Why Climate Change Rhetoric Simultaneously Succeeds and Fails

It turns out that personal relevance messages have the opposite effect from what we might expect: Although they do increase people's concern about climate change, they actually reduce their willingness to advocate on the issue.
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Despite mounting evidence about the threats posed by climate change, most Americans do not consider it to be a very important problem facing the country, nor are they engaged in large-scale advocacy efforts to address it.

What might be done? An increasingly common argument, backed both by intuition and social science research, is that rhetoric should highlight how climate change will personally affect Americans' lives. Among the most common "personal relevance" frames are those that focus on how it might impact personal health or make it more difficult for people to obtain the food that they need.

It turns out that these personal relevance messages have the opposite effect from what we might expect: Although they do increase people's concern about climate change, they actually reduce their willingness to advocate on the issue.

Framing climate change in terms of its effect on either personal health or food security reminds people that very important personal goals (staying healthy and eating well) will be difficult to achieve. It puts them in a bad mood, and when people are in a bad mood they are less willing to engage in collective advocacy efforts.

Recently we conducted a series of experiments in which participants randomly received different messages. In some cases, they received these messages over email and were then asked to sign a petition and join an organization in Washington DC advocating for a shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. In other cases, they received these messages during a survey and were then asked a series of questions: should addressing climate change be a national priority, what effect do you think climate change will have on yourself and your family, and whether the messages make you feel sad or less hopeful.

Some messages just included basic information about climate change, specifically noting that we can still avoid the worst consequences if we act now. Others included that information along with mentioning one of three different ways in which climate change could personally affect them, including its impact on their personal health, its impact on their ability to purchase the food they need, or its impact on the health and well-being of children and the elderly in their community.

Compared with those who received just the basic information, people who saw rhetoric highlighting how climate change could impact their personal health were 17 percent less likely to sign the petition and join the organization, those who received the food insecurity language were 15 percent less likely, and those who read the language about the health and well-being of children and the elderly were 9 percent less likely.

It was not that the information we supplied was entirely unpersuasive, however. The same kinds of people that were demobilized by these personal relevance email messages were more likely to state in our survey that addressing climate change should be an important political priority. Moreover, in all three cases subjects expressed greater certainty that climate change was happening, and in two of the three cases respondents were more likely to believe that climate change would personally impact them and their family.

To probe the underlying mechanism, we asked respondents if the information put them in a bad mood. We measured this using two questions, one that asked if made them feel sad and one that asked if it made them feel hopeful. It turns out that each of our personal relevance frames heightened sadness and decreased hopefulness.

In short, political messages that highlight how climate change might affect the personal health or food security of individual Americans -- key ways in which the issue can be connected to their everyday lives -- decreased their willingness to engage in climate-related advocacy even though they increased the salience and concern about the issue. This is an example of self-undermining rhetoric that, even if it changes people's minds, can undermine other goals that it is designed to achieve.

If these kinds of personal relevance messages won't motivate people to get involved, what will? Focusing on the moral imperative of climate change, or linking climate advocacy with important identities (like what groups such as Mothers Out Front are doing) are two alternatives. But, despite intuition suggesting otherwise, arguments that heighten personal relevance encourage people to turn inward and focus on their own personal problems rather than coming together to solve shared problems.

Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Reuben Kline is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University.

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