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Does hope inspire more action on climate change than fear? We don’t know.

On climate change communications, the science really isn’t settled.


Back in July, journalist David Wallace-Wells published a piece in New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth,” a nightmarish guided tour of the worst-case scenarios for global warming. The piece proved incredibly popular — it is the most-read story in the magazine’s history — but it also ignited heated debate among those who think, talk, and write about climate change for a living.

The debate revolved around two distinct issues, though they were often conflated or confused.

The first has to do with the role of emotion in climate change communication — specifically, whether Wallace-Wells’s story was too scary, or too pessimistic, in a way that would only serve to demotivate or paralyze readers. The second has to do with the role of climate scientists in refereeing public climate debates — specifically, whether their authority extends to matters of tone, emphasis, and intent.

I wrote a piece on all this in July, and though the debate left me distinctly unsatisfied, I planned to drop it there. However, there’s a new commentary in Nature Climate Change that addresses the first issue (and can thereby help illuminate the second), so I’m going to try one last time for some clarity on this.

To make a long story short: We don’t know much of anything about how messages affect people, so everybody’s better off just doing the best they can.

The paper is pretty short; let’s take a quick look.

135 years of climate change

Emotions in climate communications: it’s complicated

The Nature Climate Change article is called “Reassessing emotion in climate change communication,” and it’s by Daniel Chapman, Brian Lickel, and Ezra Markowitz, psychological and environmental researchers at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Their basic point that, in the debate around Wallace-Wells’s piece and similar previous debates, people have characterized the role of emotion rather too crudely.

The consensus in social psychology is that it’s a mistake to treat emotions as simple levers that can be pulled to achieve particular outcomes. Much of the common understanding of emotion, particularly the notion that there are separate “emotions” bouncing off one another, being experienced distinctly, are wrong. Emotions, the authors write, are integrated elements in “an interpretive and self-regulatory feedback system.”

All emotions are always in dynamic interplay with other emotions and experienced through complex webs of identity and cognition. Any particular emotional experience will involve not only “rudimentary feeling-states,” they say, but also “a range of cognitive appraisals of context, the self, and others, as well as (multiple) potential motivational impetuses.”

Most important, when attempting to trace the links between emotional experiences and action, is the element of time. What matters in an overall assessment of someone’s disposition toward climate change is not their raw feelings in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally significant experience (living through a hurricane, say, or reading a scary magazine story), but how those responses are reinforced and strengthened (or not) over the course of the following days and years.

Any affective response will fade without reinforcement. It is not cleverness that matters most in communication, but repetition. Emotional experiences and messages need to be repeated over and over again before they stick.

“The immediate responses and longer-term consequences of an emotionally evocative event,” the authors write, “may or may not be aligned, and may even differ dramatically.”

And as I said in my original piece (full disclosure: The authors cite me saying so!) there’s just not a lot of good science on how emotional dispositions evolve over time and lead to action. We don’t know much about these “temporal dynamics” and so we just don’t know what kind of downstream effects an emotional experience will have.

climate protest
People who read just the right magazine stories.

This broad uncertainty suggests humility — a humility advocates have not always displayed. For instance, the authors cite a Washington Post op-ed by climate scientist Michael Mann, Susan Joy Hassol, and Tom Toles that claims “the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” (In support, they link to a single survey.)

Such categorical claims, Chapman, Lickel, and Markowitz write, exceed what the evidence can bear. Even in meta-analytic studies on communication in other fields, there are conflicting conclusions about the role of fear. There’s still not much evidence to draw directly from climate communication, and what there is contains ambiguous and contradictory findings.

“The current evidence base and dominant approaches to studying emotion in climate change communication,” they write, “do not support definitive, simplistic, and overly broad assertions about the effect of specific emotions on climate change responses.”

There’s no emotional recipe

Every individual is different, and emotional responses to particular images or messages — including those about climate — “are influenced by the beliefs, worldviews, and existing emotions each individual brings to the table,” the authors write.

Above all (something else I’ve emphasized many times) those responses will be mediated by what they call “ideological and group commitments.” This is especially true when it comes to a polarized and socially charged issue like climate change.

The effects of a scary climate change story on a committed climate change activist will be different than the effects on a conservative. They might both feel the rudimentary feeling-state of “fear” in the wake of the story, but that tells us very little about how they will process it or how those feelings might be reinforced or meliorated by subsequent messages or tribal signals.

What we can say for sure is that there’s unlikely to be any all-purpose emotional recipe that will satisfy all customers. To move someone (or a group) to new beliefs, a new identity, and new action is no small feat. A smart communications strategy will be tailored as specifically as possible to particular identities, delivered by trusted members of those tribes, and sustained over time.

