June 2024 Research Review

Climate Crisis and Emotional Responses: Insights for Effective Communication

Sarah Spengeman, PhD
Deputy Communications Director, Crux Alliance

Authors of a recent study on climate change communication tested the hypothesis that people will be more likely to act when they believe a particular place that they care about and is a part of their identity (such as the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, pictured above) is threatened by climate change.

Nearly every country in the world has committed to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, but global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) continue to rise. The past year has been the hottest on record, and severe heatwaves in South and Southeast Asia recently caused tens of thousands of people to suffer heat illnesses. As long as the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for energy, temperatures will continue to rise.

As global climate change accelerates, studies in the United States and Ecuador show people are experiencing a range of emotions in response to present impacts as well as to the future projections of loss. The biggest ever stand-alone survey of climate opinion, conducted by the United Nations and the University of Oxford, found more than half of people globally are more worried about climate this year than they were last year.

Scholars who study climate communications are trying to understand how best to motivate people to adopt more sustainable practices and to support government action to transition the economy to clean energy. Varying messages and modes of communication can either increase or decrease the likelihood that people will act. Motivating a larger segment of society to support climate solutions will then increase the likelihood of reducing climate catastrophe. 

According to studies of human psychology, emotions such as fear, anger, hope, guilt, and sadness play an important role in shaping human behavior. Recently, a growing number of studies are examining which emotions are more likely to motivate climate policy support, and they’ve found that how we feel about climate does indeed shape whether and how we act. As rapid, large-scale action is desperately needed to halt the current crisis, this kind of research can help advocates hone their messages to reach more people.

Will different emotions produce differing policy support?

In a March 2024 research article entitled “Emotional Signatures of Climate Policy Support,” published in PLOS Climate,Teresa Myers (George Mason University), Connie Roser-Renouf (George Mason University), Anthony Leiserowitz (Yale University), and Edward Maibach (George Mason University) assess how the strength of specific emotions affects an individual’s support for different pro-climate actions. As the authors note, emotional reactions “prime” people to act because they help humans perceive how a situation is relevant to us. The scholars are interested to know whether certain emotions might trigger support for particular types of policies. To find out, they examine the effect of four emotions (guilt, anger, hope, and sadness) and support for four different policy types.

The authors posit four hypotheses about how these emotions might function based on previous research findings. First, they hypothesize that because guilt arises when a person feels responsible for a negative outcome, people who feel guilty about climate change will more strongly support “personally costly policies” (e.g., a tax on gasoline). Second, they hypothesize that because anger arises when a person views someone else responsible for a negative situation, people who feel angry about climate change will more strongly support “regulatory policies” (e.g., rules to limit pollution from factories or power plants). Third, the authors hypothesize that because people feel hope when they believe a problem can be solved, people who feel hopeful about climate change will more strongly support “proactive policies” (e.g., new investments in solar). Fourth, the authors hypothesize that because sadness arises when people feel a sense of loss, people who feel sad about climate change will be more likely to support “climate justice policies” that provide restitution for losses.

In addition, the authors examine how fear affects support for each policy type, based on previous research findings that confirm fear can strengthen support for both regulatory and proactive policies.

To test their hypotheses, the researchers used data from a nationally representative, cross-sectional survey of U.S. adults designed to measure attitudes and beliefs about climate change, administered approximately every six months since 2010. Respondents were asked how strongly they felt each of the four emotions, and then presented with a range of policy-related questions to gauge support for each of the four policy types.

The authors found that feelings of guilt did indeed lead people to support personally costly actions as predicted, while feeling hopeful about climate change led people to support proactive climate policies. However, the analysis did not support their hypotheses about anger or sadness. Rather, people who reported feeling sad about climate change were more likely to support proactive policies (not climate justice), while people who felt angry were more likely to support proactive climate policies (not regulatory). The researchers also found that people who felt fear were more likely to support regulatory policies. The authors reason this may be because people view regulatory policies as a way to protect themselves from harm. Interestingly, people who felt fear, as compared to the other emotions, were more likely to support all four kinds of policies.

Can negative emotions produce positive outcomes?

Two other recent surveys further test the role of emotions in motivating pro-climate behavior—one focused on the emotions elicited by threats to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in Australia, and the other on how fear of climate and air pollution dangers plays a role in electric vehicle (EV) adoption in growing cities in India. Both shed light on how “negative” emotions, such as distress and fear, can transfer into action to protect the climate.

In the first study, published recently in Environmental Science and Policy, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Queensland researchers Yolanda L. Waters, Kerrie A. Wilson, and Angela J. Dean wanted to see if communicating about risks to natural wonders that are near and dear to people could inspire action to protect those places. Following “Protection Motivation Theory” (PMT), which suggests that people are motivated to act when they perceive a threat to themselves and also have the capability to mitigate it, the scholars hypothesize that people will be more likely to act when they believe a particular place that they care about and is a part of their identity (such as the GBR) is threatened by climate change.

To set the context for their study, the authors note that most Australians “feel a sense of identity and pride towards the GBR, regardless of physical proximity, and agree that ‘all Australians should be responsible’ for protecting it” (p. 3). At the same time, rising ocean temperatures due to climate change threaten the GBR. Half the reef is already dead or dying, and the IPCC projects 90 percent loss by 2030 without dramatic action to cut global GHG emissions. For these reasons, the GBR offers a “unique opportunity” to test the efficacy of climate change communication.

