By NCIPL Intern Rubaina Anjum
When it comes to talking about climate change, NCIPL focuses on the positive and hopeful messages. We love to let everyone know of the excellent work that faith communities and others in the area are doing to combat climate change. And research shows that talking positively about climate change is more helpful than trying to instil fear on the consequences of inaction. Fear based messaging has been quite popular in the climate change movement but its success in producing a response is questionable. Imagery of doom, apocalyptic language, warnings of dire consequences etc., are more likely to evoke unpleasant feelings, apathy, and denial, or simply overwhelm most people. Keeping the emphasis on positive messages and raising awareness about how to act to mitigate climate change have been shown to be effective and empowering.
However, another factor that could possibly be a key motivator for climate change action is empathy. A Cornell study revealed that empathy for birds can cause bird lovers to be more willing to decrease their carbon footprints. The researchers surveyed a group of 3,546 people, a large number of which were bird watchers. The study aimed to find what sort of messages about the impacts of climate change led people to have an increase in interest in taking climate change action. The survey respondents were asked to state their willingness to reduce their carbon footprint when presented with the following messages:
- Climate change is a danger to people.
- Climate change is a danger to birds.
- If a large number of Americans do something small to reduce their use of fossil fuels, it would have a large impact on our national carbon footprint.
- If a large number of Americans do something small to reduce their use of fossil fuels, it would have a large impact on our national carbon footprint—and be of benefit to future generations.
The first two messages are fear-based and the last two highlight positive impacts of small but collective actions. As expected, messages 3 and 4 increased willingness to take action, significantly. The first fear-based message did not have a significant impact on willingness to reduce carbon footprint. But the second message involving a threat to birds, had the most significant impact, and led to an increase in willingness to take action.
As the survey group primarily consisted of bird watchers, it’s probably correct to assume that the respondents cared very much about birds. The study concludes that while fear-based messages are usually ineffective, a reminder of the potential threat to a species of interest can evoke empathy and elicit significant interest in taking corrective action.
Similarly, a study in the UK found that when people were presented with ‘icons’ (conceptualizations of climate change impacts, e.g. an image of a polar bear would be shown but the respondents’ perception of it was the icon), they engaged the most with the icons that they described as relatable. Local rivers and lakes and London were some of the icons that were most popular amongst respondents. They considered these icons to also be relevant to people in their community and the UK. Other studies also show the importance of empathy in climate change action motivation:
- The Effect of Empathy in Proenvironmental Attitudes and Behaviors
- Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations
We can see that it is not only species that can stir empathy, but also favorite places (or perhaps the idea of the places). Thinking of melting glaciers and rising seas is scary to the point of being driven away from taking corrective measures. But threats to objects that have an important connection with people are more likely to make them take notice and act!
Thinking about climate change impacts in terms of the changes in these places and species can help in motivating individuals in our communities to voluntarily make climate friendly changes in lifestyle. Therefore, from a conservation perspective, it is important for this sort of empathy to be cultivated. For our communities, it means not only promoting engagement with nature- especially in the local area- but also encouraging community members to interact more with each other, to use local spaces, and to come to appreciate and adore their surroundings.
P.S. For a helpful guide about the effects climate change could have on birds, check out this PDF from Audubon.