How To Be An Effective Climate Activist, According To Psychology

Activists In Edinburgh Join The Global Climate Strike
Young activists take part in a climate strike in Edinburgh. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

By Emma Young

Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was “climate hysteria” from a “mentally ill Swedish child”.

It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can — no matter how small — to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?

For any activist hoping to change the world, their audience must first accept that change is necessary, and also feel motivated and empowered to achieve that change. Psychology is of course key to all this, and numerous studies are being done in this area.

When it comes to that first point — accepting the need for change — Nadia Bashir at the University of Toronto and colleagues wondered whether people might resist it in some cases not because (or not just because) they have problems with the message, but rather because they’re not keen on the messenger.

In an online study involving 140 US participants, published in 2013, the researchers found that environmentalist activists were perceived as being unappealingly eccentric and militant. Not only did the participants perceive them as having unappealing traits, but they didn’t want to affiliate with such people, either. Their “seemingly zealous dedication to a social cause may backfire and elicit unfavourable reactions from others,” Bashir and her colleagues wrote. “The very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.”

Given these results, you might suspect that this particular participant group had more “anti-environment” than “pro-environment” members. However, as research out of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has made plain, the division within the general public is simply not that binary [PDF]. The researchers identified nine distinct “environmental attitude” groups in the US, each with their own constellation of views on everything from whether an environmental crisis exists to what the government’s role should be in regulating it. Parts of Thunberg’s UN speech may, then, have struck the receptive minds of some across the pro- and ‘anti’-environment lines, while causing others to batten down their psychological hatches. Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. If it were possible to direct nuanced climate change-related messages to these distinct groups, potentially, this might lead to more desired change overall.

What about emotion? Should activists display it, or not? The great Roman orator and statesman Cicero advised speakers to prefer emotion to reason. And emotion-based marketing is known to be more effective than fact-based approaches. Some people do find all-out outrage off-putting. But perhaps our society needs to encourage a more positive view of it, argue a trio of psychologists from Penn State and Harvard. In one experiment, published in 2018, they reported that feelings of outrage were more effective at driving participation in a project to address an injustice than feelings of hope that such a project might work. Moral outrage is a “critical force for collective action,” they concluded.

Teenagers are renowned for doing outrage pretty well. They’re also well-connected via social media, and also have other activist advantages, argued Albert Bandura at Stanford University and Lynne Cherry of the organisation Young Voices for the Planet, in a 2019 paper in American Psychologist. “Climate scientists have been sounding increasingly urgent alarms about the catastrophic consequences of climate change,” the pair wrote. And yet, “twenty annual UN Summits provided no international commitment to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases”. So it’s important to look at who might be best placed to really make a difference — and they believe the answer lies in young activists.

Young people are in a better position to catalyse action on climate change than most adults, think Bandura and Cherry. Young people are effective messengers, they write, because without change, they will suffer far more than the adults around today. And they can occupy the moral high ground, because the audience knows that they are not beholden to special interests (like making money or winning elections).

Thunberg has achieved truly global fame, but Bandura and Cherry point to other examples of hugely influential young activists, such as German environmentalist Felix Finkbeiner, who, after learning as a boy that trees absorb carbon dioxide, set up a project that has led to more than a million trees being planted worldwide. Think back to the second part of what’s needed for change (feeling motivated and empowered to achieve that change) — Finkbeiner presented a problem, and also a practical way for people to help, even in the smallest way, to address it. There are many other examples of child environmental activists bringing about meaningful change, they note.

There is evidence that even in the US, record numbers of people are worried about climate change. According to the results of a nationally representative survey, published in 2019, 73 per cent think it’s happening, 69 per cent are worried about it and 29 per cent are very worried. “After a year of devastating extreme events, dire scientific reports, and growing media coverage of climate change, a record number of Americans are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening, are increasingly worried, and say the issue is personally important to them,” said lead researcher Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University.

