Climate Change Messaging and Anxiety: Why Advocates Should Reconsider their Tactics

By July 1, 2011Case Studies
no image added yet.

Editor’s note: Lindsay La Forge is an international economist in Washington, D.C. with a focus in institution building and development in fragile states. This post is part of a guest series analyzing political text from an EffectCheck perspective.

Facts are facts, people are logical, and evidence shapes the rational creature that is man…right? Perhaps a bit less than you might think. A paper published in Psychological Science earlier this year by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer at UC Berkeley implies that the message may matter more than the facts.

The University Study

Berkeley students and volunteers from 30 major cities were exposed to two different articles covering climate change: half to a doomsday style warning about the impact humans would experience, and the other half to a less pessimistic piece suggesting solutions. Results showed respondents exposed to the message evoking fear were skeptical of the science presented and that they had reduced intentions to decrease their carbon footprint. Those reading the more optimistic piece showed the inverse, a trust in the science and a drive to take on personal responsibility for carbon footprints. The team posited that the reason fear-based messaging was not effective in evoking the writers’ intended response- to motivate action for mitigating climate change effects- was related to subjects’ belief that the world is just.

So messaging matters and reader perception is crucial. With the proliferation of non-profits and institutes solely tasked with educating the masses about climate change and motivating action- broadly deemed advocacy- considering the impact of their materials on the reader is essential. Many are finding that the louder they yell, the less they are heard, so to speak.

Greenpeace Case Study

Greenpeace is one of the most vocal climate change policy advocates, and generally takes a less than moderate approach. A recent press release by the organization announced 8 of their activists climbing to the top of a coal smokestack to demand an end to coal pollution. Indicative of the triggers in the study’s doomsday articles, which increased skepticism and reduced intentions for positive action in the reader, this article elected to use foreboding admonition rather than offer practical solutions. An EffectCheck analysis of the text shows the article elicits very high levels of anxiety in the reader:

A sample excerpt of the text after analysis by EffectCheck highlights words that particularly draw out reader anxiety:

Coal fired power plants kill between 13,000 and 34,000 people a year–as many as one person every 15 minutes. That staggering figure includes the 42 Chicagoans who die as a result of pollution from Fisk and Crawford, including residents in the severely affected communities of Pilsen (near the Fisk plant) and Little Village (near the Crawford plant). According to a report from the Clean Air Task Force, residents are at risk for heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illness because of pollution from these plants.

Words like deadly, quit, dangerous, staggering, cancer, and kill sprinkled throughout the article were large influences in the high scoring for anxiety. So while Greenpeace’s inclination might be to scare readers into action, the best approach is likely a more moderated, positive, and solutions-oriented one for this purpose.


Although man might be rational, what is more important is that he is easily put off by anxiety and refuses to believe that the world he exists in is unjust. Climate change policy advocates who are seeking real progress would be wise to better analyze their messages, be cognizant of the sentiments they invoke in their readers, and tailor their messaging for the best diffusion of scientific evidence supporting their cause.