February 8, 2024
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It turns out that a pessimistic approach does not always stimulate climate action. New study tells you when it works and when it doesn’t
Another year of record burning of fossil fuels that has caused record global temperatures. Time is running out to solve the climate crisis and a catastrophe is looming. He’s probably used to these kinds of headlines and, if he’s like us, he’s already had his blues moment where he felt hopeless about the future. But can doom-induced hopelessness be turned into meaningful change? Our recent global study says yes, but these messages must be used wisely.
In 2019, David Wallace-Wells published the archetypal portrait of climate catastrophe. in his book The uninhabitable Earth: life after warming He painted a terrifying landscape of the suffering that awaits us if we do not address climate change. Like those grim headlines, she left many people paralyzed by helplessness, fear and disbelief.
Not everyone is a fan of pessimistic messages. Climate scientists like Michael Mann have warned against climate “doomerism,” messages that can depress and demoralize the public, assuming that helplessness will simply lead to greater climate inaction. And the title of a new book by Hannah Ritchie clearly says that it is It’s not the end of the world: how we can be the first generation to build a sustainable planet.
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However, there is some evidence that pessimistic messages can spur climate action, as long as they reach the right ears at the right time. For example, research has found that climate distress, climate anger, and climate anxiety are associated with greater climate action in some circumstances.
To help determine the precise impact of climate doomism, we recently completed one of the largest experiments ever conducted on the behavior of climate change. Together with an international team of 255 other behavioral scientists and climate change experts, we tested the effects of 11 top psychological messages aimed at driving climate awareness and action. This allowed us to test the impact of pessimistic messages against other important messages about climate change (selected by our team of experts).
We recruited a large, diverse sample of more than 59,440 participants from 63 countries and tested interventions ranging from emphasizing scientific consensus (for example, noting that “99 percent of expert climate scientists” agree on the facts of climate change ), or the widespread concern of others (e.g., a majority of people in each nation are concerned), to emphasizing the consequences in one’s own region (e.g., increased frequency and severity of wildfires and floods) or the effects of change climate change in future generations (for example, asking participants to imagine writing a letter about their actions regarding climate change that would be read decades from now).
Our article was recently published in the magazine. Scientific advances, where our findings revealed that pessimistic messages were very effective in stimulating information sharing about climate change, such as posting on the Internet or social media, where negativity reigns. In light of these findings, Wallace-Wells was right to use this style of messaging in her writings.
But Mann and Ritchie were also right to assume that pessimism can demoralize the public and lead them to inaction. We found that this strategy had no effect on political support or climate beliefs; For these results, the most effective interventions were writing a letter to a member of the future generation explaining the climate actions one takes today, or thinking about the consequences of climate change in their region. Pessimism even backfired when it came to more effortful behavior. Listening to these messages actually diminished people’s pro-environmental behavior, which we measure as the effort dedicated to planting trees. Faced with the enormous risks of the climate crisis, actions at the individual level may seem futile.
Therefore, pessimistic messages can do both: induce helplessness and discourage action at the individual level; but also motivate people to spread the word.
Many other messages also failed or backfired when the going got tough. This highlights how difficult it really is to mobilize real, effortful action on climate change. This is why collective action, rather than focusing on individual actions, might be necessary to trigger real progress.
We also found that different people responded differently to different climate messages and that this varies from country to country. To design the most effective messages, scientists and policymakers will need to tailor them to the right audience. To see the effects of our interventions on dimensions such as country of residence, income level, age, ideological inclination, socioeconomic status, gender and also the type of climate action targeted, we created an open access web application and Easy to use.
To our disappointment, we did not find any silver bullets to boost climate action. But our research found several messages that changed beliefs and actions about climate change. This suggests that understanding how different messages work and in what contexts will be critical to changing beliefs, spreading the message, and mobilizing action.
This is an article of opinion and analysis, and the opinions expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.