Climate activists like Thunberg may, then, increasingly be preaching to the converted, and be less likely to be viewed as “unappealingly eccentric and militant” than might have been the case only five years ago.

But when it comes to persuading other people to make necessary changes, it’s worth bearing in mind the potential power of humour, as well as fear, argues Jeff Niederdeppe at Cornell University’s Center for a Sustainable Future.

In 2018, he and a PhD student, Christofer Skurka, worked with a theatre group to create a series of videos featuring a weathercaster making forecasts about extreme weather patterns caused by climate change. One, the “ominous” version, highlighted the severity of climate change and its impacts. In another “humorously” silly version, the weathercaster seemed clueless as he struggled to understand the signs of climate change. A third was designed to be neutral in tone.

The “ominous” video, designed to inspire fear, was effective across the full age range of 18 to 30 years. But the humorous one worked well for the 18- to 24-year-olds, too. “The people who found it funny were more likely to want to plan or partake in activism, recycle more and believe climate change is risky,” Skurka reported.

Some people may mock Thunberg. Others may applaud her, though make no changes in their lives. Yet others will take her message to heart. It’s purely anecdotal evidence, of course, but the week after that particular UN address, someone on the Google mailing group for my own street, and a group of streets around mine, put out a message saying that they were concerned about climate change, and asking anyone who felt the same way to get in touch, to meet, to discuss what we as a small community can do. I’ve lost count of how many people have reacted to the thread. It’s true that I would have predicted that my particular neighbourhood would respond in that way. Around here, she was preaching to the converted — but those who needed an extra nudge.

Still, as so many studies, from those run by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication to the extreme weather videos experiments have shown, we’re different, and surely no one type of activism or activist will appeal to everyone. All kinds of voices will be needed to truly make a difference in 2020, and beyond.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “How To Be An Effective Climate Activist, According To Psychology”

  1. I think this is an opportunity lost that could have focused in a different area of psychology. I’m more concerned for Thunberg’s own psychology, and the potential for her to do good vs a wasted life. I’m not put off by her, nor supportive of her. I feel sorry for her.

    The missing component here is competence. Yes, young people might have more passion, but they lack competence. A goal to change the world is only useful if you know how to actually do that in a way that improves things. The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions, after all. What matters is competence.

    Thunberg clearly has no idea what she is talking about. She isn’t a climate scientist, nor an economist. Her outrage at the UN was cringe-worthy from that respect; she doesn’t understand that increasing GDP is exactly about reducing suffering, and the ability of a society to invest in efficiency like green energy vs doing whatever it takes to survive in the minute.

    And her fame is a problem. She has not invented anything, revealed any new information, or provided any new solutions. Her fame is all about her emotional outrage. When you are young, seeking fame is all about obtaining social status. If she’s smart, she’ll forego the fame, study green technology and economics, and use her gained competence to help with solutions. I fear she will instead follow the temptations of fame, which is fleeting, not accomplishing anything of value and spend her life trying to gain back her once-loved fame and the feelings and status it gave her.

    Even Felix Finkbeiner isn’t a good story. Yes, he’s actually done something positive. But a million trees is essentially nothing. Canada alone plants 500 million trees each year, and globally it is in the many billions. Finkbeiner’s contribution isn’t even worthy of a footnote on anything effective toward addressing climate change.

    The real leaders in effective change as far as the climate are the engineers and business leaders who solve the problem. Paul Ehrlich famously raised worries of mass starvation in India in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. But complaining about it did nothing. The solution was already in place under his nose. It wasn’t solved by activism, outrage, or complaints, but by the ongoing work started years earlier by agrarian scientist Norman Borlaug that brought about the Green Revolution.

    Now, Elon Musk has probably done more for addressing climate change than any other human, using green economics to continually push the boundaries of electric vehicles and solar energy, and drive down the prices to the point people in the millions are switching from combustion fuels to electric cars and solar energy generation.

