Research says climate change messages can’t be all doom and gloom. That research also says they can’t be too hopeful. Mostly, it says we need to work together. (More)

Psychology and Policy, Part III: Teaching Climate Science, Encouraging Positive Change (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers how insights from psychology and behavioral economics should shape public policy. Thursday we began with the standard economic theory of disclosure, which libertarians and conservatives often cite as the solution for all market failures. Yesterday we saw how research in psychology and behavioral economics challenges the standard theory, and how that research can improve public policy on disclosure. Today we conclude with how insights from psychology could improve our discussion of climate change.

“Like screeching feedback from a microphone”

Science confirms that life on earth is doomed. A meteor or asteroid collision could wipe us out, as it did the dinosaurs. Even if we find ways to intercept and redirect space rocks, a gamma ray burst could strike without warning and kill us all. Yes, an extinction-level supereruption at Yellowstone is ridiculously unlikely, but it’s all but certain that our sun will someday grow into a red giant that scorches us to death before it shrinks into a white dwarf, casting pale shadows across the lifeless cinder that was once our home. Fortunately, our sun should have at least a billion relatively stable years left.

But we may not. Even if we avoid all those disasters, we could kill ourselves off – and take a lot of other species with us – long before the sun burns out. We may already have reached an irreversible climate change tipping point. If not, scientists say we could reach several other tipping points in the next few decades. And if North Atlantic and North Pacific heat exchange patterns fall into synch:

Over a period of 10 years, the OSU team examined marine sediment cores recovered off southeast Alaska. These geologic records of climate change portrayed a detailed history of changing temperatures on a scale of decades to centuries over many thousands of years.

They found that once the North Pacific and North Atlantic were in sync with each other, they began to change more and more until both oceans experienced an abrupt warming event of several degrees within a few decades.

“As the systems become synchronized, they organized and reinforced each other, eventually running away like screeching feedback from a microphone,” explained co-author Alan Mix, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Yikes. I give up.

“Clinging to the last memories we will have”

And that’s pretty much how we respond to doomsday scenarios, according to a study by climate change researchers Saffron O’Neil and Sophie Nicholson-Cole:

Some literature suggests that using fearful representations of climate change may be counterproductive. The authors explore this assertion in the context of two empirical studies that investigated the role of visual, and iconic, representations of climate change for public engagement respectively. Results demonstrate that although such representations have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement.

They titled their paper “Fear Won’t Do It,” and University of Arizona environmental science professor Diana Liverman found the same thing in her classes:

I’ve been teaching college undergraduates about the environment for 20 years. Like many others, I focus on how humans are changing the earth system through pollution, deforestation, resource exploitation and climate change. I school them on the inadequacies of environmental policy and try to shock them out of complacency and into action.

Problem was, it wasn’t working. Many students left my class feeling despondent and powerless. As one wrote to me, “what you have taught me makes me desperately sad, clinging to the last memories we will have of the planet as the world chooses material comfort over breathing fresh air.”

Oops. She continues:

So I decided to change my narrative. However negative I might feel about the environmental future, I started to include many more positive and hopeful examples and analyses in my lectures. For example, when looking at the American landscape, instead of focusing mostly on pollution, soil erosion and species extinction, I emphasized the transformative influences of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson in protecting landscapes and conserving wildlife.

Rather than lament the failures of U.S. policy to reduce climate risks, I point out how four decades of laws helped clean up our air and waterways, saving lives, money and ecosystems.

She also talked about how we reached a global agreement to halt the pollution that was killing the ozone layer, halved global poverty, and gave millions more people access to clean drinking water. In short, she talked about solutions.

But that may work either. Sigh.

“Portraying science as rapidly progressing … is detrimental to environmentally friendly behaviour”

The challenge lies in the psychology of personal motivation:

Four experiments show that portraying science as rapidly progressing—and thus enabling society to control problems related to the natural environment and human health in the not-too-distant future—is detrimental to environmentally friendly behaviour because such a frame affirms perceptions of an orderly (vs chaotic) world. This in turn negatively affects the likelihood of engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour. Simultaneously, communication that questions (vs affirms) scientific progress leads to lower perceptions of order and consequential increases in environmentally friendly behaviour. These findings show that when the aim is to promote environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviour, it helps to not overstate scientific progress.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Tania Lombrozo explains further:

The predictions motivating this research are grounded in the theory of “compensatory control.” The basic idea is that we find feelings of chaos and disorder aversive, so we react by exercising or affirming control of some form — be it “personal” (like individual actions) or “external” (like successful science). When personal control is high, the need for external control is diminished. And when external control is high, the need for personal control is diminished.

Affirming scientific progress is one way to increase feelings of external control, but it isn’t the only one. Previous research finds that affirming a strong government or a powerful God can have the same effect. So it’s likely that messages of effective governmental action, or of a powerful and benevolent God, could similarly reduce environmentally friendly behavior. (A related idea, which generates the same predictions, is that identifying another entity as responsible for addressing climate change – or as likely to effectively do so – could decrease the sense that one should or must act as an individual.)

That last part seems related to the bystander effect, where people in a crowd are more likely to wait for someone else to act, especially if no individual is personally responsible.

“Empower them to maximize their ‘handprint'”

Dr. Liverman seems to have been aware of those risks, as her new curriculum also emphasizes taking personal responsibility for climate change:

I tell students that they can reduce their own environmental footprint through conservation, recycling and changing consumption patterns; but I also empower them to maximize their “handprint” by spreading ideas, helping others or choosing a career that protects the environment.

I give examples of how individuals change laws, campaign for low carbon public transport and organize to elect officials who protect the environment. And I have students who lead campus “green” organizations – such as the “Compost Cats” that recycle campus, community and even zoo waste into compost – give guest lectures.

The new curriculum also has her leading by example:

To my surprise, this Pollyanna attitude has helped me as well. I invested in solar and water harvesting for my home, and I actively support local political candidates with strong environmental records. I’m glad I paid attention to my students and developed a more positive outlook.

That kind of effort can change a crowd from responsibility-diffusing apathy into peer-supported activism:

Our first priority here at the National Institute for Peer Support (NIPS) is to identify these potential activists and get them involved effectively in the climate change movement. We have learned in the peer support world that the most effective form of outreach is one-on-one, personal contact, “attraction, not promotion.” We need to ask our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, co-religionists – all our contacts: “What do you think about global warming?” and “What are you doing about it?”

Peer support is not just about outreach. It’s also about sustaining new behaviors, and research shows it helps when we’re trying to lose weight or to start exercising … or to reduce our carbon footprint.

Better messaging on climate change is not a matter of finding the perfect balance between doomsday and utopia. There is no such perfect balance. It’s a matter of finding positive steps we can take, right now, and taking those steps, together.


Happy Saturday!