To test GBR-focused climate messages on climate engagement, the researchers first compared the effect of reef-focused to non-reef focused climate messages. Through an online survey, they first attempted to “activate” reef identify through messages such as “the Great Barrier Reef is a place that shapes who we are.” They then compared respondents’ self-identified likelihood to engage in personal energy reduction behaviors and public pro-climate behaviors. The researchers further assessed what specific emotions people experienced (negative: sadness, worry, or anxiety; positive: hopefulness, encouragement, and optimism) and how each emotion affected behavior.

The results confirmed that GBR- focused climate messages increase pro-climate personal behaviors such as personal energy usage—even among political conservatives. However, the GBR messages did not influence support for civic action such as advocating to elected officials. Messages that emphasized “collective efficacy”—e.g., “climate can be solved through group action”—did increase the likelihood that a person would support climate policies. Furthermore, this increased support for climate policies was only associated with negative emotions and not positive ones.

Another study that examines the role of emotions on pro-climate behavior was recently published in Cleaner and Responsible Consumption, authored by Chayasmita Deka (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Indian Institute of Technology), Mrinal Kanti Dutta (Indian Institute of Technology), Masoud Yazdanpanah (University of Florida and University of Khuzestan), and Nadejda Komendantova (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis). The research tested the effect of fear on personal climate action—defined, in this case, as a person’s intention to purchase an EV in three rapidly urbanizing cities in the Indian state of Assam.

As the researchers point out, previous studies have found that fear of environmental risks can motivate EV adoption, but research has only been conducted in Western countries and not in the “Global South.” With a majority of young people in Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria recorded as worried about climate change, the authors seek to close the gap in geographic research coverage. Studies of residents in emerging cities is particularly opportune, as such locales do not yet have high-quality, comprehensive transportation infrastructure. Additionally, the climate threat in India is severe. India is increasingly experiencing more frequent weather extremes as a result of climate change, including worsening heat waves, droughts, and floods. Vehicle emissions have also significantly contributed to major air pollution problems in India’s cities. Even so, demand for personal internal combustion vehicles (ICE) in India only continues to grow.

As in the study of the effect of the GBR on action, the researchers use PMT to test whether people’s perception of the threat of climate and air pollution, alongside  a self-perceived ability to respond to the threat, affects their intention to purchase an electric vehicle.

In this study, the authors surveyed 992 middle-class individuals between the age of 18 and 60 across three cities. The results found that general awareness of the threat of air pollution and climate change had only a small effect on a person’s intention to buy an EV. Respondents who felt personally threatened by climate change impacts were three times more likely to indicate an intention to purchase an EV than respondents who were merely aware of the climate threat.

Additionally, greater understanding of the role an EV plays in improving air quality magnified the effect on purchase intentions—regardless of the respondent’s perception of the personal cost to themself. The authors note that studies of Western consumers found that threat assessment was more important in determining behavior, while in the case of India, knowledge of the efficacy of an EV as an air pollution and climate solution was more influential. As the authors explain, this means that not all messages encouraging pro-environmental behavior will be effective across differing cultural and economic contexts.

Messaging for action

To halt accelerating climate change, more people must be concerned enough that they are prompted to act. The good news is that research on emotions and pro-climate behavior demonstrates that communicators can effectively tailor messaging to motivate people to support personal and public solutions. The first study in PLOS Climate implies that communicators advocating for a particular policy can develop messages to elicit the emotion most likely to produce greater support for that policy type. However, the study only measured strength of emotions and the associated support for policy; it did not test specific messages to see what emotions those messages could elicit. For this reason, advocates should test messages among target audiences before launching a campaign.

Notably, this study found that fear was the emotion most closely associated with support for all policy types. The two narrower studies also found negative emotions to play an important role in motivating behavior. But a few important conditions are worth emphasizing. In the GBR study, negative emotions only increased support for policy action when they were accompanied by messages about the potential to prevent harm to the reef through collective action. This could be because respondents viewed policy change as possible only when many people are civically engaged. In the study of EV adoption in India, fear of harm was also a significant motivator. However, a general awareness of the threat was not sufficient. Respondents had to feel more personally connected to impacts and also believe the proposed action would be effective in mitigating risks.

The lesson for communicators is that communicating about the dire nature of our current climate reality and the immense danger we all face if we do not act now can be effective in spurring action. However, communicators should be specific about the unique threats faced by different communities. For example, those aiming to reach coastal communities may want to emphasize health risks associated with sea level rise, while communicators in farming regions may want to emphasize threats to crops and livelihoods, and regional pests. The more one can tailor the message, the better. Additionally, as the studies imply, messages about climate threats should be paired with concrete guidance for how acting with others can prevent great harm. Though the threat is great, solving this existential climate crisis is entirely possible, and informed communications is critical to motivating action.

Featured Research

Deka, C., Dutta, M.K., Yazdanpanah, M. and Komendantova, N., 2024. When ‘fear factors’ motivate people to adopt electric vehicles in India: An empirical investigation of the protection motivation theory. Cleaner and Responsible Consumption13, p.100191. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clrc.2024.100191 

Myers, T.A., Roser-Renouf, C., Leiserowitz, A. and Maibach, E., 2024. Emotional signatures of climate policy support. PLOS Climate3(3), p.e0000381. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pclm.0000381

Waters, Y.L., Wilson, K.A. and Dean, A.J., 2024. The role of iconic places, collective efficacy, and negative emotions in climate change communication. Environmental Science & Policy151, p.103635. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2023.103635