What facts about climate change are most effective in motivating people to action?

While climate change warrants urgent action, most people do not respond well to being terrified and feeling hopeless about the climate crisis, said Christie Manning, an assistant professor of environmental studies and psychology at Macalester College.

“People have to be aware of the threat before they can take action,” she said, but cautioned that “there is a gray area where a realistic portrayal of the threat of climate change veers into a hopeless doomsday depiction. If people feel like it’s a lost cause, they aren’t going to change.” 

Many people tune out when they need to psychologically protect themselves from acknowledging something frightening or when they feel that there is nothing they can do to help, Manning said. People are more moved to action when they have a sense of efficacy and feel as though they have the support to engage in action, rather than being forced or guilted into participating, she added.

Social community norms also work to move people towards climate action, Manning said. “A sense of ‘This is what people like me are doing,’ is very effective in getting people involved,” she said. Creating these norms can involve modeling different ways of taking action and inviting people to participate. 

Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist and economist, also thinks that modeling climate-friendly behavior in a visible way can help move others to respond. 

“If you can make it seem normal to live in a climate friendly way, you’re spreading social norms about taking climate science seriously. You’re using the social brain,” he said. 

People respond to various framings of the climate crisis, he added. Some people are more motivated by a sense of ethical and moral duty to protect the Earth, while others respond better to economic arguments for green infrastructure and growth. 

“Speak about all of the fantastic solutions we have, from solar energy to plant-based foods, to educating yourself on the issue,” Stoknes said. “Speak three times as much about the opportunities as we speak about the threats.” 

Maddie Kornfeld

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