Climate Change and Emotions. How We Feel Matters More Than What We Know.

It took a while, but the scientists who study global warming have finally started applying the findings from scientists who study risk communication to the challenge of raising public concern about one of the greatest threats humans have ever faced. Some atmospheric chemists and climatologists and economists have belatedly come to appreciate that trying to influence how people feel about a risk is not simply a matter of teaching them the facts. It's about presenting those facts in the emotional language most relevant to why people find those facts more worrying, or less, in the first place.


Which makes some new research findings on climate change and emotions important for anyone interested in the issue specifically, or in science and risk communication generally. The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition from the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication sampled public opinion about global warming, and asked respondents about which specific emotions they felt as they thought about policies to combat climate change. Instead of just asking people how they felt, as most surveys do, this one tried to figure out WHY.

And this survey went beyond the common assumption that support for or opposition to climate change policy is predicted by whether are you liberal or conservative. It also went beyond the assumption made by Cultural Cognition research, that it's not people's political ideology but their underlying worldviews about how society should operate that predict views on global warming. Cultural Cognition identifies people as either Individualists (people who prefer to live in a society that allows more individual choice and less government) or Communitarians (people who prefer a 'we're all in this together' sort of society, who support more government), Hierarchists (people who prefer a traditional society defined by a rigid hierarchy of social and economic class and who don't like government butting in and leveling the playing field) or Egalitarians (those who prefer a more flexible fair society where opportunity is not restricted by class, and who support government butting in to level the playing field.) Cultural Cognition research has found that Individualists and Hiearchists are more likely to deny global warming and oppose action to combat the problem. Egalitarians and Communitarians are more likely to believe the evidence and support action.

The survey asked people the standard questions about political ideology and cultural group affiliations. But it also asked them what specific emotions they felt when they thought about climate change. Here is how the strongest emotions ranked;

courtesy; Yale Center for Climate Change Communication

It turns out those emotions were stronger predictors of whether people supported or opposed various climate change policies than people's politics or their cultural/group affiliations. “Worry" was the strongest predictor of support for policies like support for renewable energy, regulating CO2 as a pollutant, or a 25¢/gallon gas tax). “Disgust" was the strongest predictor for people who opposed those policies. In other words, if people feel worry or disgust about the global warming issue, those emotions predict whether they will support or oppose doing something about the problem more than their political ideologies or cultural affiliations

There was another important finding too. The emotion of “fear" was NOT strongly associated with those who want action taken. "Worry" was, and the feelings of “Hope" and being “Interested". But not “fear". That is profoundly important for all the risk communicators out there trying to get people to care about global warming by scaring the bejeezus out of them. (Which still includes many climate change scientists, most environmentalists, and documentaries like the recent Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously".)

There are a couple important caveats to these new findings. Other cognitive research has found that when we say we feel worry or fear or disgust, or any emotion, we are just giving a conscious semantic label to instinctive biological responses triggered by some stimulus. Fractions of a second after that stimulus sets those biological responses in motion, we become consciously aware of how those initial responses make us feel, and we give those feelings names. So, for example, an Egalitarian/Communitarian might say they 'worry' about climate change, but it's the underlying cultural group affiliation that has been triggered by thinking about global warming that causes them to express that emotion.

Also, research into the psychology of risk perception has identified many underlying characteristics about risks that make people worry more, or less. We worry more about a risk that can happen to us personally than one that threatens polar bears or glaciers. We worry more about risks that threaten us now than risks that threaten us later. So the conscious expression of emotions like 'worry' and 'disgust', may simply be the semantic labels we put on how these deeper risk perception instincts make us feel.

But caveats aside, what this new research clearly says is that risk communication that wants to shape how people feel about global warming, or any risk issue, must go beyond simply communicating the facts. It must respect the primary role that feelings play in how we see those facts. It must identify, with research, the particular emotional and instinctive characteristics that shape people's feelings about the issue, and present information in ways that will resonate with those underlying emotions. Any climate change communicator who ignores that truth and thinks that just educating people is enough, is ignoring what an important and growing body of research tells us about the best way to get people to care, and act, about this immense threat to human and environmental health.

(The image at the top comes from 6seconds.org.)

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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