Words not action

| April 3, 2021

In light of recent extreme climate events–from wildfires blazing through the western US to snowstorms sweeping Texas into a blackout–climate scientists and media outlets have repeatedly called out the urgency of tackling the climate crisis. But in a new study published March 19 in the journal One Earth, researchers found that emphasizing urgency alone is not enough to kindle public support for climate change policies.

“We had the impression that policymakers shy away from enacting ambitious, stringent climate policy because they’re afraid of public backlash. However, if climate change communicators emphasize the urgency of addressing climate change, citizens may become supportive of quick and bold policies,” says co-author Adrian Rinscheid of the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we do a study looking at the potential effect that the perceived urgency of climate change has on people’s policy support?’

To find answers, the researchers surveyed 9,911 people in Germany and the United States. The team found that people who perceive climate change to be urgent also tend to support general mitigation plans, such as long-term temperature and mitigation targets. But when it comes to personal sacrifices, such as cutting meat consumption and reducing the use of fossil-fuel-powered cars, the sense of urgency doesn’t convince people to support these “high-cost” plans.

However, the researchers did find some strategies that might help policymakers advocate for ambitious climate mitigation policies. They found that giving context and information about the purpose and importance of certain policy measures can increase people’s support, even for mitigation approaches imposed on consumers that require behavioral change or are costly to individuals.

The researchers noted that politicians can also communicate and link the urgency of climate change to corresponding effective near-term solutions to create “quick wins.”

“If the governments are open, transparent, engaging, and authentic with climate policies, people actually are more likely to follow, and the risk of public backlash is way smaller,” says co-author Lukas Fesenfeld of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. “Citizens are not the main hindrance.”

The researchers also found that while 80% of Germans and 64% of Americans who participated in the survey agree that climate change is already a serious problem today and for future generations, these respondents are significantly less concerned about the consequences of climate change for themselves.

“Extracted information about urgency on its own is probably unlikely to change behaviors and support,” says Fesenfeld. “But living in Texas and experiencing snowy days or sitting in a cold flat because your insulation is not made for snow–these real-world experiences and emotional reactions coupled with analytical information might help.” One of the team’s next steps is comparing and investigating how individuals who experienced extreme climate events react to personalized messages about the urgency of climate change and how they respond to near-term solutions.

“Policymakers can and should really act more ambitiously and quickly in order to prevent the public from feeling climate change too strongly in their own lives in the near future,” says Rinscheid. “Some are already experiencing the impacts.”

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