors mattered. Reading about the “war” against global warming led to greater agreement with scientific evidence showing it is real and human-caused. This group of participants indicated more urgency for reducing emissions, believed global warming poses a greater risk and responded that they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than people who read about the “race” against global warming.

The only difference between the articles that participants read was the metaphors they included. Why would reading about a war rather than a race affect people’s beliefs about climate change in such important ways?

The researchers suggest that when we encounter war metaphors, we are reminded (though not always consciously) of other war-related concepts like death, destruction, opposition and struggle. These concepts affect our emotions and remind us of the negative feelings and consequences of defeat. With those war-related thoughts in mind, we may be motivated to avoid losing. If we have these war thoughts swimming around in our minds when we think about global warming, we’re more likely to believe it’s important to defeat the opponent, which, in this case, is global warming.

There are other analogies that are good at conveying the causes and consequences for global warming. Work by psychologists Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki suggests it helps to point out how global warming is similar to many medical diseases. For both, risks are often caused or aggravated by human behaviors, the processes are often progressive, they produce symptoms outside the normal range of past experiences, there are uncertainties in the prognosis of future events, treatment often involves trade-offs or side effects, it’s usually most effective to treat the underlying problem instead of just alleviating symptoms and they’re hard to reverse.

People who read the medical disease analogy for climate change were more likely to agree with the science-backed explanations for global warming causes and consequences than those who read a different analogy or no analogy at all.

Golden past or rosy future?

Climate change messages can also be framed by focusing on different time periods. Social psychologists Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers asked people to read either a past-focused climate change message (like “Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”) or a similar future-focused message (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”).

The researchers found that self-identified conservatives, who tend to resist climate change messages more than liberals, agreed that we should change how we interact with the planet more after reading the past-focused passage. Liberals, on the other hand, reported liking the future-focused frame better, but the frames had no influence on their environmental attitudes.

Example of a past-focused image (top) and a future-focused image (bottom) of a reservoir.
Image courtesy of NASA. Used in Baldwin and Lammers, PNAS December 27, 2016 vol. 113 no. 52 14953-14957.

And the frames didn’t have to be words. Conservatives also shifted their beliefs to be more pro-environmental after seeing past-focused images (satellite images that progressed from the past to today) more than after seeing future-focused ones (satellite images that progressed from today into the future). Liberals showed no differences in their attitudes after seeing the two frames.

Many climate change messages focus on the potential future consequences of not addressing climate change now. This research on time-framing suggests that such a forward-looking message may in fact be unproductive for those who already tend to resist the idea.

There’s no one-size-fits-all frame for motivating people to care about climate change. Communicators need to know their audience and anticipate their reactions to different messages. When in doubt, though, these studies suggest science communicators might want to bring out the big guns and encourage people to fire away in this war on climate change, while reminding them how wonderful the Earth used to be before our universal opponent began attacking full force.

Rose Hendricks, Ph.D. Candidate in Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Past vs. Future Frames for Communicating Climate Change

Climate change (is it happening? how problematic is it? and are humans responsible?) is a partisan issue. Work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about before) shows that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that climate change is not a result of human activity and that if unchanged, it will not be as destructive as many people claim. Researchers Matthew Baldwin & Joris Lammers explore the possibility that partisan differences in beliefs about climate change might result from differences in the way conservatives and liberals tend to think about time (their temporal focus).

Their starting point was that previous research has shown that conservatives focus more on the past than liberals do. Then they tested two competing frames: one was future-focused (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”) and the other was past-focused (“Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”). Each participant read just one of these, and then reported their attitudes about climate change and the environment. They found that conservatives reported liking the past-focused message better than the future-focused one and also reported higher environmental attitudes after the past- compared to the future-focused frame.

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They replicated these findings in additional experiments with variations. For example, in one test, instead of using linguistic frames to draw attention to either the past or the future, they used satellite images, either showing a progression from the past to today or a forecasted progression from today to the future. Again, conservatives reported more proenvironmental attitudes after viewing past-focused images than future-focused ones.

Next they investigated the temporal focus that real environmental charities tend to use. Not surprisingly, they found that the charities’ messages disproportionately express future consequences, with less focus on the past. Following up on this, they presented participants with money that they could divide among two (fake) charities (one whose message was strongly past- and one whose message was strongly future-focused), or they could keep some or all of it. They saw each charity’s logo and mission statement (the past-focused one stated: “Restoring the planet to its original state” and the future one: “Creating a new Earth for the future”).

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Conservatives donated more to the past- than the future-oriented charity. Liberals did the opposite. Further, looking at just the past-oriented charity, conservatives donated more than liberals did. Looking just at the future-oriented one, the opposite pattern emerges. This is a very beautiful interaction (plus the researchers did a few other experiments with slightly varied methods and a meta-analysis, all of which add some weight to these findings).

Considering the finding that climate change communications rely heavily on future-focused appeals, these findings should really make us pause. Is it possible that climate change issues themselves may not actually be what divides conservatives and liberals so much, but instead the way they’re communicated might be driving much of the disagreement between them? My intuition is that framing is not entirely to blame for conservatives’ and liberals’ divergent beliefs about climate change, but this work shows that it may be a big part of the story. It certainly won’t hurt for communicators to start diversifying our temporal frames for discussing climate change.


For more consideration on this topic, see earlier posts: Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it; Narratives for Communicating Climate Change; and The paradox of science communication and the new science to resolve it.

All figures from Baldwin, M. & Lammers, J. (2016) Past-focused environmental comparisons proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives. PNAS, 113(52), 14953-14957.

For a discussion of why the framing described in this paper might not be enough to change conservatives’ minds about climate change, see This one weird trick will not convince conservatives to fight climate change, by David Roberts for Vox.

Climate change is like a medical disease

I recently wrote for PLOS SciComm about a very cool study on the benefits of using analogies to talk about climate change (aptly called The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change). The researchers found that using any analogy (comparing climate change to a medical disease, a courtroom, or a natural disaster) was helpful, but that the medical disease analogy in particular helped people consider important aspects of climate change that often polarize people along political party lines.

Please check out the full piece here!