Climate change is a threat. But what sort of threat?
Generally, climate change is described as a threat to our environment and natural resources. With increased stress on already straining global resource systems, the effects of climate change on our natural environment will be measured in reduced crop yields and water shortages.
Climate change is sometimes framed as a threat to our economic prosperity. The Stern report famously argued that in order to maintain economic growth in the face of rapid climatic changes, 1% of global GDP should be spent on climate mitigation now in order to prevent much more being spent later. Although other economists are far less optimistic about the prospect of infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources, it is now widely acknowledged that tackling climate change will have a significant financial cost.
But while the effects of climate change pose very real, measurable threats to our natural world and our economic systems, tackling climate change will also mean facing up to a less tangible but no less profound threat: the threat of climate change to our identity and self esteem.
In a paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology last month, Paul Sparks and colleagues from the University of Sussex reported two experiments that suggest that climate change doesn’t only threaten the physical world – it threatens our mental world too.
In the first experiment, Sparks and his co-authors asked students from the University of Sussex to read six short pieces of ‘threatening’ text about climate change taken from newspapers and books. They then indicated their level of agreement with 15 statements that reflected various types of climate change denial – from denial of the severity of the problem, to denial of self-involvement.
Half of the group also completed a task designed to affirm people’s sense of their own kindness by writing a list of kind and compassionate behaviour that they have engaged in recently. The group who had completed the self-affirmation task reported a higher level of self-involvement – that is, the people who felt better about themselves were less likely to deny their personal responsibility for climate change.
In the second experiment, the researchers used a similar method but measured people’s willingness to recycle. The self-affirmed group expressed stronger intentions to increase the amount they recycled in the next month, suggesting that people’s motivation to engage in a specific pro-environmental behaviour is partly attributable to how they feel about themselves – or in other words, how well they are able to cope with the psychological threat of climate change.
It has long been known that people who feel better about themselves are more easily able to deal with threats. For people who do not feel self-affirmed, denial of the reality of the problem – or their role in solving it – is a common response. Paul Sparks’ research helps to explain why climate denial persists despite the evidence for climate change being overwhelming: it poses a psychological threat that we are often ill-equipped to deal with.
If we are to face up to challenge of climate change with a proportionate response, we will need every resource we can lay our hands on. Unfortunately, with the deepest and most extreme public sector cuts for a generation just around the corner, the national mood can hardly be described as ‘self-affirmed’.
On top of our reduced capacity to respond to climate change due to less public money being made available, are we also sapping our precious psychological resources by piling on the pressure to our collective self esteem?
An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…
But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin.
That the video was panned by the usual suspects is unsurprising. Delingpole spluttered that “the environmental movement has revealed the snarling, wicked, homicidal misanthropy beneath its cloak of gentle, bunny-hugging righteousness.” But while Delingpole’s wilfully literal misreading of the video is unremarkable, there is a genuine reason for concern: as a piece of climate change communication, it is disastrous.
At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?
Beyond these general faults, many of the pitfalls of communicating climate change are gleefully skipped into. It is now well established that using shock tactics to pressure people into caring about climate change is of limited use: while fear of a negative outcome (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of promoting behavioural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the behaviour must be personal and direct. Typically, climate change is perceived as neither a direct nor a personal threat – and so shocking people into doing their recycling is probably not the way to go.
We also know that while ‘peer pressure’ can be a remarkably effective way of promoting and spreading environmentally friendly behaviour, this is a process of social comparison that cannot be controlled by ‘outsiders’ to an individual’s social group. People make their comparisons to people who are ‘like them’ – people that they respect, admire, or empathise with in some way. Observing other people engaging in pro-environmental behaviour is a fantastic way of generating a positive social norm. Blowing them up for failing to get with the programme is not…
Of course, its easy to be critical of any attempt to engage the public with climate change – it is a formidable challenge finding the right way of encouraging people to embrace low-carbon lifestyles. But gradually, social scientists and climate change communicators are starting to piece together good evidence on how to effectively communicate climate change. The recent report by the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG), a network of climate communication academics and practitioners, set out seven principles for communicating climate change to mass audiences:
- Move Beyond Social Marketing
- Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
- Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
- Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
- Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
- Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
- Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
- Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks
- Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone
- Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action
At such a crucial juncture for campaigning on climate change, with public scepticism higher than a year ago, international negotiations tying themselves into a knot, and the British government taking enormous chunks out of the budget for tackling climate change, don’t those in the public eye have a responsibility to do a better job with their climate change communications?