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.)

Related Articles

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less

Sex robot brothel in Texas sparks controversy and ethical questions

Some say the proliferation of sex robots could lead to less demand for prostitution, but not all agree.

Will the proliferation of sex robots be a net good or bad for society? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Sex & Relationships
  • A Toronto-based sex robot brothel plans to open another location in Houston.
  • Some critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would lead to increases in prostitution and sex trafficking.
  • Others say that such technology could help some people find a degree of much-needed companionship.

There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, though recently announced plans to open one inspired some residents to say there should be.

The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.

On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn't call his business a 'sex robot brothel' but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.

"I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, 'Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don't go out and say you are operating a brothel,'" Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. "He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.

Sex dolls and toys may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what's essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel's plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled 'Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston'.

"As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children," reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Elijah Rising's argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.

"I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," Richardson argues in the paper. "If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with."

How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?

One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would lower the demand for human prostitutes. It's an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.

In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could lower prostitution or even someday render it obsolete.

But that's "highly speculative philosophy," according to Richardson.

"The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. "If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.

Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.

"...studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry," she wrote. "Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent."

However, those rates aren't necessarily causally linked.

Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but "no such correlation is found."

Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.

An illusion of companionship

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men's minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.

Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:

"There's kids around here and it's a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross."

Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.

"My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy," McMullen told CNET. "There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It's really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship."