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Study Finds That Fear Won't Don't Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire
Over the past few years, a growing body of research from the social sciences has pointed to one of the major challenges in communicating about climate change. This research suggests that many political leaders, environmentalists, and scientists--by focusing narrowly on the risks of climate change-- may unintentionally trigger disbelief, skepticism, or decreased concern among audiences.
A forthcoming study at the journal Psychological Science by researchers at UC Berkeley provides further insight into these challenges, suggesting that what is needed is a shift in communication away from a focus on the threat of climate change to a much stronger focus on clear and realistic policy solutions.
Emphasis on Catastrophe and Threat
There has been much speculation about the reasons for a shift in public opinion in the U.S. on climate change since 2007. In surveys, fewer people report concern over climate change, fewer report that they accept that human activities are causing climate change, and a growing number of Americans say that they believe that the news media exaggerate the problem.
Speculation about the cause of these shifts tends to narrowly focus on the perceived influence of climate skeptics—and even single events such as “Climategate.” Yet more parsimonious and likely explanations include the performance of the economy and as the emerging research suggests, a de-sensitization among segments of the public to climate change fear appeals, messages that peaked in 2007 with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the record amount of news attention to the climate issue, coverage that also tended to focus on extreme impacts and risks.
Many political leaders and environmental advocates--while citing scientific evidence--tend to emphasize, visualize, and portray the most dramatic of climate impacts. These climate fear appeals, represented perhaps best in An Inconvenient Truth, focus on depictions of rising sea levels, the devastation from severe hurricanes and storms, and the threat to symbolic species such as the polar bear. These types of catastrophe narratives were also, as an example, vividly used in the video that launched last year's Copenhagen meetings. In another example, prominent climate blogger Joe Romm has alternatively referred to climate change in terms such as "Hell and High Water," [the title of his book] or "global weirding."
Generally more careful in their discussion of extreme impacts, climate scientists also tend to use a language heavily steeped in threat, emphasizing terms such as "catastrophic," "rapid," "urgent," "irreversible," "chaotic," and "worse than previously thought." President Obama's science advisor John Holdren and others have also suggested that less euphemistic, more dramatic terms are needed than climate change or global warming suggesting instead that the problem be re-named "Global Climate Disruption."
And given the amount of climate science that forecasts and draws attention to likely impacts and risks, journalists when reporting on new studies and research, tend to focus on these impacts. A leading example appeared this past Sunday in a front page feature at the New York Times headlined "Rising Seas Predicted as Threat to Coastal Areas." Other examples include Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker series and book "Field Notes From a Catastrophe."
Gaining Public Attention But With Negative Consequences
A study published last year by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, applies past research in health communication to understand the likely limitations and negative consequences of using fear appeals to engage the public on climate change. As the researchers note:
In the Tyndall Centre study, through a series of interviews and focus groups with UK subjects, the researchers asked participants to describe the images that come to mind when thinking about climate change. The most prominent images—not surprisingly—represented the dominant focus of communication from environmental advocates, some climate scientists, and in news reports. These included melting glaciers and icebergs, visions of the sea level rising and inundating coastal regions or countries, intense heat and droughts, landscape changes, impacts on human health (e.g., malaria, water and food shortages), and disastrous weather extremes.
Yet while these vivid images were easily recalled and discussed by subjects, when asked how they felt about climate change, feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and fatalism were reported. Examples included:
Obviously, from a personal point of view you can walk, use the car less and things like that, and recycle stuff. . . . But on a more sort of wider scale then, I don’t think that the individual has got enough power to do a lot.
People feel like they can’t do anything. And to be honest, it’s not going to really have a massive effect anyway.
Subjects also reported though, that in contrast to the “big,” remote, and catastrophic images they were most familiar with relative to climate change, what they would like to see are more “small” images about how climate change relates to their personal communities and lives, along with actions at the local level that can be taken. Here is the conclusion to the study:
Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial and others described by Lorenzoni et al. (2007). The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences)are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change. This was tested here in relation to nonexpert icons and locally relevant climate change imagery. More broadly, communication strategies must be in touch with the other concerns and pressures on everyday life that people experience. Such approaches can act to decrease barriers to engagement; for example, because the icons selected by nonexperts are often local or regional places that individuals care about and empathize with, such approaches are less likely to induce feelings of invulnerability than, say, a fear appeal.
