Climate Change Messaging: Can It Do Any Good?

Eighty-six percent of the world believes climate change is a real thing. That’s the finding of a massive new mega study with hundreds of authors (the paper’s author acknowledgement is a page and a half). Sixty thousand participants from 63 countries around the world took part. And, as I said, 86% of them believe in climate change.

Frankly, there’s no surprise there. You just have to look out your window to see it. Here in my corner of the world, wildfires wiped out hundreds of homes last summer. Just a few weeks ago, a weird winter whiplash took temperatures from unseasonably warm to deep freeze cold literally overnight. This anomaly wiped out this region’s wine industry.

Going back to the study, the only thing surprising about the 86% stat is that 14% still don’t believe. That speaks of a determined type of ignorance.

What is interesting about this study is that it was conducted by behavioral scientists. This is an area that has always fascinated me. From the time I read Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge,” I have always been interested in behavioral interventions. What are the most effective “nudges” in getting people to shift their behaviors to more socially acceptable directions?



According to this study, that result may not be that easy. When I first dove into this study, my intention was to look at how different messages had different impacts depending on the audience: right-wing versus left-wing, for instance. But in going through the results, what struck me the most was just how poorly all the suggested interventions performed. It didn’t matter if you were liberal or conservative or lived in Italy or Iceland. More often than not, all the messaging fell on deaf ears.

What the study did find is that how you craft your campaign about climate change depends on what you want people to do. Do you want to shift non-believers in climate change toward becoming believers? Then decrease the psychological distance. More simply put, bring the dangers of climate change to their front doorstep. If you live next to a lot of trees, talk about wildfires. If you live on the coast, talk about flooding. But it should be noted that we weren’t talking a massive shift here -- with an “absolute effect size of 2.3%," this approach was the winner by the sheer virtue of sucking the least.

If you want to build support for legislation that mitigates climate change, the best intervention was to encourage people to write a letter to a child that’s close to them -- a letter the child is supposed to read it in the future.

This forces the writer to put some psychological skin in the game.  Who could write a future letter to someone you care about without making some kind of pledge to make sure there’s still a world they can live in? And once you do that, you feel obligated to follow through. Once again, this had a minimal impact on behaviors, with an overall effect size of 2.6%.

A year and a half ago, I talked about climate change messaging, debating MediaPost Editor in Chief Joe Mandese about whether a doom-and-gloom approach would move the needle on behaviors. In a commentary from the summer of 2022, Mandese wrapped up by saying, “What the ad industry really needs to do is organize a massive global campaign to change the way people think, feel and behave about the climate -- moving from a not-so-alarmist 'change' to an 'our house is on fire' crisis.”

In a follow-up, I worried that doom and gloom might backfire on us: “Cranking up the crisis intensity on our messaging might have the opposite effect. It may paralyze us.”

So what does this study say?

The answer, again, is “it depends.” If we’re talking about getting people to share posts on social media, then doom and gloom is the way to go. Of all the various messaging options, this had the biggest impact on sharing, by a notable margin.

This isn’t really surprising. A number of studies have shown that negative news is more likely to be shared on social media than positive news.

But what if we’re asking people to make a change that requires some effort beyond clicking the “share” button? What if they actually have to do something? Then, as I suspected, doom-and-gloom messaging had the opposite effect, decreasing the likelihood that people would make a behavioral change to address climate change (the study used a tree planting initiative as an example). In fact, when asking participants to actually change their behavior in an effortful way, all the tested climate interventions either had no effect or, worse, they “depress(ed) and demoralize(d) the public into inaction.”

That’s not good news. It seems that no matter what the message is, or who the messenger is, we’re likely to shoot them if they’re asking us to do anything beyond bury our head in the sand.

What’s even worse, we may be losing ground. A study from 10 years ago by Yale University had more encouraging results, showing that effective climate change messaging was able to shift public perceptions by up to 19%. While not nearly as detailed as the recent study, the results seem to indicate a backslide in the effectiveness of climate messaging.

One of the commentators that covered the new worldwide study perhaps summed it up best by saying, “if we’re dealing with what is probably the biggest crisis ever in the history of humanity, it would help if we actually could talk about it.”

1 comment about "Climate Change Messaging: Can It Do Any Good?".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, February 27, 2024 at 9:30 p.m.

    I don't like the doom & gloom about climate change and that the world is about to end. Al Gore said that FL would be underwater in 2020 and that was in 2006 when he said that in his Doc and also move the goalpost as well. Planting a tree is a good thing and the little things as well I believe in climate change.

    As you said Gord been a rollercoaster this winter here in Michigan no winter other than 1 week being in the teens most days. Today hit a record first time hit 70 degrees in Feb in Michigan then tomorrow temps drop like a rock once the cold front moves in with storms that should be coming in the next hour or 2.

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