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How to Get People to Give a Shit About Climate Change

“Excuse me, do you have a moment for saving the Earth?”

by Sarah Emerson
May 4 2016, 10:00pm

Image: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi

Facing the growing threat of climate change, we've all heard that we should be driving less, recycling more, and turning off our lights—so why aren't we? Turns out that making people individually responsible for global warming might actually have the reverse effect, discouraging them from action altogether.

Humanity's indifference toward the fatal threat of climate change is one of the great ironies of our time. At a juncture where we can see our own extinction on the horizon, it's still so hard to get anyone to do anything about it.

For decades now, climate scientists have been valiantly trying, yet failing, to make global warming a tangible burden for the average person. Citizens of the world, while worried about the inevitable harm it will bring, are divided to the point of inaction. But according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Climatic Change, the way to get people to actually care might be unburdening them of their individual responsibility for stopping climate change. Nobody wants to feel like it's all their fault.

A team of social science researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that calls for action and monetary donations, in regards to the problem of global warming, were significantly more effective when framed through a collective lens. That is to say, people are generally more inclined to care when the threat of climate change is presented as a shared problem, rather than a personal responsibility.

"There are potential problems associated with personal framing. The goal of the study was to answer the empirical question of whether sitting down and reflecting on the ways we personally contribute to climate change is more or less helpful," lead author Nick Obradovich, a doctoral candidate in UCSD's Department of Political Science, told me.

Obradovich hypothesized that the wide assumption many environmental groups hold—that appealing to constituents on an intimate level is the most effective way of making them care—was, in fact, harmful toward pro-climate behavior. This style of messaging, he believed, actually risked making people feel guilt, denial, sadness, and cognitive dissonance.

The researchers surveyed a portion of National Audubon Society members, who identified as environmentalists, by randomly assigning them one of three writing prompts: "What are the ways you personally contribute toward climate change?"; "In what ways is climate change generally caused?"; and, for the control, "In what ways do you go about your day?"

Each member was told they had a one-in-100 chance at winning a $100 cash prize for completing the experiment. Following their writing assignment, test subjects were asked, should they win, what portion of the $100 would they be willing to donate toward pro-climate initiatives.

What the team discovered was individuals who were forced to look at climate change as a collective issue gave 7 percent more than those from the control group.

Admittedly, this group contained many environmentalists to begin with. Among the sample of National Audubon Society members surveyed, 94 percent held the belief that climate change was a fact, and 80 percent believed it to be a man-made problem.

In a separate experiment, the authors applied the same methodology to a randomized group of subjects who were not known to be affiliated with any environmental group. Drawing respondents from Amazon's Mechanical Turk—a human intelligence marketplace that many social psychologists, economists, and behavioral scientists use to conduct studies—the researchers again assigned the same writing prompts. However, in this survey, all MTurk participants were compensated for their participation.

This time, individuals who viewed climate change as a shared threat and problem gave approximately 50 percent more than subjects from the control group.

MTurk contractors, whose beliefs about climate change were slightly more conservative than Audubon Society Members, still ranged fairly liberal, with 85 percent reporting that global warming was occurring.

However, when the researchers followed up with MTurk workers several days later, they found the effects of their original framing methods persisted. People who were inclined to give more initially were also equally as generous in the longer run. Furthermore, those people also reported being more willing to reduce their climate change-causing habits in the future, indicating an alteration of behavioral intent.

"Advocacy is most effective when informed by social science. The European Union launched a big campaign designed to message people about climate change with the assumption that making it personal would motivate their behavior. But there was no science at all to support that," Obradovich said.

The study's results underline a basic behavioral mechanism. Cognitive dissonance, which is the psychological discomfort experienced by someone confronted by information that conflicts with their beliefs, can be created by forcing someone to feel personally responsible for climate change. When a person is made aware that their negative actions don't actually vibe with their positive morals, they often change their behavior to be consistent with the evidence. So, telling an environmentalist that climate change is partly their fault can ultimately push them toward inaction.

People experiencing cognitive dissonance also tend to avoid the stimulus that contradicts their beliefs. Psychologists have previously suggested that aggressively advocating against climate change-inducing behavior only makes individuals more resistant to change, and the team's findings seem to support that.

In future studies, Obradovich hopes to survey staunch global warming non-believers. It's likely that different framing methods will be needed to persuade more conservative individuals, but environmentalists who are already more willing to join the fight against climate change are a good place to start.

It's easy to believe there's nothing you can do stop the world as we know it from ending. But no matter how helpless and indifferent you might feel, your problem is all of our problems, and every change you make is being matched by someone somewhere else. So instead of getting depressed, or going full prepper, just fucking do something about it already.