“The world is on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” This was the opening statement from António Guterres, the UN Secretary General at COP27. There is no denying that the issue of climate change requires immediate action, but do proclamations such as this lead to effective climate change mitigation (CCM) policies? Climate communication, a niche category in the field of science communication studies, focuses on relaying facts about climate change to the public in a productive manner. With growing awareness around climate change issues, it is important to determine how this information is best conveyed to the public to achieve maximum engagement.
In 2021, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) published an article based on the leaked IPCC Working Group II report (Crushing climate impacts to hit sooner than feared: draft UN report). It triggered a series of media outputs that relied on click-bait headings and oversimplification of scientific data. Soon after the leak, social media accounts began sharing the most sensational portions of the report with removed nuance and added exaggeration. Commentators on such posts would display their frustration, despair, and anxiety with many responses portraying a nihilistic sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
During the 2021 German election campaigns, youth activists went on an almost month-long hunger strike hoping to engage politicians to take the threat of climate change seriously. Despite their very real concerns over the state of the planet, they also declared anxiety over a supposed famine that would occur in Europe within the next 20 years, despite no scientific research backing this claim. Although this claim didn’t have the scientific backing, such incidents demonstrate the level of eco- anxiety many young people are facing over the eternal destruction of the planet form the effects of climate change.
As we doom scroll through our social media feeds, it is not unusual to come across stories of eventual ruin of the world through catastrophic images caused by apocalyptic scenarios. However, social psychologists working on climate communication show that such imagery could lead to negative emotions resulting in distancing and denial of climate issues, which in turn can prove to be disruptive to the decision-making processes regarding climate action and climate policy.
Climate change imagery has been shown to elicit either one of two responses - saliency (an increase in the seriousness of threat perception of climate change) or efficacy (a sense of ability to act on climate change), yet research indicates that images will rarely elicit both responses simultaneously. Inducing fear in individuals has been shown to reduce perceived efficacy in tackling climate issues and increase denial and feelings of hopelessness, eventually leading to apathy towards the threat and challenges of climate change.
Nadya Rauch at UCL explored how climate change communications can play a key role in communicating CCM policies to the public and mobilising individuals to take collective action to pressure governments to enact meaningful CCM policies. Participants in the research watched a video on the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill which displayed elements of both fear and hope around climate change. The research found that acknowledgement of the severity of climate change does not increase motivation for political action, but hope was a key mediator between gains-framed messages and increased advocacy intentions, meaning more people were more motivated to take action if they felt hopeful. Alongside feelings of hope, experts on climate communication have further argued that for individuals to participate in positive climate action, they require both cognitive and emotional engagement. They argue that understanding an issue isn’t enough to create a change in behaviour, an emotional response is also necessary.
The reality is that we are inhabiting a dying planet. Global temperatures and sea-levels are rising, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and transition away from fossil fuel isn’t happening fast enough. Many individuals, while acknowledging climate change, will remain tied to their high consumption lifestyles contributing to its effects, while others may live in a state of ignorance or disbelief. When scientific evidence contradicts a person’s belief or way of living, it can lead to individuals refusing to accept the evidence as true. In the case of climate change, evidence alone is not enough to engage members of the public to take action against climate change. It is important, therefore, that climate information is communicated effectively and through a trusted source to promote climate action and engagement.
The way to effectively communicate the threat of climate change to induce public action is to take an optimistic approach. Creating and sharing images and stories which are relatable can develop a sense of proximity to climate change making it an effective method to obtaining an emotional response, an essential tool to drive public motivation for action. Inviting feelings of hope in these communications will also generate the same positive outputs form the public. Information communicated through such imagery is also useful in providing simplified explanations of scientific terms and theories which, if delivered through trusted sources, could lead to a change in behaviour and generate climate action.
As demonstrated through individuals’ high rates of consumerism and politicians’ inability to focus on CCM policies, effective and widespread climate communication is necessary to motivate public action. Climate communication needs to be a positive process whereby the benefits of CCM policies on society such as improved health and welfare need to be conveyed to the public so that climate change will be perceived as a societal issue effecting everyone but with achievable solutions, rather than an ultimate impending doom.
This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Autumn Term.
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