    He doesn’t do this by getting people outraged. He doesn’t do this positive encouragement toward regulations or people simply changing their will. He does this by competence. He understands the problem. He understands the economics. He understands the solutions. And he understands what drives consumers. He creates technologies. He drives down prices. He brands things as sexy and amazing. He rarely even talks about their value in climate problems.

    Yes, Elon Musk has money. But that’s not the issue. He mostly uses investor money because they see the payoffs. Governments have money. Investors have money. Businesses have money. What we need are more people like Musk, not Finkbeiner, and not Thunberg.

    If we’re lucky, Thunberg really does care about the environment and not her social status and fame, and will spend the coming years growing her competence and following in the footsteps of people like Musk and Borlaug, and actually contribute something of value to the problems. I fear the psychology of proximate social status, attention, and fame will drive her to a life of uselessness and regret, and that would be a missed opportunity for us all.


    1. And not long after writing this above I see the other BPS article: “Editor’s Pick: A Psychological Trick To Turn People Green — Show How Environmentalism Will Help Their Own Goals”. It more or less reinforces my point, that Musk and others change behavior by providing value to people, not by shaming them or making them outraged, which generally doesn’t work.

      And, I see the article on “Most People Who Share “Fake News” Do Care About The Accuracy Of News Items — They’re Just Distracted”, which also reinforces my point that many who are driven by the psychology of gaining social status either lack the competence or get sloppy with it in order to gain that social status. I’m sure Thunberg cares about climate change, but is blind to her own incompetence on the subject or the harms to the movement she is causing, or her own temptation at playing into the fame and attention by continuing down that road instead of growing her competence.

      Perhaps we need to take our own medicine here and provide activists better tools to actually achieve their goals by providing tools to gain competence without being preachy about how they aren’t being effective.

      Or, for those who use outrage as a means toward social status, perhaps if we provide better means toward social status and likes based on competence and actual outcomes, like Musk’s social status, we could better shift activist thinking toward useful value.


    2. There is no doubt that major change needs to be driven by big business and government. They are influenced by the behaviour of their customers and voters. The Elon Musks of the world, who are abnormally scientifically literate, are responding to environmental science imperatives and are taking direct action but they are in a small minority.
      The challenge is to persuade and motivate the scientifically illiterate consumer and voting masses of all ages to react and thereby influence business and governments. Those masses respond to populist and emotional stimuli, not scientific findings… findings that are rejected by climate change deniers because of worrying “anti science” prejudice.
      It is the combination of actions by climate activists and passionate individuals like Greta that dramatise and publicise, via main stream and social media, the effects of catastrophic climate change on our children and their children. They force people to notice them by their provocative actions and emotional arguments. They do not need scientific competence to get results anymore than populist politicians need any special skills except the “gift of the gab” and celebrity status to motivate their constituents.


      1. Hi Richard. Thanks for the reply, and good to see you are thinking about it.

        But, I think you missed most of my points. Perhaps I didn’t explain them well. You dismiss the Elon Musk of the world as “a small minority”. But it’s not the number of Musks (or Borlaug’s) that matters; it is the impact they have on (a) people’s behaviour toward addressing climate change, and (b) the actual impact on climate change. It is the people buying electric vehicles and putting solar panels on their houses in large numbers that are reducing carbon footprint.

        Musk gets people to do this by the millions, not by trying to convince them of a need to change, or by shaming, or even mentioning environment. He does it by making it worth their while directly. The cost of ownership and performance of these electric vehicles are already superior to internal combustion engine vehicles. Solar panels on houses pay themselves back in ~8 years and then save the owner a lot of money in the long run.

        Musk is getting people to do this who don’t even accept that climate change is real, human caused, or needs addressing. He does it by direct value proposition. And, his approach pushes others manufacturers to build competing platforms, which multiplies the value of what he’s doing in both driving down prices of “green” solutions and making them commonplace.