What role the Wallace-Wells story will play as it winds its way through culture depends entirely on who encounters it, under what circumstances, and what they hear and see afterward. It could play a positive or negative role for different people, depending. We cannot ultimately know its net effects.

When it comes to climate change communications, we are all going on our own fallible, subjective judgments. It is irresponsible to pretend that social science has settled these questions to any degree of confidence. And it is entirely ludicrous to declare that Wallace-Wells’s wildly popular story — which drew more attention to the subject of climate change than any 10 of the last 100 scientific reports — was, as the Post op-ed headline has it, “as harmful as climate change denial.”

And that brings us to the latter debate.

Climate scientists should separate their scientific critiques

Climate scientists have attempted to play a more active role in public discussions around climate change lately — they have concluded, accurately, that nobody else is doing a very good job of it.

But the response to the Wallace-Wells piece from climate scientists was a mixed bag. Published by Climate Feedback, there were, amidst scientific amendments and clarifications, all sorts of judgments about what Wallace-Wells emphasized and how much, how realistic it is to focus on worst case scenarios, whether the piece contained sufficient nuances and caveats, and whether it was unduly pessimistic.

Overall, the Climate Feedback panel awarded the Wallace-Wells piece a “low” (-0.7) score in “scientific credibility.”

If you read the detailed, annotated version of the piece that Wallace-Wells subsequently published, which traces virtually every sentence back to a specific paper or interview with a scientist, you will recognize how ludicrous that judgment is.

The bunk of the critique was simple disagreement about whether Wallace-Wells should have written the piece he did — a piece he states up front is an explication of worst-case scenarios. Of course it’s not “realistic”; that’s not what worst-case means. Of course it emphasizes low-probability, high-impact outcomes; that is what worst-case means.

These kinds of critiques amount to scientists advising a journalist what information to present, what to emphasize, and what impressions and emotions to produce in readers.

These simply aren’t matters of hard climate science. They are matters of rhetoric and communication, subjects on which training in the physical sciences confers no special authority.

Climate scientists are of course welcome to weigh in on such matters as interested parties. No one, despite many accusations to the contrary, is telling anyone to shut up. They are welcome to discuss rhetoric or communications or policy or politics or whatever they want. All citizens have a right to speak. I talk about that stuff all the time, and all I’ve got is a Masters in philosophy. The more the merrier.

But climate scientists, however confident and vocal they may be in their judgments about communications, should be careful not to smuggle subjective judgments under the banner of “scientific critique.” Their authority on climate science is not fungible; it does not translate to other domains. One is not a “science denier” if one disagrees with the rhetorical or policy judgments of climate scientists.

Passing subjective judgments about communications off as hard science only makes it more difficult for the public to identify who can be trusted. It is not ultimately up to scientists how people communicate.

climate risks
Does not speak for itself.
Nature Climate Change

No one knows anything, so everyone should just do their thing

What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.

Given that, it seems the wise course of action on climate communications is to encourage diversity, experimentation, and most of all, a spirit of charity and the assumption of good faith toward others who are attempting to tell the same story in different ways.

It is a very big story. Not everyone needs to present it as a scientist would; not everyone needs to understand it as a scientist would understand it. There are as many ways to approach it as there are people, room for fear and hope and wonder and suspense and sadness and curiosity and all the rest of human experience.

On climate comms, I think people are better off trusting the ancient art of Knowing Your Audience. Do what you’re good at; speak to people you think you might be able to reach. David Wallace-Wells was good at reaching millions of casual magazine readers. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is out talking to evangelicals and conservatives. Her fellow climate scientist Michael Mann is delivering facts to Bill Maher’s audience (no mean feat). Bill McKibben is writing evocative, terrifying essays. Al Gore is doing his 24 Hours of Reality thing. Reporters at E&E and the New York Times climate desk are staying on top of breaking news. Analysts at places like Carbon Brief are bringing the numbers and charts. Young activists are connecting climate change to economic justice and urbanism. I’m writing wonky explainers on clean energy. (And this is all just in the US, of course.)

The climate-o-sphere is full of people telling this big story in a bunch of different ways, emphasizing different things, bringing different levels of fear, hope, or dispassion to the task.

Will any of it resonate? Will it, in part or collectively, inspire any democratic action? Hell if I know. Hell if you know. It’s a big story, though, and we need lots more people telling it.

So, yes, scientific accuracy is important. But we should also remember that humans are complicated and diverse and need all sorts of narratives, images, facts, tropes, and other forms of group reinforcement to really get something this big. It’s a lot to take in, especially if, like most people, you don’t think like a scientist.