Belief in a Just World as a Barrier to Climate Change Communication
The study released today by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley builds on previous studies and theorizing on the unintended negative consequences of fear appeals. In addition to the influences highlighted by the Tyndell Centre study, Feinberg and Willer also suggest that the tendency towards “belief in a just world” also serves as a psychological filter on fear based messages about climate change.
Belief in a just world is a widely researched construct in psychology with demonstrated relevance to public views on issues ranging from welfare reform to crime. Strongly embedded in American culture and transcending political ideology, individuals who score high on a belief in a just world tend to view society as ordered by hard work and individual merit. Future rewards await those who strive for them, and punishment awaits those who don’t work hard or break rules.
As Feinberg and Willer describe, messages of climate change catastrophe tend to violate and threaten how individuals who score high on this psychological tendency order and make sense of the world. These climate messages—as was vividly depicted in the video for example that launched the Copenhagen meetings—often show innocent children and future generations as victims, groups who have done nothing individually to justify these punishments and harms.
To test their expectations about the interaction between dire messages and belief in a just world, the researchers recruited subjects from among UC Berkeley students and conducted a series of experiments observing reactions to different messages about climate posed in the form of news articles. Here’s how the research and results are described in a news release from UC Berkeley:
In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a "just world scale," which measures people's belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”
Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.
Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.
In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one's belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.
They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as "prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.
Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.
From the conclusion to the article by Feinberg and Willer:
These results demonstrate how dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just. In addition, we found evidence that this dire messaging led to reduced intentions among participants to reduce their carbon footprint – an effect driven by their increased global warming skepticism. Our results imply that because dire messaging regarding global warming is at odds with the strongly established cognition that the world is fair and stable, people may dismiss the factual content of messages that emphasize global warming’s dire consequences. But if the same messages are delivered coupled with a potential solution, it allows the information to be communicated without creating substantial threat to these individuals’ deeply held beliefs.
Communicating Less about the Problem and More About the Solutions
Besides demonstrating the inefficacy of fear appeals about climate change to engage the public, these two studies discussed also point to the need to communicate about specific policy solutions, especially if they are posed in the context of personally relevant actions and benefits.
In my own recently published research with Ed Maibach and colleagues, we find for example that even audience segments who tend to dismiss the validity of climate science or the problem of climate change respond favorably to mitigation-related policy actions when presented in the context of specific local or personal benefits to public health.
These conclusions relative to the importance of communicating less about the problem and risks of climate change and more about specific viable policies that lead to tangible benefits are also emphasized in research reports done independently by progressive communication consultant Meg Bostrom and by conservative pollster Frank Luntz.
Yet despite this convergence among a diversity of researchers regarding the limits of traditional appeals on climate change--and the need to focus less on scientific evidence about causes and risks and more on specific policy solutions--few major organizations appear to be moving in this direction. Instead, with the newly elected Republican Congress, most attention appears to be focused on the need to ramp up media and public attention to climate science and the warnings of climate scientists, news pegs and spokespeople that by nature typically emphasize risks and leave unaddressed policy solutions.
What we need instead of more scientific information and focus on risks, is to pursue a post-partisan plan for communicating climate change, one that creates the opportunities for Americans to learn, discuss, connect, and plan around specific regional and local solutions that inspire hope, directly involve the public, and lead to specific and tangible benefits.
Eye on 2012: A Post-Partisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change
At Slate, A Need for Diplomacy in the Climate Wars
Study: Re-Framing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue
Climate Scientists at a Crossroads: Muddling the Differences Between Public Engagement and Deficit-Model Activism
Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).
Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What's Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF)
Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299 (HTML).
Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Knowledge Into Action: Framing the Debates Over Climate Change and Poverty. In P. D'Angelo & J. Kuypers, Doing News Framing Analysis: Empirical, Theoretical, and Normative Perspectives. New York: Routledge. [Link]
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.