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Psychology Aiding in Inciting Climate Action

Author: Emily Wong

Though Earth is warming rapidly—human activity is a major cause, above and beyond natural forces (i.e. anthropogenic climate change)—climate scientists have provided a wide variety of solutions at the individual, community, and policy level to mitigate the deleterious effects of climate change. These solutions, however, rely on mass participation. Mobilizing individuals and governments has been proven to be a rather difficult task for various reasons. One reasoning being the deliberate spread of disinformation from [oil] corporations (Egon, 2015). Therefore, the fight for a more sustainable planet goes beyond climate science alone; it will require a change in cultures (Hulme, 2009). The two questions now are: 1) How can we most effectively communicate the science, especially to those who deny the problem, and 2) How can we mobilize the masses to act? The remainder of this blog will highlight a few of the most influential psychological studies on climate science communication and ends with key findings from one of the newest findings.

Communicating climate science. Most research on climate change denialism primarily focus on getting people to simply recognize that there is a problem. Therefore, psychologists have contributed to the effort in finding effective ways to communicate climate science to said skeptics; here are a few effective ways to do so, backed by research:

  • Illustrate and stress the scientific consensus; this alone was effective enough to convince people of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) (Lewandowsky, Gignac & Vaughan, 2013).

  • Include links to sources, along with your argument can be effective in increasing acceptance of ACC, even if the reader doesn’t click on it (needs citation); simply knowing that they have the option of fact-checking you is enough to increase the likelihood of adopting that piece of information.

  • Communicate the mechanism(s) of climate change (Ranney & Clark, 2016). Though many of us know that climate change is occurring, few of us actually know the mechanism. Communicating the mechanism can look something like this: “The sun is constantly bombarding Earth with heat radiation in the form of UV, visible and infrared rays. Earth’s ozone layer is pretty good and pushing a good amount of [harmful] UV rays back into space. The remaining visible and infrared rays are absorbed into the Earth, though infrared can be reflected back into space. However, greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, trap the infrared rays and heat the planet. An excess amount of carbon dioxide traps too much infrared rays, thus heat, creating a less habitable planet.” A good explanation of this mechanism can be found here:

  • Identify gaps in knowledge and present ‘new’ evidence (Prininski & Horne, 2018). In a subreddit called, “Change My View”, users post their stance on an issue like climate change followed by, “Change My View.” Prininski & Horne (2018) showed that the most effective arguments that changed people’s minds included information that was not previously known to the person. This naturalistic study agrees with the experiments discussed above (e.g. Ranney & Clark, 2016).

Encouraging pro-climate actions. Beyond communicating the science, it’s important to understand how to mobilize people to act in environmentally friendly ways (e.g. recycling, reducing waste, thrifting, choosing clean/renewable forms of energy, etc.), because research has shown that even individuals who are fully convinced of the science are not always willing to act; in fact, nearly 80% of Americans do not take actions to promote pro-climate policies (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Rosenthal, Cutler & Kotcher, 2018). This isn’t to say that this inaction is intentional, however; we all know that it’s good to exercise regularly, yet we somehow fall short. Therefore, this last section will discuss a recent study that not only aims to correct erroneous beliefs, but to also increase willingness to take political action.

In a study conducted with my colleagues, we demonstrated that it is important to go beyond simply communicating climate science for the reason that climate science denial is embedded in an entire network of beliefs. In other words, someone who denies climate science is also likely to feel distrustful towards scientists in general. Therefore, it is important that individuals come to appreciate the scientific method in general, and understand how climate change impacts their communities, while also communicating climate science using the tips listed above. Doing these three things, we found that individuals were not only more appreciative of science in general but were more likely to take political action (e.g. vote for pro-climate legislation or participate in pro-climate demonstration). We found this method to be consistently effective across the political spectrum in the top ten most conservative states (in the United States) with respect to climate change. In essence, we need to provide a coherent explanation of climate science; it is critical to instill a general appreciation for science, show the impact of climate change on the individuals’ communities, and clearly communicate the science in an accessible way.

Works Cited

Egan, Timothy (5 November 2020)."Exxon Mobil and the G.O.P.: Fossil Fools”. The New York Times. Retrieved 22 July 2020.

Hulme, M. (2009). Why we disagree about climate change: Understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity. Cambridge University Press.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Rosenthal, S., Cutler, M., & Kotcher, J. (2018). Climate change in the American mind: March 2018. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G.E. & Vaughan, S. (2013). The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), pp. 399-404.

Priniski, John, and Zachary Horne. "Attitude Change on Reddit's Change My View." CogSci. 2018.

Ranney, M. A., & Clark, D. (2016). Climate change conceptual change: Scientific information can transform attitudes. Topics in cognitive science, 8(1), 49-75.

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