        It’s also not just Musk, electric cars, or solar power. Technology that allows people to work from home is convenient for people to avoid commuting, and also happens to reduce carbon footprint. Over coming years it will be more things like cargo drones, electric transport, broadband satellite communications to remote and rural areas, digital economy, and smart cities that will significantly reduce the amount of travel, increase efficiency, reduce costs, and also significantly reduce carbon footprint. The big one would be nuclear power as well, but ironically it is activists who have largely made it hard for anyone to push that technology even if it can save the climate. To be fair, it’s not all them; there is a lot of fear driven by the scientific illiteracy you mention as far as dangers of nuclear power, including the few accidents. (It is still the safest by far, even over wind and solar by deaths and injuries.)

        The public will all become carbon savers whether they like it or not, or care about climate change at all. They will do it because it is cheaper, more convenient, and better performing than the alternative. If we required people to care and to make personal sacrifices in that way, we’d be doomed. None of them need to be scientifically literate.

        And here’s where I disagree with your second point. It doesn’t take convincing “the masses”. If it did, it would be very, very slow and we’d likely be doomed. And, the psychology of persuasion doesn’t work the way you suggest. I’m not able to find any literature suggesting any efficacy in activism in the way you suggest. On the positive activism side, what little movements do exist by convincing small segments of “the masses” result in little to effectiveness, like Finkbeiner’s tree planting. It is a certainly a nice gesture, but it is a tiny rounding error of effectiveness, and people tend to join these movements short term, get bored, and then stop. It’s not sustainable or effective.

        On the negative activism side, it may even have negative effectiveness. Thunberg’s supporters aren’t climate deniers whose views were changed by her; they are people who not only were already concerned about climate change, but most of them were likely already active in the movement. It’s doubtful she’s changed a single person’s mind, as the psychology literature above attests to. Worse, she likely has made it harder to change people’s minds. Finger-wagging and shaming don’t appear to change people’s minds in any great numbers in the literature, for whatever evidence is available. But, they do evoke well-established ingroup/outgroup psychology such as in Realistic Conflict Theory, which drive people who are the recipients of the finger-wagging to actually resist, hate, and rationalize their positions even stronger, and to even fight against efforts that help reduce carbon. In that context, she creates more harm than good.

        So my claim is that neither positive nor negative activism, nor activism in general, actually effects the change that is needed. At best it is negligible in effect; at worst it is negative in effect. What makes actual changes is technology, branding, marketing, and incentive programs that change the direct payoffs to “the masses”, regardless of their beliefs or motivations to do anything. You don’t get people to install solar panels by shaming them; you do it by having it save them money. You don’t get people to reduce driving by finger-wagging, or being environmentally conscious, but by giving them better options to do work without the inconvenience of sitting in traffic at rush hour, or paying for gas.

        I don’t see any evidence of your hypothesis that both are needed. Rather, the psychological evidence suggests that activism is more about people seeking status value — likes, followers, attention, news coverage, fame, or even just kudos, hugs, or appreciation at the simplest form. Or, feeling like you have a purposes, or are doing “something”. It’s not about actually having any real effect on the problem; it’s about how you feel about yourself and your social circles, or at least that appears to be what the psychology literature hints at, and the best I can find for evidence of effectiveness in how to change things.

        That’s why I feel sorry for Thumberg. She can do great things if she puts her mind to it. There are thousands to millions of people working on the technologies (engineering), incentives (economics), and solutions in general that I describe above that are the solutions to climate change. She could join the solutions by becoming competent in these areas and contributing something of value, but it tends not to lead to social status or attention, outside of the leaders like Musk who already had the social status and attention.

        But, when you are 16, and have unearned fame, it is extremely hard to sacrifice that fame and put in the hard work of the effective solutions. Teens are almost universally driven by social status among their peers, certainly when they have some. It would be very, very hard for her to stop and do something of better use. But her fame will fade, and she will more than likely spend a long time trying to get it back to re-live her past glory. And to me, that is a reason to feel pity, every time.


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