Climate Change Appeals May Be More Effective When They’re Pessimistic

By Emily Reynolds

There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is an existential crisis of the highest order — but how best to communicate that threat is unclear. Too much pessimism and people become paralysed with anxiety, pushing thoughts about the crisis away altogether. Too much optimism, on the other hand, can lead to complacency — if things are going to be okay, why would we feel the need to engage with what’s going on?

It’s this tension that Brandi S. Morris and colleagues from Aarhus University explore in a new study, published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. They suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings could trigger higher engagement with the issue than those that end on an optimistic note.

In the first study, 200 participants were presented with a transcript of a video about bees and climate change that had either an optimistic or pessimistic ending: in the optimistic condition, participants read that younger beekeepers were learning about and taking action on climate change, while in the pessimistic condition they read that bees were dying “at an alarming rate”. After this, they answered questions about their emotional response (e.g. how emotionally intense it had been to read the article), their beliefs in climate change (how much of a risk they feel it poses to human health), and their political ideology.

Participants in the pessimistic condition felt that climate change was more of a risk than those in the optimistic condition, and also reported higher emotional arousal. There was a direct link between the two: the team found that reading the pessimistic ending triggered greater emotional arousal, which in turn led to greater risk perception. A second study in which participants actually viewed the videos as well as reading the transcripts found a very similar pattern of results.

In both of these studies, people’s politics and worldview also played a part. Conservative participants reported lower levels of risk perception when their emotional arousal was low, as did people with a greater belief in individualism or hierarchy (as compared to collectivism or egalitarianism). But this also meant that emotional arousal triggered more of an increase in risk perception for these groups (compared to more liberal participants, whose risk perception was already high). 

In the third and final study, 1,115 participants again saw optimistic and pessimistic materials. This time a third “fatalistic” condition was added, in which participants were told that a reduction in the bee population would mean the “world would crumble” in a mere four years (“No matter what we do about climate change, it’s too late to turn things around”).

After viewing this material, participants filled in the same risk perception and emotional arousal measures, and stated how much they agreed with the statement “I believe my actions have an influence on climate change”.

Participants in both the pessimistic and fatalistic conditions reported higher emotional arousal. And the higher the level of arousal, the more likely a participant was to believe they can make an impact. Political ideology and worldview had similar effects as in the previous studies: belief in ability to change things was particularly low at lower levels of emotional arousal in moderates and conservatives, but increased considerably as a result of increased emotional arousal.

These results suggest that pessimistic messages about climate change may actually boost people’s beliefs that it is a problem and that they can do something to combat it. However, they also imply that those who are creating these kinds of interventions need to think carefully about who they’re aiming to reach and how they intend to do it: if different groups respond differently to positive or negative messaging, then a selection of carefully targeted messages might be more successful than something broader and designed to appeal to everyone.

But ultimately, it’s important not to forget those parties who are really responsible for acting on climate change: governments and corporations. While individuals can of course make a difference, it’s the big polluters who really have to change — according to a Guardian investigation, just twenty fossil fuel companies are linked to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Figures like this make individual actions like turning off lights or recycling water bottles pale somewhat in comparison.

Designing successful interventions for climate action is key, and studies like this are an important part of making sure they work. But those designing them would do well to think about the limits of individual behaviour change — and who should really end up feeling responsible.

Optimistic vs. pessimistic endings in climate change appeals

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest