Not always the best approach.

Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Liberals: Stop Your Climate-Change Hectoring

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Good news for climate advocates: Researchers have new clues about what's stopping the public from caring more about global warming.

Bad news for climate advocates: They're part of the problem. 

The December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology focuses on how to encourage "pro-environmental behavior." In example after example, researchers show how governments, politicians and companies have framed climate change and its solutions in ways that seem intuitive but often fail -- and can even make things worse.

QuickTake Climate Change

In one paper, researchers at the University of Tennessee and Florida State University examined the best way to encourage people to use less energy at home. They found that trumpeting the environmental benefits of energy efficiency can change people's behavior -- but only for liberals. For everyone else, stressing economic benefits produced better results. Saving the planet may not be as persuasive as climate advocates hoped.

In another paper, Dutch researchers looked at what motivates people to buy an electric car. The researchers found that in the Netherlands, potential earlier adopters don't much care that electric cars are good for the environment or cheaper to use, elements companies tend to stress in marketing campaigns. Instead, they're drawn to electric cars because they think the vehicles would make them look good. Vanity sells.

In fact, the lower the early adopters' expectations for the cars' performance, the better they thought they would look. Kees Keizer, a psychologist at the University of Groningen and one of the study's authors, wrote in an e-mail that companies should highlight the "symbolic attributes" of what they're selling, and stop downplaying the flaws. For some, the flaws are part of the appeal.

Of course, not everyone admires people who drive a Prius. For a certain type of person, caring too much about the environment isn't a virtue; it's a punchline. Those people might seem like jerks. But a third paper argues they could just be suffering from "aroused dissonance."

That's the name that University of Ottawa psychologists Karine Lavergne and Luc Pelletier gave the mental friction of not wanting to ruin the planet, but also not wanting to stop acting like a typical Western consumer. People respond to such dissonance in one of two ways: They change their behavior, or they engage in "cognitive restructuring" -- "trivializing pro-environmental attitudes" to make themselves feel less guilty.

How can governments encourage more of the first response and less of the second? According to Lavergne and Pelletier, what matters is the way people are motivated to change: When they feel pressured, they dismiss the problem. Lavergne wrote by e-mail that a better approach is getting people to believe in the change they're supposed to make:

This could be achieved by including stakeholders in the decision-making and policy formulation processes, offering people several options and alternatives to choose from in terms of adopting new pro-environmental behaviours, providing positive and constructive feedback to people about their progress towards their pro-environmental goals in real time, and acknowledging the day-to-day dilemmas, challenges, and barriers people are likely to face in a non-judgmental way as well as offering advice on how to overcome them. 

"The moral climate around this issue has really poisoned it," Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution, told me in 2013. "Democrats have used climate change as a political cudgel." It seemed like he was splitting hairs. But Lavergne and Pelletier's research suggests he was on to something.

A fourth paper provides further evidence that Democrats may be talking about climate change the wrong way. Last May, the Barack Obama administration released a report highlighting the regional effects of climate change -- more severe rains and snowfalls in the Northeast, higher storm surges along the coasts, more damaging hurricanes in the Southeast, more wildfires in the Southwest. The message was clear: Wherever you live, climate change threatens your neighborhood.

But emphasizing the nearness of that threat may be the wrong approach. Rachel McDonald, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, along with co-authors from the University of New South Wales in Australia, looked at the literature on what's called "psychological distance" -- how people react to a threat based on how far off it is, whether geographically, socially or in time.  

The researchers found the conventional wisdom on climate change, which is that people become more likely to take action as the effects seem physically closer, doesn’t work for everyone. "If climate change is too psychologically close," they wrote, "it is likely to be associated with intense emotional reactions, which have the potential to provide avoidance." Translation: When people get scared, they can have trouble thinking rationally. McDonald and her co-authors suggested the best way to get support for action against climate change is instead to highlight consequences that are severe but happening someplace else.

Liberals may dismiss the findings in these papers as semantic, or as a distraction from political battles. But the research suggests that unchecked assumptions about how people think could be just as problematic as Republican obstructionism. And they're a whole lot easier to fix.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net