Why Climate Change Rhetoric Simultaneously Succeeds and Fails

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, —> Read More