New strategies for talking to the public about climate change

Posted on December 14, 2015

Sometimes an emotive message has more impact than a clear, logical one. In the context of climate change, emotive messages even convince climate change deniers of the benefits of mitigation, particularly those measures that promote economic and scientific development or social cohesion.

These are the findings in a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, based on data from 24 countries around the world. Prof Claire Wagner, an environmental psychology specialist at the University of Pretoria (UP), says that South African attitudes are similar to those found worldwide.

Prof Wagner coordinated the South African aspect of the multinational project, surveying more than 200 students about their attitudes towards various co-benefits of climate change mitigation. The survey divided co-benefits into four major categories: development (economic development and scientific progress), dysfunction (eg pollution and disease), benevolence (whether people are caring and moral) and competence (whether people are skilled and capable).

The survey first looked at whether participants believed in and cared about climate change, then asked questions to see how people felt about these different co-benefits, regardless of their feelings about climate change.

Researchers linked these co-benefits to motivations to act, and found that people who were unconvinced of the effects of climate change were almost as motivated to take steps to mitigate them as those who were convinced, based on co-benefits related to development and benevolence.

The survey looked at both student and community groups, although in South Africa, only students at UP were surveyed. Prof Wagner thinks that this might have affected the South African outcomes. ‘I thought that dysfunction and competence might come through a bit stronger for us,’ she says. ‘If we had used a community sample, one that was more affected by these kinds of issues, we might have seen different results.’

Along with her master’s student, Eric van Niekerk, Wagner hopes to dive more deeply into the South African data set now that the worldwide results have been published. ‘We are building on a very limited knowledge base about South Africans and their environment. I would like to look at the data at a basic level, explore it from there and see what we get.’

Environmental psychology is a nascent field in South Africa and Prof Wagner hopes that this is the start of a more in-depth investigation into how South Africans feel and think about their environment.

Worldwide, the project coordinators hope to use the findings of the survey to influence and improve strategies that can influence climate change action. Prof Wagner says that they want to use platforms like the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris (COP21) to get the message out.

‘Hopefully these issues will feed into policy across the world and provide strategies we can use to get people to act on climate change. The ones we are using at the moment do not seem to be very effective,’ says Prof Wagner. This might be because strategies have in the past focused on logical messaging, which only works if the person listening already believes that climate change is a problem.

‘What is interesting to me is coming back to the results and checking the South African data set.’ Prof Wagner suggests that in South Africa, an effective strategy might be to target civil society organisations with these findings, with a view to promoting social cohesion. She also hopes to extend the survey to communities in different socioeconomic brackets, and to interview people individually to gather opinions and experiences that represent the effects of climate change in South African communities.

In a time of worrying discoveries about the state of our climate, this research offers new avenues to effect behaviour change in favour of mitigating climate change.


- Author Anina Mumm

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