“Perhaps the single biggest barrier to action on climate change is the fact that it doesn’t hit us in the gut. We can identify it as a great moral wrong, through a chain of evidence and reasoning, but we do not instinctively feel it as one. It does not trigger our primal moral intuitions or generate spontaneous outrage, anger, and passion. It’s got no emotional heat. (Ironic!)”
Those are the words of David Roberts, in a Grist article that cites the work of Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff on climate change psychology and moral judgment. The issue of climate change, these researchers argue, is complex, abstract, long-term, global, politicized and rife with uncertainty, all characteristics that make it difficult for people to associate it with their inherent value systems, especially conservative value systems, and their moral compasses.
Hell and High Water
On the surface, Roberts and others seem to be saying that climate change messaging should engender stronger moral judgments, anger and passion, even outrage. Exactly how it should do that is a different question, and Markowitz and Shariff offer a few suggestions including appealing to more universal moral values, engaging intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations and avoiding appeals to guilt and shame.
But what about appealing to anger and passion? Could it be that outrage speech and emotional appeals might activate people’s moral judgments on climate change?
Sobieraj and Berry (2011) defined the term “outrage” as:
“a particular form of political discourse involving efforts to provoke visceral responses (e.g., anger, righteousness, fear, moral indignation) from the audience through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks, and partial truths about opponents, who may be individuals, organizations, or entire communities of interest (e.g., progressives or conservatives) or circumstance (e.g., immigrants). Outrage sidesteps the messy nuances of complex political issues in favor of melodrama, misrepresentative exaggeration, mockery, and improbable forecasts of impending doom.” (p. 20).
The visceral responses of anger, righteousness and moral indignation sound like favorable outcomes for climate change communication strategies as discussed by Roberts. Fear appeals, on the other hand, although frequently used in the past in climate changes messages, have been shown to be ineffective in motivating personal engagement with the issue.
But the means of achieving these “visceral response” ends seem to run counter to everything genuine science and environmental communicators fight against: overgeneralizations, sensationalism and forecasts of impending doom. (Although mockery of climate change deniers has been an effective tactic in the eyes of some science communicators.)
While science and environmental communicators have avoided the “outrage” speech game, climate deniers have certainly engaged in mudslinging and inaccurate information tactics, to the frustration of many science communicators. But while climate change deniers commenting on research-backed articles about climate change just to call the researchers “idiots” and “liars” seems like a desperate and ridiculous exercise, this form of incivility might actually work when it comes to impacting public perceptions of climate change risk. In a 2013 study on the topic, Anderson and colleagues found that “exposure to uncivil blog comments can polarize risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support.” In a commentary on the study, Chris Mooney writes:
“In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the ‘rational’ thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one's emotions, the ‘thinking’ process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one's identity and preexisting beliefs.”
According to Sobieraj and Berry (2011), “[t]he reigning presumption is that incivility in politics undermines faith in government and discourages political participation” (p. 21). Incivility in political discourse supposedly erodes trust, creates apathy and triggers increased emotional response. However, other research supports the idea that negativity and emotional responses may have positive effects in some arenas of political participation, including voter turnout.
In other words, the emotional appeals of political outrage can have both significant positive and negative implications: “… perhaps they fan the ﬂames of intolerance, promote and entrench polarization, or create a generalized mistrust of government. But there is also the possibility that emotion can be politically productive, by heightening our attention to particular issues, candidates, and policies as well as promoting political participation,” (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008; Nadeau, Niemi, & Amato, 1996; Sobieraj and Berry, 2011, p. 23).
And whether outrage speech bears mostly positive or negative implications for climate change perceptions, it apparently already dominates the sphere of political discourse. Incivility and outrage speech thrive in a media landscape characterized by personalized news streams, politicized outlets and niche audiences. Sobieraj and Berry (2011) found outrage “punctuates speech and writing across formats,” including cable television, talk radio, a majority of political blog posts and even mainstream newspaper columns. They also found that conservatives use more outrage speech than liberals, including insulting language, emotional language and display, misrepresentative exaggeration and mockery/sarcasm, with mockery being most prevalent.
So what is the answer? Should some form of outrage speech enter into climate change discourse in order to activate pro-environmental moral passions? Should science communicators’ mock climate change deniers? Should they engage public emotions in order to increase public participation in the issue? And if so, how do climate change communicators bring emotional appeals to the table without activating motivated reasoning and political polarization counter to desirable pro-environmental outcomes?
These questions become all the harder to answer when climate change deniers are already playing this game, co-opting visceral responses to engender public apathy toward climate change (and even mistrust of science). What’s more, in today’s personalized media landscape, trends in audience data reveal “that our political diet is increasingly composed of unvetted news and unedited opinion,” (Sobieraj and Berry, 2011, p. 24) as people replace mainstream news with cable TV and talk radio.
How do “dry” scientific arguments for climate change action enter into this media landscape that is already polarized and rife with outrage speech and emotional appeals? How do scientists and communicators engage moral passions toward the environment without degrading into “outrage speech” tactics and their negative implications?
I think these questions have be addressed in a big-picture sense before we can ascribe simple solutions to climate change messaging. We can analyze different media frames on climate change all day, but until we decide how these are going to fit into the larger media landscape of politicized news, emotional appeals, outrage speech and negative vs. positive appeals, I think it will be difficult for those who practice science and environmental communication to use these frames effectively.
Brossard, D. (2013). New media landscapes and the science information consumer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (Supplement 3), 14096-14101.
Jamieson, K. H., & Cappella, J. N. (2008). Echo chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the conservative media establishment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Markowitz, E. M., & Shariff, A. F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change, 2(4), 243-247.
Nadeau, R., Niemi, R., & Amato, T. (1996). Prospective and comparative or retrospective and individual? Party leaders and party support in Great Britain. British Journal of Political Science, 25, 245–258
O'Neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear Won't Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication, 30(3), 355-379.
Sobieraj, S., & Berry, J. M. (2011). From incivility to outrage: Political discourse in blogs, talk radio, and cable news. Political Communication, 28(1), 19-41.