Climate: Be Afraid of Global Warming. But Not Too Afraid

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Over on the mainpage, I have a Going Green column on a forthcoming psychology study that found that news articles and other messages that emphasize the scariest, most catastrophic possible impacts of global warming actually increase climate change skepticism, not the other way around. You can read about it here, and for more detail check out a post by Andrew Revkin on the same subject at Dot Earth. here.) As green advocates and climate scientists alike debate how to counter the growing trend of doubt in global warming, the study is a useful reminder that the scariest messages can backfire, while media that focuses on potential solutions to climate change and energy can prove much more effective. Even if those solutions will be far from easy.

[Update 11/22/10 3:24 PM EST]: Joe Romm of ClimateProgress—one of TIME’s Environmental Heroes last year—disagrees with the interpretation of the Berkeley study, to say the least. Digging out the news articles on climate change used by the Berkeley researchers, he shows that the “dire” piece on warming seems to leave no possibility whatsoever that we’ll be able to come up with solutions for climate change, and it’s that pessimism, as opposed to the scary messages about what could happen in a warmer world, that leaves some of the test subjects more skeptical. As he writes:

Gosh, who ever would have guessed that a message that says “it may be too late” — that the problem is just too damn big for science to grapple with, so much so that we don’t even know where to start — might not work so well?

Romm also notes that the study is very small, with fewer than 150 subjects, more than half of whom are Berkeley undergraduates who may not be the most representative Americans. Fair enough, though I can’t quite picture the People’s Republic of Berkeley as a hotbed of climate denialism. But to me it doesn’t quite follow that being exposed to a scary message on climate change—even one that ends with little hope for humanity—should necessarily make you more skeptical of climate change, period, unless there’s something else at work. The role that “just world” theory plays here is particularly interesting—according to the study those subjects who believe the world is fair became more skeptical when presented with the scary message than those who don’t ascribe to a “just world.” Presented with the bleakest possible picture of climate science, those subjects seem to be scared into denial.

That said, it is a small study and no one is suggesting the environmental movement should tear up its entire climate change communication strategy. (Although some changes are in order because it’s definitely not working now.) And greens have shifted their messaging in recent years to highlight solutions to the climate and energy challenges, and some of the side benefits of action, like green jobs and national security. In fact, so did TIME—the year after did our “Be Worried. Be Very Worried” cover on climate change, we did another cover about the “50 Ways to Fight Global Warming.” But I think psychological studies like the Berkeley one will be increasingly influential in the years to come, as we learn that some of the most important battles over climate change—and politics—will be fought between our ears.