Is there a right way to talk about climate change?

In three different tests, the authors of a study found that 'emphasizing collective responsibility for the causes of climate change' – rather than focusing on personal guilt – increased monetary donations to environmental causes.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
French President Francois Hollande (2nd from L) listens as he holds a press conference with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Segolene Royal (L) and Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres listen on the sidelines of the Paris Agreement on climate change at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016.

Framing climate change as a collective, rather than individual, problem can make Americans care more about the issue, say two doctoral candidates in political science at UC San Diego in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Climatic Change.

Contrary to popular opinion, climate communication researchers say personal appeals are largely ineffective. Instead of focusing on individual guilt and fear to illicit environmental action, activists, organizations, and politicians will see better results by framing the issue of climate change as a collective effort already moving in the right direction.

“It is widely assumed that emphasizing personal responsibility for climate change is effective at increasing pro-climate behavior whereas collectively framing the causes of climate change diffuses responsibility and dampens the incentive for individual action,” authors Nick Obradovich and Scott Guenther explain in their paper. “We observe the opposite result.”

After three different tests, Obradovich and Guenther found that “emphasizing collective responsibility for the causes of climate change,” instead of shaming through personal guilt, increases monetary donations to environmental causes. On average, environmental group members increased their donations by seven percent when the issue was framed collectively, and the general public increased individual donations by 50 percent.

“I think this makes perfect sense,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, tells the Monitor. “The public understands that individual actions are like a drop in the ocean. If we are asking people to take action as individuals, people recognize the fallacy in this.” 

And because individuals recognize this fallacy, environmental advocates will go to great lengths to contradict the idea that individual action is trivial, often resorting to messages of guilt or fear.

But this type of approach will often work against initial motives, say researchers.  

“‘Climate change is your fault.’ That’s terrible! Who wants to agree with that?” says Susan Joy Hassol, director of the group Climate Communication and senior science writer for three National Climate Assessments. “And when people feel at fault, their defense mechanisms are triggered. ‘Fault’ almost makes you feel like you did it on purpose and it reduces people’s willingness to act. The words we choose really do make a difference when communicating climate change.”

By employing “catastrophic rhetoric,” activists’ messages – no matter how well intentioned – will likely fall on deaf ears.

Obradovich says such messages can induce a sense of cognitive dissonance, a discomfort at observing the contrast between one's beliefs and actions, and decide to distance themselves. This discomfort can prompt stronger action to help the cause, but more frequently than not, says Obradovich, people will become pessimistic about their own potential to act as a change agent and then distance themselves from the issue of climate change altogether. 

“Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial,” explains a frequently cited paper from 2009 titled "Fear Won’t Do It."

Portraying climate change as a collective problem, by contrast, can encourage a positive response with tangible results. 

“Framing it collectively can bring more hope, like ‘Yes, we can do it,’” adds Hassol. “Acting alone, what can I do? But acting together there is a better sense of efficacy that we can actually do something about it.”

And the correct framing choice (even just once) can produce long-term results, says Obradovich. 

“A couple of days later we had the same people come back, and we observed similar effects: the collective [framing] groups still gave more,” he explains. “This was surprising because we don’t see that a lot in a social science [experiment], that the treatment effects persist over days. This means you could give a personal message of climate change and this will turn them off from acting now and in the future.”

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