Emotions and climate communication

Climate change is an issue with a huge emotional range. It can elicit passionate opinions and emotions in some, and complete indifference in others. However, while emotions are forceful drivers of behaviour, there are chronic issues in their study and use in climate change communication, in both research and practice.

While certain emotions tend to relate to greater environmental action, the emotions are not ends in themselves. For instance, there is a question of the best way to “use” emotions to motivate climate action, particularly around the value of promoting fear of climate consequences, or hope for a positive outcome. Perhaps as a consequence, campaigns and research often focus on the question: “how do we make people feel ____?”, as though these emotions each had their own levers to pull, and once pulled, we might see an exact behavioural response.

While there is some support for the idea that fear-based appeals increase risk perceptions, they can also be counterproductive by making the issue seem overwhelming and unsurmountable. Similarly, messages of hope have been found to increase action in some cases and reduce it in others by lowering risk perceptions. Overt attempts to generate certain emotions may also induce reactance and backlash in some people who feel they are being manipulated.

Overall, treating emotions as individual, distinct entities (e.g. “what does hope do?”) is incomplete and misleading. People rarely feel just one emotion, and the simultaneous experience of different emotions may have unpredictable interactive effects, particularly with respect to promoting long-term, sustainable shifts in behavior. Instead of artificially trying to evoke a particular emotion, a better way might be to focus on the emotions that people already feel about climate change, to understand their motivations and reasons for feeling those emotions.

This is why it’s important to understand the reasons or triggers for particular emotions. Emotions are always about something or someone, and arise when an event is relevant for one’s values and concerns. Emotional responses are fluid and one’s emotions about climate change vary depending on whether the things that people value are seen to be affected by climate change. We should be careful not to treat the emotional responses as the cause of the behaviour, as they are only a symptom.

A way forward might be to highlight the connection between the things that people value and how they are threatened by climate change. This approach focuses on tailoring environmental messages to suit audience concerns, rather than pushing audiences towards “feeling the right emotions”.

Another promising avenue is a focus on group-based emotions, and using group-based feedback. After all, climate change is a collective issue, both in cause and solution. Receiving feedback that your carbon footprint is larger than the carbon footprint of your peers can lead to feelings of guilt, and further, learning that your nation’s contributions to climate change are higher than the contributions of other nations led people to feel guilt at a collective level.

Moreover, tapping into people’s sense of morality is also an avenue for further exploration. Moral, self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame and pride, have in various ways been linked to support for climate action. In the wider social psychology literature, these emotions have been linked to distinct antecedents and behaviours. Guilt is linked to the motivation to remedy past wrongdoing, to atone for the damage; Shame is distinguished by the interpretation that the past wrongdoing reflects negatively upon the self, and while in some cases this can lead to avoidance, in other cases, might motivate long term changes in personal behaviour. Lastly, pride might motivate future persistence with pro-environmental actions, and there is some evidence that it is involved in integrating pro-environmentalism in one’s self-identity.

A challenge for climate communicators is recognising that people respond to certain emotions in different ways –  for instance, when angry, some may respond by protesting, others not. Of equal importance is realising that there are different kinds of anger, and these relate to different actions. Social psychological research has long distinguished between “anger at others ” from “anger at self ”, which directly relates to perceived responsibility to act, efficacy concerns, and the likelihood of different kinds of individual behaviours. The environmental actions you support may be different if you feel angry at corporations or government for prioritising economic interests over environmental ones, than if you feel angry at all of society, including yourself, for not acting on climate change.

Emotions should be viewed as one element of a broader, authentic communication strategy rather than as a magic bullet. Emotions can help us understand what leads people to care about climate change, and also communicate climate change in a more compelling and relatable way, but to do so, we should focus on authentic and honest communication strategies that meet audiences where they are, rather than attempt to manipulate emotional responses or socially engineer feelings.

Climate Coalition and Is This How You Feel are both examples of authentic emotional communication.

Burning questions

Why, and in what circumstances do people feel particular emotions about climate change? And how do different groups of people vary in their behavioural responses to these emotions?

What is the best way to tailor environmental messages for audiences’ chronic emotional responses?

How can we reach those who don’t feel any emotions towards climate change?

By Adam Corner and Susie Wang

Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.

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